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.