Tuesday, 16 February 2016
JRC Global Buffet, Croydon
When I was a child, we often visited the Costa Brava for family holidays. In the very early days, we drove the entire way from Liverpool, chundering our way over the English channel on P&O Ferries and staying overnight in cheap autoroute motels. The journey was long, and boring, and expensive, but there was no other option - flights were £250/person and we didn't know anyone who could afford that kind of luxury.
Then seemingly almost overnight, budget airlines arrived, and we had at least the option of being herded onto a 2-hour Ryanair 737 flight instead of spending two days in the Mitsubishi Space Wagon. Yes, Ryanair was unreliable and uncomfortable, the staff about as personable as prison guards and the baggage allowance rules seemingly plucked from thin air for every journey, but it was cheap, and quick, and meant we could usually enjoy two extra days by the pool instead of sat in the back of the car listening to Pop Hits for Kids.
I said usually. Usually things went more or less to plan but every now and again, thanks to the wilfully "knife-edge" way the Ryanair schedules were set up, and because the slightest disruption to any flight would cause the entire network to spiral out of control for days on end, there inevitably were delays. This was bad enough on the outgoing journey; Liverpool Airport, even after its refurb and expansion was hardly a scintillating environment in which to spend 5 hours twiddling your thumbs. But if the delay happened on the journey home it meant killing time at Girona airport, a tiny, charmless building hastily constructed for the nascent seasonal trade in the 1960s and utterly unable to cope with the vast numbers of holidaymakers suddenly descending on it thanks to Michael O'Leary's aggressive business model.
There is an aim to all this preamble; please bear with me. The point is, a delay at Girona airport in the 1990s meant sitting in an over-airconditioned strip-lit box with inadquate toilet facilities, fighting for a table (if you were blessed by the gods), a hard plastic seat (if you were very lucky) or even just a space of cold floor on which to sit carefully watching your luggage, surrounded by screaming kids and their frazzled parents, glumly deciding whether to get another overpriced packet of ready salted Lays or risk a mystery meat sandwich from the Duty Free. Ironically for somewhere ostensibly built to service the leisure industry, it was the single most depressing spot on planet earth, a grim, soul-sucking and inhuman place, every corner of which seemingly designed specifically to be as upsetting as possible.
JRC Global Buffet makes Girona Airport after a 5-hour delay seem like afternoon tea at Claridge's. Alarm bells were ringing as soon as we reached the corner of this windswept car park in a retail park in Croydon and realised we had to pay in full (£20 per head) before we'd even been seated, never mind seen the food on offer. Scary signs in the reception area/new inmates' holding cell shout about "NO REFUNDS!" and "NO ENTRY WITHOUT ADMISSION TOKEN!" - it doesn't really feel like they have much confidence in the product they offer, or, for that matter, the behaviour of their customers.
Once inside the vast dining room, sat amongst the scattered tables and filthy, food-strewn floor, it becomes painfully obvious why. Perhaps the very concept of an all-you-can-eat buffet necessarily encourages waste and excess, but I have been to other examples here and abroad and with a little care and attention they can feel like just another equally valid way of serving people their dinner. I particularly remember one I visited a few years ago in Nantucket which offered fresh oysters and king crab legs from a raw bar, and a station with a man making omelettes to order. Here, in this wipe-clean departure gate with its banks of processed brownfood and bowls of lurid thin liquid, there was no incentive to behave, no effort on display to appreciate. You're expected to pile your plates high with shit you don't want and aren't expected to eat, wildly differing cuisines churned out by the same anonymous suppliers, reheated without thought and scooped up or abandoned without care.
Of course, of course, all the food tasted diabolical. How could it not? Chicken tikka pieces, apparently cooked in a real tandoor yet somehow also dry on the inside and wet on the outside with no sign of char, were the first thing I ate. Then an item of "dim sum", probably made a very long way away a very long time ago, squishy and salty in the mouth like congealed sputum. Onion bhajis, burning with a heat of way too much chilli powder and not much of anything else, a lamb kebab like pressed sawdust, a single cocktail sausage I picked up resembling something attached to a baboon at Southport Zoo from a particularly distressing childhood memory. All of it sweating away under the hot lamps, waiting to be picked up, picked at, then chucked away.
And yet, it was rammed. At 6:30pm on a Monday night. As was Frankie & Benny's next door, a different branch of which I visited in similar circumstances two years ago. So obviously there are forces at work here of which I am wholly unaware. I know I speak from the privilege of 10 years writing about food and from my central London bubble but surely I am not that divorced from the reality of what people choose to do for dinner? Why are people spending £20 each to eat food they could reheat themselves from the freezer section at Iceland for a few pence? I just don't know, it's as simple as that. I have no theories. I don't know why JRC Global Buffet has any customers.
If you must know, there was more food. Frozen chips, a gloopy beef stir fry with another bafflingly huge amount of chilli, a spoonful of that crispy seaweed you get from Chinese restaurants which I normally quite like in a guilty kind of way but here was just greasy, soggy and unseasoned. My friend had picked herself an equally bizarre selection involving noodles and paella, because that's what you do, and then while poking halfheartedly at a glass full of Angel Delight and cold jelly said "this is the worst place I've ever been to". I couldn't help but agree.
Usually after a terrible restaurant experience I can laugh about it. At Bubba Gump's last year, and in fact even after Frankie & Benny's the year before after the main trauma had worn off, it was kind of a relief to get it over with and chalk it up to experience. These yearly public vote destinations are really supposed to just be a bit of fun, shining a critical light on the kind of restaurants that would - quite rightly in most cases - often be ignored by snooty restaurant bloggers like me. I realise there's a kind of sick pleasure to be had in reading about someone else's bad experiences, and usually I'm happy to oblige.
But JRC Global Buffet is a special kind of awful. It's deliberately awful. The business minds behind it know exactly what they're doing, serving processed crap to a captive crowd of retail park shoppers, and they're getting away with it because somehow they've found enough people whose expecations of eating out are literally no more than to eat shit food until they're sick. And the longer it exists and - I can hardly believe how depressing this is - actually expands across the UK (watch out Swindon, they're coming for you next) we are all the poorer, and all the good-hearted people who run good restaurants and serve fantastic fresh food with care and love have to try that bit harder to convince the country that eating out is not just an exercise in filling your gut but can actually be one of the most rewarding experiences it's possible to have.
Anyway I'm going to stop talking about it now because I have no desire to revisit one more second of my time in JRC Global Buffet. I hate it, and it's evil and nobody should ever eat there ever again. There's your review. Now I'm off to shower in bleach.