Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Rainforest Café, Piccadilly

Here's a question for any of you that might call yourselves Londoners: Have you ever been to Buckingham Palace? I don't mean cycled past it on the way to work or seen it blur past from the back of a black cab at midnight; I mean actually stood outside those gates, watched the changing of the guard, asked a stranger to take a photo of yourself grinning like an idiot and throwing a double "peace" sign. No? What about Madame Tussauds or the London Planetarium? The London Dungeon? Have you ever sat on one of those big lions in Trafalgar Square or congregated around the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus?

I have never done any of these things. I can tell you the best place to grab a cocktail in Shoreditch or the quickest way of getting from Holborn to Victoria in rush hour (walk down to Temple and get the District Line; the queues to get into Holborn station are crazy now they've shut down one of the Piccadilly Line escalators) but I live my life so far removed from "tourist" London that the two may as well be in a different continent. If you live here, you will avoid the Big Sights partly because they're so bloody expensive (each of the paying attractions above is likely to set you back at least £20) but partly because you just think, well, they're always there, I'll get round to them eventually. And somehow you never do. There is London and there is Tourist London and never the twain shall meet.

The Rainforest Café sits in the very money-grabbing, souvenir-pushing, cynical heart of Tourist London, physically (it's right underneath the Trocadero, steps away from Piccadilly Circus) as well as metaphorically. At least at the otherwise execrable Hard Rock Café you are only strongly encouraged to wait for your table in the gift shop next door; here you must navigate vast piles of lurid furry toys and tubs of bouncy balls and oversized pencils before you even get so far as the bar. The bar, by the way, contains only nailed-down plastic stools shaped into the bottom half of different animals and are rigidly contoured so you are forced to sit in a particular direction - the effect of which is a winning combination of both humiliating and uncomfortable, though still not quite as humiliating and uncomfortable as paying £7.50 for a sickeningly sweet Margarita containing premade sour mix.

It's probably about time I spoke about the décor. Whilst most "themed" restaurants are content with a bit of vaguely appropriate tat on the walls and dressing their staff up in silly costumes, the Rainforest Café resembles the queuing area of a 20-year-old family-friendly ride at a faded seaside resort, complete with animatronic animals, sound effects, water features and various misshapen fiberglass sculptures attempting to mimic tree trunks and rock formations. At one time, presumably not long after it opened all the way back in 1994, I imagine it would have looked, if not attractive in the traditional sense, then at least impressive - animatronic gorillas don't come cheap, and neither do aquariums or fake waterfalls. Now, though, the plastic foliage hanging from the ceiling is grey with 18 years of accumulated dust, a good number of the oversized butterflies have stopped flapping their wings, and the water features emit a strange, sad smell of chlorine and school showers.

Of the food, I wish it had either been a lot better, so that I would have felt more comfortable about the bill, or a lot worse, so that I could have at least had more fun writing it up. As it is, most was just very standard Brakes Bros commodity reheat-and-forget things like chicken wings and burgers, none of it inedible but none of it anywhere near worth the money. The best was my steak, which as you can probably tell even from my rubbish photo, was precisely medium-rare with a good crust, well seasoned and a nice thick slab of decent enough cow. Fries were just oven chips with an odd taste, and all the salads seemed to have been "dressed" in nothing more than BBQ sauce, but the beef itself was fine and I even didn't mind the packet peppercorn goo. £22, mind.

By way of a contrast, the worst dish that arrived at our table was a "Mexican Quesadilla", at £14.95 probably the most expensive cheese and bean wrap in the country, no better than anything you could pick up from Pret for a couple of quid and tasting of wallpaper paste in between two pieces of cardboard. And a lamb shank (£16.95) was yet more frozen meat, slow cooked for aeons just so people can say the meat "fell off the bone" as if that's anything to be pleased about.

But the Rainforest Café, I hear you say, isn't for me. It's all very well sitting there taking pictures and moaning about the wipe-clean tablecloths but surely the real test of a theme restaurant is if its real target audience - children - enjoy it. And indeed the happy gaggle of under-12s we brought along last night certainly seemed to enjoy themselves at the time, colouring in their menus and racing around the robo-Gorillas and fish tanks between courses. But once it was all over and we had escaped the fake thunderstorms and furry toys, even these impressionable young minds couldn't stay convinced with the food - ribs were "good but not chewy enough", in "way too much BBQ sauce, which was too sweet". Jelly (desserts were included in the £12 kids menu, about the only thing at Rainforest Café that even nodded towards good value) was "too sweet and too thick", and the vanilla ice cream on top was "horrid". Burgers were better ("I like burgers") and there weren't as many complaints about the Sundaes as the jelly, but even so, I got the very strong impression they'd have been just as happy if not happier at McDonalds, which wouldn't have cost £200 for 3 and 4 halves.

