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.


Frankie & Benny's on Urbanspoon


Cherie City said...

The most offensive thing about F&B is that it's massively overpriced for the quality of food that they serve. They must benefit a lot from being the only restaurant, apart from Pizza Hut, on retail parks that are walking distance from a cinema (thinking about my hometown there).

Independent restaurants aside, chains like Zizzi and ASK manage to produce much better food with higher quality ingredients at similar prices.

Matt said...

Next week: TFI Friday's!

Kerry said...

(F&B's one stipulation for site acquisition appears to be "windswept car park")

Now now. As you allude, sometimes it's "the shit end of an airport terminal". Snob indeed!

Ginglesnuff said...

Those pictures are hilarious, and I don't mean in terms of the skills of the photographer.

Rachel Lucas said...

We went to one as it was next door to a cinema we visited & the alternative was TGI Friday. Truly, mindnumbingly appalling. Everything you say & more. Lifesapping. How anywhere could cock up spaghetti with tomato sauce & call themselves a restaurant is beyond me. Over cooked mushy starch...flour thickened sweetened gloop on top that didn't resemble anything approaching tomato. And yes, the most depressing thing about the whole thing was the amount of full tables! We Brits seem to lap up excruciating mediocrity, so who can really blame the chains for cashing in? Kerching!

Krista said...

I want to hear more about the correct composition of a cheeseboard!

Alex C said...

Sorry they sent you there - it was all a bit of a foregone conclusion...

Cheese board I take to my Mum's for Xmas:
Tetes de Moines
Appenzeller (if it's old and good)
Greuyere - old and tasted first to make sure there are little crystals of nom in there
Unpasteurised Cheddar - chosen based on whatever's good.
Davidstow's Cornish quartz - best off the shelf cheddar I reckon
Roquefort - tasted to ensure salty but not too pokey.
Epoisses - ready to eat over the next few days
Reblochon (for the meek)
P'tit Basque (again for the meek)
NO Stilton - no one eats it and it fights with everything else in the fridge.
Fine Milled Oat biscuits, Carrs Melts and Carrs waterbiscuits.

How did I do? - always happy to have recommendations...

p.s. when I'm flush again I'll take you to the bloody Gav (if you like) to get that over and done with - it's only £50 for lunch, and when all is said and done pretty good value for it, and a master-class in how service should be done. (I still reckon the food at Helene Darroze is better and cheaper for the same sort of deal though.) Having said which I've not been to the Gavroche since he's spent half his time on telly so might be out of date.

meemalee said...

Friend of mine organised his birthday meal there, partly to accommodate those of us with children. I thought, "At least it will be cheap", saw the prices and went "F*ck no". Thankfully, the meal was also booked at a time we could't make in the end ...

Alicia Foodycat said...

I am honestly shocked that that is chicken. I thought it was lumps of stale foccaccia.

Cubbie Cohen said...

I know it's wrong, but I do love a bad review.

I voted for F&B because I knew you'd savage them like a pit bull let loose on a trembling lamb. Or like Chris Pople let off his leash in a Aberdeen Angus Steak House.

Thanks for doing Frank and his buddy do we don't have to. We may put you through hell but you know we love you.

Matt (another one) said...

I am going to chip in on the snobbery debate, mainly because it gets to you and that amuses me :)

You are making false comparisons between £150 posh shoes and Tesco bags, or between Kirkham's Lancashire and Kraft. The choice is not between brilliance and crap. A more fitting comparison would be between Kirkham's and Tesco Mature Cheddar. The latter is obviously inferior BUT is ok in a cheese sarnie and most importantly is 30% of the price. Just because you prefer Kirkham's, it doesn't make Tesco's rubbish.

So it is with restaurants. Obviously F&B looks utterly shit from top to bottom but I've a feeling you'd be equally negative about middle-ranking chains that are "not brilliant but good enough" too. And that would be snobbery.

In other words, I think you should visit some more chains for our entertainment.

Diana said...

£70 for that?! It would be funny if the food didn't look so revolting!

CityJohn said...

Come now Chris, you can't judge the entire chain on one visit. You need a fair sample of, ooh, say 12 to 15 visits. I believe there's one next to the IKEA in Croydon. You've work to do. Chop chop.

Chloe said...

Frankie & Bennies is one of the worst meals I have had (soggy, tasteless, greasy) along with Prezzo (just awful!). I wish these chain restaurants weren't so popular, as they make independent ones have to charge so expensively!

Anonymous said...

Echoing others, I can get a better meal for a similar price at River Cottage. A cheaper meal (still better) Even in London.
I guess it shows how hypnotised people are, Tesco's Ben & Franks pizza hut, are not going out of business. