Hands up: I’ve eaten at many chain restaurants in my life and in all likelihood I’ll eat at them again, but is anyone else starting to feel increasingly uncomfortable at their growing dominance across the dining-out landscape?
I get it – chain restaurants are easy, they can be comforting if you have a favourite dish and, let’s face it, you can be pretty confident about what you’re going to get…because a mediocre meal in a chain restaurant can outstrip a risk gone wrong at an independent place you’ve never tried before. Add in the travel dimension, and chains can feel like a saviour when all the other menus are in foreign words.
But before you slide into your comfort zone, I urge you to stop.
Just a few weeks ago, I took a walk along South Bank in London. It was once my old stomping ground – the place I worked and the place at least I’d step away from my desk and eat out at least once a week. There were delis, small bistros and cafes – a plethora of options. Five years later I returned and they’ve all gone. That sandwich shop I used to like is now a Bills. The Pizza Express was always there but a Nandos and Wagamama have moved in to complete the scene. If you want coffee, Starbucks, Costa and Nero are so ubiquitous there’s no need to be wi-fi or bathroom free in a three-mile radius.
I couldn’t help wondering what had happened to those privately owned businesses that used to feed me. It felt like the soul had been ripped out of the area, and it’s not just there – the same seems to be happening across the whole of London. And I’m sure, around much of the western world.
But why is it so bad? Why should we be avoiding chain restaurants? Here are a few reasons:
Because they’re pushing out the entrepreneurs
Big chains have one thing above all else (and it’s not exemplary food) – big budgets. And what big budgets can afford to do is push out the smaller boys and girls: the mum of three who dreams of opening a cake shop; the Punjabi couple who wants to bring the flavours of her country to mine; the experimental chef who could be the next Heston Blumenthal if only he had the square footage to try.
We’re currently at a point where we can choose – chain restaurant or independent, but if we keep making the chain choice, there’s a real risk we’ll reach a point when that choice runs out. Locally run places will close down and for all those times we’ve sat in a Las Iguanas, looking across the street, meaning to visit that funky looking place across the way, one day that choice might be gone. And that’s when you’ll want to try somewhere independent the most.
And where there are no entrepreneurs there are no adventures
We live pretty bland lives compared to our ancestors. The world has been charted, all the fundamentals of cooking have been mastered and we go about our routine life, quite commonly, in a daze. In what little spare time we do have, we bounce from large supermarket chain to chain coffee place to chain restaurant and I swear it kills a little bit of our souls each time we step into their space.
If you know what the menu says before you arrive, if you can bet your next mortgage payment on the kind of experience you know you’re going to have, where’s the fun? And that’s the thing: shouldn’t eating out be about fun? It’s a treat we don’t do every day. We trade our earned money for food – don’t you want a bit of adventure and excitement in that? I do.
It’s part of a bigger problem in London, which is already loosing its ‘cool’.
And lack of adventure tastes bland
Italian, Thai, Sushi, Chinese…these were once exotic cuisines that came from overseas. If I’d have uttered the words Tex-Mex to my Nan twenty years ago, she’d have probably asked me to put 50p in the swear box. These concepts were unheard of. We’ve progressed a lot in the past decades – so much so, I’ve heard under 5’s asking their mother for a touch more basil to balance out the mozzarella at a Zizis. I’m all for it, expanding the palate. But what happens when that expansion starts to invert?
When was the last time you saw something on a menu and you had to ask what it was? Within chain restaurants these new ‘exotic’ additions come slowly, dragged onto menus by popular demand but only when they’re en vogue. Case in point: kale. But how commonly do you see shakshuka or nesi lemak – both dishes that should be on every menu as far as I’m concerned.
Food sourcing is troubling too
I’m no expert on the food supply situation for big chain restaurants but simple maths tells me that if you have 100s of restaurants around a country or even thousands around the world, serving countless diners each year, you’re probably not serving locally sourced, sustainable food.
And it’s not just an environmental question. What about taste? On a recent trip to Puglia in Italy, I visited one of the Slow Food Cities (Trani) where one of the main aims is to put zero kilometres between the food producer and the table. And let me tell you, the food I ate there tasted sublime – better than that: it tasted like food used to taste, back before we got all microwavy and fast-foody. It’s the kind of taste you get in the best independent restaurants. It’s the kind of taste that makes memories. It’s the kind of taste you want – even if you’ve forgotten that you want it.
So, how do you dig yourself out of your chain restaurant rut?