Ah yes, the bill. The food was poor and expensive but the real sting in the tail of last night was some truly eye-watering mark-ups on alcohol. A teeny 125ml glass of watery house chardonnay was £5, and a bottle of 3.8% Carlsberg was an incredible £4.50 - that's more than the cost of a pint of export-strength lager even from a West End pub. And perhaps we could have gone a little easier on the booze but you try having a meal in the middle of a dusty fiberglass rainforest and see how long you can last before gasping for a drink. Each of the adults had one main course, shared a portion of mediocre chicken wings and had 4 drinks each and managed to spend £50 a head. As we paid up and left, I couldn't help noticing how the shrieks and hoots of recorded jungle noises increasingly sounded like jeers and mocking laughter.

This is an Olympic year - it is not just depressing but potentially incredibly damaging that, with the world's spotlight on London, places like this continue to trade. I know I'm repeating myself and I know we've been here before, God knows I've shouted myself hoarse about Aberdeen Angus and Hard Rock Café and they're both still making a killing so you may ask what's the point in getting worked up about it again. The fact is though, along with every other sentient being that takes the slightest bit of pride in the city he's chosen to call his home, I care about what our guests think of our food, and I want as many people as possible to eat well. And Rainforest Café and their ilk are nothing more than vast confidence tricks specifically tailored towards naive visitors who haven't the energy or the resources or confidence to go anywhere else. I'm one of the lucky ones - I crossed over to Tourist London for one evening, hated it, and scurried quickly back. But what if Tourist London was all you ever saw? Can we really blame the UK's poor reputation for food on lazy tourists, or is this like blaming landmine victims for not looking where they're walking?

I don't really know what the solution is. Short of standing outside the Rainforest Café with a sandwich board reading "Go Somewhere Else", we can't stop the uninformed spending their money there, just as we can't stop people going to see films starring Matthew McConaughey or voting Conservative. In a free country and a free economy, people are free to make a living ripping other people off - always have, always will. But it doesn't mean we have to like it, and it doesn't mean we shouldn't scream from the highest rooftops when we see such things going on. So this is my rooftop and, Rainforest Café, consider yourself well and truly screamed at.


Many thanks to Esme (12) and Elia (10) (and father Osh), and Mathilde (7) and Fred (11) (and father Bob) for subjecting themselves to Death By Fiberglass.

Rainforest Cafe on Urbanspoon


Gregory said...

Was this a result of the reader poll ?... love the work nonetheless.

I am slightly perplexed how this rates half as good as the Hard Rock which scored 2. You seemed far more annoyed at it than the Rainforest.

Either way, the reason for it's success is simple. Tourist folk with kids from left of the back of beyond don't have the energy to research or drag their kids somewhere else that they have to wait for a table at. Why not just eat there....

In my view there are hundreds of better options that may not grace these pages but still clean, hospitable and offering a fair product for a fair price.... and that would be an independent restaurant or pub.

Patrick said...

"And a lamb shank (£16.95) was yet more frozen meat, slow cooked for aeons just so people can say the meat "fell off the bone" as if that's anything to be pleased about."

Couldn't agree more. I do think quite a few people (my parents for one) always equate good meat = tender.

Give me something which requires a bit of chewing but packed full of flavour any day.

Piers said...

What was the connection of the "Rasta Pasta" to rastafarianism? I can't quite make it out from the ingredients...

Mr Noodles said...

Agreed that this is a tourist trap, but I can't help but feel that the tourist is more than partially culpable.

After all, what kind of a muppet doesn't do at least some research on what to and where to eat before going on holiday.

And even if they don't, is their radar that deficient that they can't spot an obvious tourist trap?

Kavey said...

Not that it's the main thrust of your post, but in answer to your first paragraph:

Buckingham Palace, gates, changing of the guard ... CHECK

Madame Tussauds ... CHECK
London Planetarium ... CHECK
London Dungeon ... CHECK
Sat on big lions in Trafalgar Square ... CHECK
Congregated around the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus ... CHECK

Admittedly, nearly ALL of these were in my childhood and my sister and I were acting as guides for the various relatives that visited us from India and the US on a regular basis. Parking wasn't quite so restrictive then, so my dad would wait in the car, somewhere near by, and sister and I would show the relies whatever it was we were showing them.

