Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Worst Restaurants in London

I know what you're thinking. What's the point of going to the effort of sending me to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in Piccadilly when the resulting post isn't the unqualified calamity you were hoping for? That's just the way the prawn cracker crumbled I'm afraid - Mr Wu's really wasn't all that bad, and in fact given the location, the clientèle and the price point, it acquitted itself rather well. 4/10 isn't a marvellous score by any stretch of the imagination but there is a world of difference between the merely mediocre and the downright awful; between the noble failures and the determinedly dire; between the disappointing and the diabolical. And so by way of an apology for the Chinese Burn that never was, here are my top (or should that be bottom?) five Worst Restaurants in London.

But first, some runners up, and a confession. The only reason Planet Hollywood, Chiquito, Bella Pasta, Garfunkel's, and a number of other lowest-common-denominator chains, ripoffs and ripoff chains aren't on this list is because (thank the stars) I haven't yet been to them. I'm fairly sure they're awful, but unless you're trapped in Gatwick waiting for a delayed long-haul flight, they're very easy to avoid.

Also, although I have never really enjoyed anything I've eaten at Yo! Sushi, Pizza Express, Ask, Zizzi's, TGI Friday's or Gourmet Burger Kitchen, and their ubiquitous presence on our high streets is a source of constant irritation, they each have their fans and deserve at least grudging respect for doing what they do with consistency. The fact that the cardboardy, beige Pizza Express pizzas have spread like a nasty rash all over the country is depressing, but depressing isn't enough to win a spot in the bottom five.

These five restaurants are not merely depressing, or overpriced, or cynical, or unpleasant. The food isn't just disappointing, the décor not merely drab, the service nothing so straightforward as incompetent. They are a special kind of awful, the kind that requires a particular set of variables to work in miserable harmony. Most bad restaurants, remember, soon go out of business; people vote with their feet. For somewhere bad to survive (and even to expand, God help us) needs very specific factors, ranging from a captive or clueless audience (airports, or tourist honeypots) to a glitzy brand or celebrity endorsement. They may also survive by virtue of using the cheapest possible ingredients (Brakes Bros is the go-to supplier for bad restaurants), marked up so ruthlessly that even a half-empty restaurants turns a profit. Ironically, running a bad restaurant takes energy, and thought, and skill. And these are the worst of the worst.

5. Frankie & Benny's

So there was plenty of competition for the fifth place in the list, and in fact I have a horrible suspicion that Frankie & Benny's may not even be the worst nationwide fake Italian-American-themed diner chain. But it earns a spot here because of the time my flight from Gatwick South Terminal was delayed and I slunk reluctantly in hoping the vast, laminated menu held at least one edible item. Well, if it did, I didn't find it. After a 45-minute wait (maybe they had to change the fuse on the microwave), flabby chicken wings came doused in a sickly sweet BBQ sauce that must have come right from the bottom of the Brakes Bros Bargain Bin, and a burger so bland it could have been mistaken for a lump of soft furnishing. I think it cost about £2,000. Something like that anyway.

Yes, there are other chains, maybe no worse and maybe no better than this. But Frankie & Benny's makes this list for what it represents - a vast, utterly charmless, relentlessly expanding chain serving food at investor-friendly markups, who have learned that by inventing a faux-nostalgic backstory and papering the walls with black and white pictures of New Yorkers from the 1930s (who would have laughed out loud had they been presented with anything from the F&B menu even then) they can somehow convince their victims - sorry, customers - that what they are eating somehow constitutes "authentic". Don't be fooled. They are the devil.

Location: All over the bloody place

4. Fire and Stone

It's easy to laugh at Fire & Stone, perhaps too easy. Anywhere that thinks duck hoi sin cheese pizza (I shit you not) is a menu item worth laminating, and that around Christmas time will sell you something involving turkey, brie, cranberry and gravy, is clearly setting itself up as the Frank Spencer of dining experiences. But to dismiss them as an elaborate joke is to ignore the real problem here; namely that with the brazen use of sheer, excruciating, pointless novelty for the sake of novelty they are convincing hapless diners that, against their better judgement, they really do want to eat a pizza topped with guacamole and roast potato and what's more, said guacamole and roast potato pizza is somehow an improvement on the status quo.

Proper pizza is a wonderful thing, as anyone who's ever eaten one from Donna Margherita in Battersea, Santa Maria in Ealing, Franco Manca in Brixton or the Pizza Pilgrims truck in Soho will tell you. It doesn't need messing about with, it doesn't need improving. It's almost as perfect a foodstuff as has ever existed, which is why they've been making it in Naples with a recipe pretty much unchanged for hundreds of years. The arrogance of anywhere that looks at an honest, beautiful margherita pizza and thinks "you know what? I wonder if we dump whatever we have in the fridge on this we can convince some witless tourists it's the way things are headed? Also, swap the base for semolina flour - I know it tastes of Lego but it's way more difficult for the chefs to cock up". I really do not like Fire & Stone.

