Friday, 1 April 2011
The Hard Rock Cafe, Piccadilly
Last night I went to the Hard Rock Cafe and enjoyed a tasty, reasonably-priced meal served promptly by honest and obliging staff in comfortable surroundings.
Ha ha! April Fool!
Before we go any further though, perhaps I should explain what I was doing there. It all began with an email from their PR people to a friend of mine, inviting her to their famous Piccadilly flagship restaurant. Being of sturdier moral constitution than most, she politely declined but mentioned that a friend of hers would happily whore himself out to any old ethically-bankrupt tourist dive as long as there was a free burger in it (me). For whatever reason (and I'm sure they had theirs), my invitation never arrived, but by now my interest was piqued - I had often pootled past the place on the bus and marvelled at the queues that on summer evenings stretched around the block, and no less than top restaurant critic Charles Campion rated their burger as one of the six best in London. So, I managed to persuade said friend to come with me largely on the promise of a boisterous and tacky but hopefully entertaining evening, and very much assumed we'd find if not the greatest food in London then at least a decent night out.
It may sound like I'm saying all this merely to defend myself against accusations that I've deliberately picked an awful restaurant in order to give it a gleeful battering on the blog. But I can only assure you that honestly, neither of us were expecting anything less than a tasty burger under a case containing Eric Clapton's guitar, and to this day I have never gone anywhere actively hoping for a miserable time. I may be a glutton, but I'm not a masochist, and the abject misery of a bad meal isn't worth any number of extra blog visits.
I'll say this for the Hard Rock Cafe though, it is definitely popular. On arriving at about 6:45pm, we were told by the friendly doorman that it would be up to an hour wait, which, lubricated by if-not-great-then-not-horrible dry martinis in the small terrace out the front, actually went by fairly quickly. I probably shouldn't have looked too closely at the barman's mixing method though; it wasn't so much the fact he chilled the glasses by dumping in then discarding handfuls of ice and soda water - this happens a lot in places short on freezer space - but he then crafted a lemon twist by taking a pre-cut wedge of lemon and ferociously scooping out the flesh from the inside, the end product looking like something fished out from the bins at a tequila bar. It was such a difficult job though and he had taken so long doing it, I didn't really have the heart to say anything.
Before we knew it, the little remote pager thing they'd given us started bleeping and flashing and shaking quite insistently, and we were led inside to a tiny table beneath the bar. The menus were huge, laminated and depressingly familiar in that International American Chain kind of way - think TGI Friday's or Tony Romas - and the first scintilla of doubt had begun to set in, but we'd waited long enough by now and weren't about to go anywhere else, so ordered the LEGENDARY 10 OZ. BURGER and a rack of hickory smoked ribs.
I'll tell you about the ribs first, and briefly, because I've just had my lunch and want to keep it down. Over-marinated, overcooked to oblivion and drowned in a fiercely sweet and vinegar-sharp sauce, they were that rare combination of tasteless and over seasoned, like someone had dunked the Yellow Pages in a bucket of Tesco Value BBQ Sauce. The meat was cardboardy and stringy, of desperately poor quality with no pork flavour whatsoever, and came with an even more hideous side order of what I can only describe as "sugared bean paste". Chips were frozen but if I'm being perfectly honest not completely inedible, and coleslaw was OK, but this was not a pleasant plate of food. It cost SEVENTEEN POUNDS.
And then we have the "LEGENDARY" burger. In many ways of course, being literally the worst burger I've ever eaten in my life, its legend will definitely live on. Where do I start? Perhaps with the onion rings, and a breadcrumb casing that shattered at the slightest touch and left you to fight with a slimy grey tapeworm of chewy onion inside; or perhaps with the buns which were splintered and desiccated, as flavourless and insubstantial as polyester sofa cushion filling. But no, let's talk about the meat itself - grey, crumbly and bitter thanks to disastrous overcooking, accompanied by a square of salty carbon I can only guess had once been streaky bacon, and yet topped incredibly with a sheet of largely cold - and uncooked - cheap cheddar. You have to admire their technique, to produce a beef (presumably) patty so cremated it was like eating coal and yet somehow present it with a rigid slice of cold cheese - the timing involved must have taken years to perfect. It cost FIFTEEN POUNDS.
So, as you might be hoping, we complained. And very shortly the manager - a smart young woman in black trousers (and not the joke-shop "sexy nurse" outfits that the more junior members of staff are forced to wear) turned up. I'm not the best complainer, I tend to get very nervous and worry I might offend someone, but as politely as I could I explained about the overcooked burger and the woody ribs and wondered what the story was. The ribs, we were assured, were bought in raw and smoked in their own smokehouse(!!) in a dry rub marinade for 24 hours, before being finished on the grill and doused in the sauce. We must, of course, give them the benefit of the doubt, and I have no reason to believe she was fibbing on this point at least, but we were still aghast - how could they go to all that effort, their own smoke house for heaven's sake, and end up with something so poor? They could have bought in some Brakes Bros budget cuts and achieved the same effect. On the burger, she was more defensive.
"You should have told your waitress you wanted it more medium."
My heartbeat increased. "She didn't ask!"
"Your waitress tells me she came over and asked you how everything was and you said it was fine."
That was a complete lie. I looked over towards my friend, who was pale with rage. "No, she didn't. In fact we haven't seen her between when she brought the food and now - we had to flag someone else down to complain."
"Well perhaps it just wasn't to your taste."
They'd tried defence, now they were trying condescension. Great.
"This is not just a matter of taste. That burger was burned, and the ribs were horrible."
But we weren't getting anywhere, and by now we were feeling so wound up by the manager's attitude we just wanted to cut and run. She did, as a conciliatory gesture, offer free drinks, but we were definitely not in the mood to hang around and I suggested could she take a round of drinks we'd already had off the bill? "No, we can't do that." Of course. We paid up, £30 each for one of the most miserable experiences in a restaurant I can remember, and left.
When I got back home, emotionally drained and shell-shocked from the evening's events, I loaded up the Hard Rock Cafe's entry on various different aggregate review sites to see if others had had as bad a time as us. It was somewhat of a relief to find that, by and large, they had, but amongst the various 1/10, 2/10 and 3/10 star reviews one in particular caught my eye, a 10/10 score from a name matching the initial PR invite all those weeks back. It's gone now - the as-ever switched-on guys at London Eating have quite rightly taken it down - but I don't know which is more laughable, the idea that someone in PR would use their own real name to shill a client on a review site, or that anyone would ever consider the dross churned out at the Hard Rock Cafe worth shouting about at all. But then, perhaps that's how it survives. It's a vacuous, sneering noise of a place, the worst kind of corporate gastro-swindle, and yet with enough money pumped into falsifying reviews, unfortunate punters will just keep on turning up. Hard Rock Cafe have obviously long since decided, why go to the effort of being good, when some well-placed propaganda will do the job just as well?