I used to rather enjoy Madame Tussaud's back then though. I understand there are travelator things there now, which control the order and speed you whizz around the entire thing. But back in my childhood you could wander about freely, pose with the various waxworks and it wasn't that expensive, I think.

Anyway, that's just an aside really.

And I do agree, the muppets who frequent these places, whether from overseas or homegrown, deserve what they get if they have neither invested any effort finding out about good options nor been put off by the prices either.

Gin and Crumpets said...

I've been to Madame Tussauds. It wasn't very good, apart from the Jack The Ripper Walk, which, frankly, was terrifying. I'm still too traumatised to say any more on the subject.

Restaurant sounds rubbish. I'm not surprised.

Grumbling Gourmet said...

"Can we really blame the UK's poor reputation for food on lazy tourists, or is this like blaming landmine victims for not looking where they're walking?" claps appreciatively...

PDH said...

Sounds like I should of have the steak...

this is what happened when I went

Anonymous said...

Ah, the Rainforest Cafe. The chain is a horrible eyesore even in the US.

BribedwithFood said...

How much for a "quesadilla"?!
I'm pretty sure that ain't a fucking quesadilla!
My ass looks more like an edible quesadilla!
And, no, I realise that it's not a compliment on towards my ass.

On another note, I had a conversation tonight with someone who has live in London for 18 months and before that Berlin and he still thinks he can't find decent food here... I blame it on the likes of Rainforest Cafe.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately wholly predictable. Could it be any good? No chance. Just look at the fucking place. With the social media today, internet etc. Surely people can find better places to eat. I'd go to the Rainforest Cafe. But only if not hungry and loaded with very good L.S.D. Nice.

UrbanExplorer - London for kids said...

Oh I so want to bite my tongue as have nothing nice to say, but I cringe everytime I see Rainforest Cafe as a 'family friendly' recommendation.

After four years of pestering, I took my seven year old about six months ago to see if I was just being unfair and judgemental. Apart from the ghastly decor (which she thought was funny and I expected) I was initially impressed with the organic kids menu offerings. Unfortunately, she received a dodgy reheated spaghetti, I had a juice and the bill was £18.

I left feeling genuinely ripped off and felt both angry and embarrassed that this was the food being recommended to tourists. No wonder London has such an appalling reputation for food. Why is this in guide books / websites?

And yes, one would expect people to research before travelling, but hey ho, many don't and it's just unfortunate that this is what they resort to when a Spuntino slider is just around the corner and makes for a brilliant kiddie burger.

Chris Pople said...

Gregory: Indeed it was. That'll teach me.

Piers: Fairly sure there wasn't one. From the website: "Sautéed chicken, pappardelle pasta, broccoli,red peppers & spinach, tossed with garlic & scallion Alfredo sauce."

Mr Noodles: Yes lazy tourists are ALSO culpable, but whenever I moan about places like this it seems people always JUST blame the tourists. Which isn't really fair - it's a scam restaurant, which exists only to scam tourists. Some are bound to fall for it.

Pip said...

Interesting 'experiment'! I salute your venture into the (un)known world of tourist tat.

For a minute I was expecting a 9/10 surprise shocker but then I don't think I really was.

Emma said...

Ditto to Kavey's comment - also did all of those things as a kid growing up in London. Funny that tourist London (including its eateries) could pretty much be equated with kid London - what does that say about our expectations of tourists?

Seriously though...every city has this problem, not just London. There are rubbish rip off eateries in Paris, Rome, NY, etc, etc, etc... and they continue to exist because the vast majority of people don't care as much about what they eat as you and the readers of this blog do, they just want some fuel to keep them energised during long days of Madame Tussauds queuing!

Anonymous said...

You shouldn't judge London too harshly for The Rainforest Cafe. You can blame the US for it. Well, you can't blame it for staying open all these years, but for the thing itself, yes.

I apologize on behalf of my country, and also my city, home of the company that runs Rainforest Cafe and numerous other dining "experiences". Some of them are, or were once, good. Most of them look like alien set traps for humans to me.

The state of the art in dining kitsch has moved on from Rainforest Cafe, as you can see here http://www.landrysinc.com/#/page/1