Location: Covent Garden, Spitalfields, Oxford, Portsmouth and Westfield

3. Rainforest Café

Many "family-friendly" restaurants fall into the same trap. They spend so long worrying about themes and distractions and ball pools and paper hats and free crayon sets to keep the kiddies from getting bored and tearing the place up, that by the time it comes to the food, all their energies have already been spent. Rainforest Café has that problem, too, but because their budget is so many times bigger than other places, the Grand Canyon-sized gulf between the ludicrous animatronic animals and water displays and the - for want of a better word - crap that comes out of the kitchen is even more jarring.

Actually, you can probably find equally bad food elsewhere - the sad, greasy cowpat of a quesadilla was upsetting bordering on tragic, but I bet there's no better at Chiquito, and I'm sure the burger at Garfunkels is very much of the same ilk as the dry, rubbery discs of mystery meat inside sweet sesame seed buns at the RC - but dear lord the prices. That quesadilla - just cheese and vegetables in a thin case that had all the personality of a sheet of greaseproof paper - was £15.60; a toffee and banana crepe £6.95; a plain Caesar salad an astonishing £14.40. The markups, for these are clearly very cheap ingredients, must be some of the highest in London, and only a trickle of harassed parents and their offspring must be enough to keep the place afloat. Which is just as well, as on my visit half the restaurant was roped off and dark. Perhaps it's a sign it's not much longer for this world. We can but hope.

Location: Piccadilly

2. The Hard Rock Café

The only thing more wretched than the experience of eating at Hard Rock Café is the fact that it's always so popular. Every time I pass this place on the bus it's had a queue out of the door, which even if you assume that nobody ever goes back (and I think it's a fairly safe assumption), that's still pretty staggering.

If there was something - anything - about the place that would justify even the most cursory interest then I might begin to be able to get my head around it, but no - I do not have a single nice word to say about the place. It's hateful. We were served gloopy overcooked ribs in cheap sauce, a burger so inedibly cremated it actually made me laugh out loud, and then were presented with a bill that wouldn't have looked unreasonable for lunch at the Ledbury. Given its international brand and stratospheric prices, you'd be justified in thinking that maybe the décor was worth a visit, but all the cases of memorabilia looked like they had seen better days, and were of pretty marginal interest to even the most rabid rock and roll fan (a guitar Adam Clayton played. A couple of times. Woopie-do), and the bathrooms looked like a bomb had hit them. Where does the money go? It doesn't bear thinking about.

Location: Piccadilly

1. Aberdeen Steak House / Angus Steak House / Scotch Steak House

Nobody quite knows the distinction between these three near-identical but for some reason differently named restaurants. As far as I can gather, Aberdeen Steak House and Angus Steak House are owned by the same company, while Scotch Steak House split a little while ago from the main group and decided to forge its own path selling, er, exactly the same food as the others. So who knows. And who cares, because all you need to know is that, for more reasons than I have time to list here, they are a collection of the very worst restaurants in London, and most likely Britain, and very possibly the world.

Oh go on then, just a small list. The décor is battered and aged, either very nearly falling apart or very actually fallen apart. Staff are so uninterested and chippy they may as well be working in a Post Office, and manage the very impressive feat of doing a whole evening's service without looking anyone - least of all each other - in the eye. The food is terrifying - mealy, bruised steaks that taste of blood and liver, frozen chips, tinned mushrooms and a list of unfortunate 70s classics like prawn cocktail and ("our famous") melted Camembert made by people who neither know nor care what they're doing.

And for this bitterly miserable experience, with absolutely nothing to recommend it whatsoever, you'll pay a small fortune. And you'll leave feeling broken and dejected, bankrupt in every sense of the word, and not a little queasy. I have never known anywhere to suck the joy out of eating to quite such a degree - it's like having dinner in a gulag; completely and utterly devoid of hospitality and warmth and everything a restaurant should be. So while Hard Rock and Rainforest Café and all the others listed above are bad - very bad indeed - there still is nowhere to rival the sheer catastrophic, diabolical awfulness of Aberdeen Angus. A most worthy "winner".

Location: Not telling. It's for your own good.

Thanks to Abandon Spoon for the Christmas Pizza picture, and Shit London for the brilliant Aberdeen Angus lighting failure picture.


Anonymous said...