Look, I said at the outset that I’m guilty of the chain restaurant thing too. When I’m back in the UK, I’m the exact opposite of my dining, opinionated self. I let friends suggest chains and I shuffle along. They have kids to consider and, let’s face it, I can dine out anywhere I want most of the time, so why should I be the one dictating the venue and making life difficult for all involved? Plus, I can be pretty damn lazy at times. Especially when ‘groups’ of more than one person are involved. But after walking along the streets of South Bank and seeing the places I once ate vanished behind a Patisserie Valerie and a Paul, I know I need to do better and I’d encourage you to do the same.
Here’s my pledge:
I’m going to do my research on new restaurants
The internet is a wonderful thing. Within a few taps you can find out about new restaurants that have opened in your area and with a bit of research you can go along and help support a budding entrepreneur.
And with websites like TripAdvisor and FourSquare, there’s no reason to play Russian Roulette with your dinner plans. Not all new restaurants are good and if you’re not feeling experimental, let some other people go dine first and see what they say. Hell, if I’m in the area, I’ll go check it out for you!
I’m going to ask for advice
I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone exclaim: “You really must try the new McDonalds in town,” but I’ve definitely heard friends and even strangers in cafes rave on about their new, latest restaurant discovery. I think it’s inherent in many of us to want to discover something new and when we do, to shout about it. So, I’m going to pay more attention to those recommendations but more than that, I’m going to seek them out, question my friends, use my Facebook page and even do some digging around on forums. Someone, somewhere, on this tiny planet must know somewhere better than Five Guys for lunch?
I’m going to cajole my friends
Chain restaurants are easy if nothing else so I know why my friends and I keep ending up in them, but often enough all it takes is one good alternative suggestion for people to be swayed from an otherwise mediocre meal. I’m going to try to be that person – the one who makes the effort, finds somewhere independent and gets my friends excited about the idea of somewhere new. Sure, I’ll have to shoulder the burden if the food comes out burnt but these are my friends – I’m pretty sure I’ve served worse when they’ve been around for dinner at my place…and it’s usually nothing an extra bottle of wine (or 3) can’t solve.
I’m going to reach out to restaurants
One of the problems with independent restaurants is the lack of certainty – what are the facilities like for children; can they seat more than six; what if I have a courgette intolerance (I do – I truly do). As these questions mount, it’s easy to turn to the chains where we know everything will be catered for but what about a quick phone call, email or even tweet? There are very few independent restaurants out there that wouldn’t be bowled over by some pre-dining questions, especially if it means they’ll win your business.
I’m going to carve out more exploration time when I travel
Perhaps the worst meal I had last year was from a Pizza Hut. I was staying in a hotel that was nestled among a strip of chain restaurants. I was moving town out the next day, I didn’t have a car and I was working to a deadline. So, I ordered pizza. I’d have been better chewing on the bottom of my hotel room divan. Between Uber, a bit of research and just 30 minutes more of my time, I’m confident I could have tracked down something highly edible from a decent restaurant. I took the easy route and I regretted it.
I’m going to eat better
If you’re anything like me, you see every meal as an opportunity and when I’m handing over money to someone to cook for me, I want a great experience. So, from now on, I’m going to pledge to myself to eat better, to minimise the chain restaurants and eat from as many independent restaurants as I can.
It’s easy to do when I’m in developing countries where the street food is prevalent and the chains sparse and pricey (and most commonly of lower quality). But it’s in my own backyard and even in the USA where I fail the most.
This last weekend in Glasgow I visited Riverhill Café on West Nile Street, which had been open for just six weeks. The chef/part-owner (because that’s how independents often have to roll) couldn’t quite recollect the last time he’d had a day off and in order to juggle work and family time, his young daughter sat in the corner, sipping juice engrossed in a colouring book. It looked like a hard slog but the fruits of labour could be heard in the constant scraping of cutlery against plates.
Surrounded by a sea of chains, stepping into Riverhill Café felt like entering a dining oasis. There was nothing familiar about the furniture, the layout wasn’t ubiquitous and the menu was bursting with opportunity – not just Scottish produce but the chance to take my taste buds back to Israel, on to Malaysia and around to Mexico. Sure, there were some staples on offer, but folded between the banh mi, the coconut rosti and the braised rabbit gnocchi, there was a large side-serving of excitement. The chef thrived on it, the diners devoured it and I’m sure, just across the street, guests of the nearby chains must have been looking on, salivating with jealousy.
I’m not one to quote lines from films (I’m more of a book person), but there’s a Ryan Gosling moment in the film Crazy Stupid Love when he takes his new friend’s face in his hands and cautions him about the mediocrity of chains. He says “Be better than The Gap.” Eating at Riverhill Café felt like being better than the Gap and from now on, that’s what I’m going to strive to be. Are you going to try too?
What’s your take on chain restaurants? Love ’em? Hate ’em? Let me know in the comments below. Oh, and if you do have any independent restaurant recommendations anywhere around the world, I’d love to hear them.