Thursday, 30 March 2017
The Toby Carvery, South Croydon
I fear this post is going to come as a huge disappointment to a great deal of you. Many years ago, I started the You Decides as a way of getting my readership involved in the blog decision-making process (such as it is), with the idea of plugging any glaring gaps in my post history or uncovering some under-reviewed gems. Very soon - because people are awful and people on the internet doubly so - it descended into a game of "what's the worst place we can send Chris to eat at", and so once a year I dutifully trotted off to rotten ripoff joints like the Rainforest Café and Frankie & Benny's, ate an overpriced meal of frozen chips and grilled chicken then wrote about how much I hated it.
Every year, another diabolical theme restaurant or godforsaken chain won the poll, another terrible meal where the only comfort was to get as drunk as possible on sugary lager (the utter crappiness of crappy restaurants easily extends to the drinks list) and wishing the whole thing was over as quickly as possible. And each time I thought this year's choice couldn't possibly be worse than the last, and yet somehow each time it was, reaching the absolute nadir in 2016 in the form of JRC Global Buffet, a place so utterly devoid of charm and hospitality that I still feel I left a part of my soul there, scattered on the filthy floors like so many discarded spring rolls.
I nearly didn't do a public vote this year. Not so much to save myself the misery of another awful evening (I can take it), but just because I was running out of things to say about these places. Bad restaurants, you see, are all bad for pretty much the same reasons. They're selling horrible frozen food at huge markups, service is indifferent, the drinks list is moribund and the whole experience is about as much fun as having a root canal. It may be occasionally fun to read somewhere being torn apart on a restaurant blog, but if I just end up having the same moan year after year it becomes a bit boring and a bit, well, pointless.
How nice, then, that the Toby Carvery in South Croydon won this year, and turned out to not be completely awful. Don't get me wrong - it's not a great restaurant. It's not even a particularly good restaurant. But I did leave after dinner not wanting to saw my own arms off with a blunt hacksaw and so is at least better than anywhere else so far that's won the public vote.
The least enjoyable part of the whole operation is the food, so I'll do that first. This may be an obvious thing to say, but you are never going to get a very good bit of roast beef, roast turkey - roast anything, for the princely sum of £6.99 a head. The huge lumps of meat sweating under the lamps at the Toby Carvery won't be artisan cuts from small producers, they won't be organic or ethically farmed or even probably fully traceable. They'll be the very cheapest bits of pig, cow and turkey that money can buy, overcooked to keep the greatest number of pensioners from sending any of it back.
Which is all perfectly fine, of course. I personally would not choose to eat pork so dry it resisted the game attempts from the member of staff to carve it into need slices and instead collapsed into pork dust. I would not, in the course of a usual day, travel to South Croydon to crunch through "roast" potatoes cremated to the colour of volcanic rock, or rehydrated gravy tasting of wallpaper paste. I am not, in my London Elite bubble, Toby Carvery's target market. But I know more than a few members of my close family who would very much enjoy a cheap roast in a restaurant attached to a Travelodge of a Sunday afternoon, and indeed do so on a regular basis.
You may wonder why I'm being so pragmatic about the Toby Carvery when I've given other chains like Frankie & Benny's or Bubba Gump such a hard time. It's a fair question. The quality of the food at Toby Carvery is hardly any better - if at all - than any other rotten chain you'd care to mention, and I could easily make a point about the damage the demand for this lowest-common-denominator commodity meat does to our food chain and animal welfare standards. But in a strange way it just feels better - there's a certain honesty to it all. It's not pretending to be a New York Diner from the 1950s or a Louisiana Shrimp Boil, it's just a place to have a cheap roast. And crucially, unlike so many other chains, it is cheap - my plate of vaguely edible meat soaked in packet gravy and topped with oily Yorkshire pudding cost £6.99, a pint of Stella £3.90. You get what you pay for - in a good way.
Even so, all of this would still not really be enough to lift the score out of ten out of the basement were it not for the service at the Toby Carvery South Croydon, which was - and I'm not being in the least bit patronising here - up there with the very best I've ever had the pleasure to experience anywhere in London. The receipt has the name "Seniz" on it, and so if that was the girl who took our order smartly and articulately, brought drinks and non-buffet food items, all without us barely having to look up to catch her attention, well, then Seniz, you deserve every bit of the tip we left that Toby Carvery didn't even ask for. Also full marks for keeping a straight face while bringing my friend the most ridiculous looking 'sandwich' either of us had ever seen in our lives - seemingly an entire white loaf cut lengthways with some salad and ham inside. Brilliant.
If ever there was a mediocre meal lifted by sparkling service, then, it was our little trip to South Croydon on a Monday evening. And I'm sorry - again - if my not having a completely godawful time is a disappointment to you, but that's just how it went. I didn't hate Toby Carvery, and the fact I even stayed for dessert (treacle pudding and custard, like being back at school) shows you how much I didn't hate it. In fact we were not hating it so much we would have considered another pint in the bar were it not for a group of young men talking loudly about muslims over-running the country (though seemingly not South Croydon based on the demographic out that night) which spoiled the atmosphere a bit. So we got the train home, in all honesty most likely never to return. I'll miss Seniz, though.