This is, in no way, a put down on your important work.The places that you have chosen are bound to be fucking awful,but the sadness is that the people who go there don't mind. Please set your sights firmly on the cunts that run "emperor's clothes" smart restaurants that sell risible food for a great deal of money.

Agent Orange said...

Loved the piece. We have a Frankie & Bennies here which I have never been to. Two friends unfortunately have and said it was a dismal and expensive experience. Crap service and all the food comes from deep freeze to deep fat fryer. Apparently the one in Birmingham is no better (ours is Walsall)

Kat said...

Enjoyed this, very amusing.

What I find the most infuriating and upsetting with chains like Ask and Bella Italia (aside from spending the night throwing up my pasta dish from the latter - not fun!) is that they never have fresh bread. Only frozen, which is then re-heated. Things have to be very desperate for me to visit an Italian restaurant that can't rustle up some fresh bread.

I long for a "Gordon's Kitchen Nightmares"-style programme to expose the workings of these places one day.

Anonymous said...

SO PLEASED the Rainforest Cafe was on here, a truly dismal experience and arse-clenchingly expensive.

Winerackd said...

In at No. 6. Sticky Fingers.

Anonymous said...

Hard Rock Cafe is awful, full of the sort of people who really pay no attention to what they're eating and go for the 'brand' instead. Never been to Rainforest Cafe but just had a quick look at the menu online. Scarcely believable prices.

Becs @ Lay the table said...

The people that go to these places don't like food - or have kids. I have been to nearly all these places on special trips with my mother to London as a child (except, fortunately being a farmer's wife she knows a good steak so we have avoided the Angus).

All these places are pretty much about the decor, a bit like The Blackhouse (there's one in LDN too) - you know what the type if clientele is when the engagement party next to you has an "OMG you're engaged!" balloon on it.

Alex C said...

Ahh - there's the vitriol we were expecting from the last piece :-)
Thoroughly deserved too no doubt.

Now could we all stop playing silly buggers and send Chris somewhere we might want to eat next time he does one of these you choose-your-own-adventure posts?

Personally I'd love a round-up of the 5 best places to get lunch for about £50 (The Gav, Helene D'Arroze at the Connaught, Marcus Wareing at what used to be Petrus - that sort of thing). Too expensive perhaps? I'd chuck a tenner into a kickstarter.

A french in london said...

If you're looking for a REAL shit show, please try the Bacchus pub and kitchen... A carefully crafted mix of not so good food with cheapest/stingiest plate dressing. Think pan seared foie tranches the width of a gold leaf topped with a kilo of bad onion chutney, and ribeye steak with meat quality so rubbish it had to be old sick horse! And the worst of all, the name "Bacchus" has nothing to do with (I supposed I would find and fooled by) a good wine list.... The wines available are a disgrace, even compared to cheap 3.49 wine from Tesco. All adding to £50+ per head... Are you from this world? NEVER AGAIN!
My word it's good to get that off my chest!

Unknown said...

I'm so glad Hard Rock Cafe made no. 2. We went there about 10 years ago and it still leaves an impression on me, we had pulled pork which seemed to be doused in an entire bottle of vinegar for some unknown reason.
I also still feel guilty for actually being stupid enough to go there, but I was young and stupid.

Santomania said...

Hate the fact that you've commented that we should be number 6.. Honestly, If you've had a bad experience do let us know, we are constantly working to improve things and hate complacency. We would love to hear how we got it so wrong and hope you'll give us another go! Please e-mail on

Rachel Lucas said...

So sad, hilarious and spot-on all at he same time. Visited my first...and last...Frankie & Benny's a few weeks ago after a cinema visit in an out of town venue. It was the only place to eat. As you said, the menu is vast. Everything was totally bland...service, colour & taste wise. Completely joyless experience. Absolutely no point eating there. Glutinous, overcooked pasta...flour thickened, sweetened tomato sauce. Even the chips, sorry...fries...were pale & flabby. Italian food is one of the most amazing & popular cuisines in the world. Nothing here bears any resemblance whatsoever.

Emmyw said...

Good list! I don't know ANYONE who has EVER had a good meal atr Frankie and Bennys yet for some reason for any work-do or old school friends brithday I get dragged back there. You're lucky if its hot or can get more than one mouthful eaten before the birthday song goes off and the dog comes out again.

Anonymous said...

Oh thank you for listing Rainforest Cafe. Went there once for a birthday celebration and instantly wished for the place to explode in a fireball of flame and napalm. Unfortunately it still exists, horrible horrible.

Anonymous said...

While I've eaten at my (un)fair share of ghastly, soulless, overpriced people-feeders, I have not had the (dis)pleasure of seeking sustenance at any of the worst 5 listed here.
Now, thanks to this article, I will never have to.

