Monday, 17 February 2014
Frankie & Benny's, Surrey Quays
Whingeing on Twitter the other day about my upcoming trip to Frankie & Benny's, about the vast, lowest-common-denominator menu, the depressing locations (F&B's one stipulation for site acquisition appears to be "windswept car park"), the extreme unlikeliness of my being able to enjoy an evening there, I was - inevitably - accused of being a snob. And though I admit there have been times when such accusations had some merit (I can't pretend my views on Spanish charcuterie or the correct composition of a cheeseboard are going to win me "dinner party guest of the year" any time soon), I'm afraid with regards specifically to this chain of restaurants, I don't believe the charge sticks.
The point is, there is such a thing as bad food. Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire cheese is better than a slice of processed Kraft. A 28-day-aged Ginger Pig grass-fed sirloin steak is better than a vac-packed lump of beet-red supermarket protein flown halfway across the world. A bottle of Brewdog Punk IPA is a better drink than a pint of sugary Foster's lager. It's not snobbishness that makes us choose the better product, it's because the better product is objectively that. It seems to be a phenomenon specific to the food and drink world that anyone going out of their way to do anything better is labelled an elitist twerp, whereas spending £150 on a nice pair of shoes rather than just wrapping a couple of Tesco bags around your feet is plain common sense.
So I say this without prejudice, honestly and from the heart - Frankie & Benny's is a terrible, terrible restaurant. The "concept", weakly supported by a selection of framed image library photos of baseball players and east coast gangsters eating spaghetti, is 50s New York Italian American, although of course this is entirely fictional - the chain was invented, and is owned and operated by British company The Restaurant Group PLC, who also have under their belt such premium brands as Garfunkel's, curse of anyone stuck for any extended period of time at Gatwick South Terminal, and Chiquito, where there's every chance you may have been dragged to if Brenda from HR left it too late to organise anything better for the office Christmas party.
The one thing I was expecting to be able to say about the food was that, despite everything, at least it wasn't very expensive. But actually, I don't consider £5.95 for four flabby, oven-reheated chicken wings to be value at all. Meatliquor manage three times the amount for £6.50, and furthermore their blue cheese dip doesn't taste like discount mayonnaise that's been left at the back of a hot cupboard for six weeks - a revolting combination of slimy, salty and distressingly funky. And £5.75 for three limp halves of scooped-out jacket potato, dressed (badly, and a long time ago, then frozen) with a bizarrely flavourless mixture of sweaty bacon and mild cheddar, well that's not value either. Because it's one thing charging nearly £6 for what is essentially a byproduct of another dish, sprinkling some cheese and bacon on top and sticking it under the grill, but how little faith would you need to have in your kitchen staff to have these things arriving pre-prepped and frozen? It's cheese and bacon on potato. If you think the margin for error is too much to risk someone making them from scratch, what on earth do you think chefs are even for?
Next, a few pellets of brownfood scampi rattling around on a large plate next to a mean handful of frozen chips, a pointless clump of watercress, a tiny wedge of lime (?) and a pot of Heinz tartare. £11.95. I am not so much of a snob that I can't enjoy some "scampi" (just processed seafood, of course, nothing to do with actual langoustine tails) once in a while but this was a long way from being £12 worth of food - it looked like a child's portion. But while the "scampi" were at least edible, a special place in hell is reserved for whoever thought this "Chicken Caesar Salad" was fit to serve. Chicken so dry it had to be torn apart into sinewy, grainy clumps, perched awkwardly on top of a thin layer of shredded iceberg, diced tomato and two or three pickled anchovies under a couple of money shots of cheap mayo. No croutons, no texture, no love. It was like eating the colour grey.
It was all enough to send a couple of people who had made a special journey to this awful place quite loopy, so we coped with it in a way familiar to anyone either stuck for hours at Gatwick South Terminal or trapped for an evening at a nightmarish office Christmas party - we got drunk. Very drunk. Firstly on a bottle of house Merlot which tasted not entirely dissimilar to Windowlene, then a Pinot Noir which was marginally better but still felt flat and dead in the mouth, like all the life had been squeezed out of it long before it reached the table. But, they did the job required. I can't remember much of the journey home but I do know I woke up in the morning with a cracking hangover and a receipt for £70.70 stuck to my face.
OK, so without the booze the bill for two would have been a rather more reasonable £35 ish, and they didn't automatically add on 12.5% making the friendly if slightly haphazard service (uber attentive one second before great long periods of time left to your own devices) a bonus as well. But it's still not cheap, and I can come up with a list of a hundred better places to spend this money on dinner in London, food cooked with skill by people who care, where the only thing that comes out of the freezer is the ice cubes for your water, and where the generosity of spirit is such that you want to spend all night there, instead of creeping back onto the overground and getting the hell home before you suffer permanent psychological damage.
There will still, after all I've said or could ever say, be people trying to defend not just Frankie & Benny's but all of these kind of chain retail park restaurants. They'll say they have a job to do, that most people don't want "fancy" food, or a wine list, or slick service. They'll say the fact they are busy and making a profit is proof that there's a gap in the market to fill, and however cynically or cackhandedly they are meeting that demand. Who am I to criticise where a large chunk of the British population choose to spend their birthdays (three on Wednesday, based on the enforced PA-system singalong that kept blasting out) and anniversaries - what harm does it really do?
It is a question that the restaurant "snobs" like myself have to answer on a regular basis. Point out anywhere serving dreadful frozen garbage at a 500% markup and you're somehow spitting on anyone who's ever ordered anything from their laminated menus and walked away not wanting to kill themselves. Suggesting that the men (of course, it's all men) responsible for it are keeping an entire battery and intensive rearing farming industry in the black and you're a conspiracy theorist. Say that these places exploit the low expectations of British diners for vast profit and that's patronising and arrogant. We can't win. Just like the tweedy twat who gave me the whole depressing "food is fuel" speech before driving off in a brand new BMW in a pub in Surrey a few years ago, it's an affliction of the food & drinks world that we are allowed far fewer extravagances before being labelled as superior as almost any other industry I can think of.
So I'm sorry - again - if this sounds like some privileged Londoner sneering at the eating habits of the rest of the country but there is such a thing as bad food. Frankie & Benny's can not be defended as "good for a chain". It's not "fun". It's not "reliable". It's not "unpretentious", or "fine", or "solid". It is objectively, deeply cynical, godawful shite, for which in the not-too-distant future a great number of people will be called to answer their crimes. In the meantime, please God, just stay away.