Matt said...

Wait - wait wait wait wait wait.

You don't like GBK?

Matt P said...

Hmm I'm going to call you out for some silly snobbery over your Pizza Express comments.

I read your post last week about PE's 'cardboardy pizzas spreading like a rash' and thought "god I've eaten there many times, is my tongue really made of carpet or something?" So I went for dinner at the Chiswick branch last night, about 500m away from Franco Manca.

I had a gorgonzola pizza with leeks and pancetta. It was perfectly decent. The dough was thin, the outside was crisp and the middle was pleasantly soggy yet just about held it together. The toppings were sparingly used but not with the minimalism that you find in Naples (which I think is no bad thing, personally). The gorgonzola was DOC, according to the menu, and beautifully zingy.

Is their dough as good as Franco Manca's? Nope. But it's still a world away from the sugary savoury cake of Pizza Hut and the like. And in a battle of 'restaurant vs restaurant' (as opposed to 'dough vs dough'), Pizza Express kicks Franco Manca's arse. The decor and lighting are very pleasant, the staff are friendly and efficient and the menu presented a wide range of choices. Compare that to Franco Manca down the road which is more of a cafe than a restaurant, frankly, and absolutely not somewhere I'd choose to spend a lazy evening indulging myself in a restaurant meal. And until the owners of Franco Manca figure out that restaurants are about much, much more than serving terrific, authentic food, they'll be scratching their heads about why they have three branches and PE has 400.

By all means slag off Ask and Zizzi; they are both grotesquely cynical. But PE does have some heritage in London since the 60s, so I can't really see why you've taken against it with such venom apart from the fact that it's a popular chain now. Hence the accusation of snobbery...

Chris Pople said...

Matt: No I don't, they're bloody awful.

Matt P: A comprehensive, well argued comment, so thanks for that. But I'm really not against Pizza Express *just* because it's popular, as any number of trips to MacDonalds for a quarter pounder fix will testify.

I don't like Pizza Express because I don't like the food they make. And I've not come to this conclusion from one lunch - I've been many times over the years (they're impossible to avoid, which doesn't help my irritation with them) and never enjoyed it. I really don't think they're any better than Ask or Zizzi, sorry.

Take your point with Franco Manca though - next to queueing for 2 hours to eat an admittedly nice pizza on a wooden bench in a freezing market, I can almost see the attraction of a nice, warm, blue-lit Pizza Express branch.

Anonymous said...

I remember the "steak" I had at Angus (or Aberdeen, or Scotch, can't remember which). It really was a shock when it came to the table (can't say it was served since you can't really call that service).

Anonymous said...

Very amusing and honest review. Had us in tears if laughter!

What a shame previous comment by 'stowell' can't put his point across without swearing. There is no need to use such words.

Anonymous said...

Haha! YES! So well said...

Emma said...

Frankie and Benny's only at number five? Blimey, remind me never to be dragged into Hard Rock or Angus if they're worse. I had hands down the worst meal of my life at a F&B in Warwickshire, wrote a blog post about it in which I was extremely charitable about it (whilst making it clear I didnt like it) and was utterly stunned by the violent, furious vitriol flung at me by dozens of deluded, obsessively protective customers. They must put drugs in the food or something.

Anonymous said...

The worst place I've eaten in any city I've been to was Wishbone.

Greasy claggy wings, doused in a vinegar sauce that can only be described as shrill, service bordering on the fuck you and the saddest frozen fries in the world.

I would rather eat at a Frankie and Benny's twice and then call in at Garfunkels for dessert than touch their cynically marketed hipster themed shite ever again.

At least if you eat in any of your places here you expect it'll be fuel to fill you. Wishbone big up their free range meat so you expect something decent and then they slaughter it a second time.

Verna said...

This is cool!

Anonymous said...

You're a bully and a snob. I understand that being a snob is in vogue now but it still must be done with a certain amount of charm to be pulled off. You sir are just unpleasant. I have no doubt you will not approve my comment but wanted to let you know.

All the best,


Anonymous said...

The trouble is for these type of places they are supplied by brakes brothers who consistently deliver out of temperature. I was located in the business' Tamworth depot for 6 years. I can't begin to count how many times we were told of vehicle temperature issues and the management would just bring it back, make out they're repicking the stock when in fact they were just re-freezing it. It has also happened with the chilled stock - paulies, fairfax meadow, russell hume have no idea that brakes are ripping them AND the clients off.

Unknown said...

I thought you had covered all the amazing failings that Angus had to offer but you forgot.....

It takes a special kind of talent to fuck up a green salad and charge you £5:00 for the experience of Iceberg lettuce telling you it didn't want to get in the bowl!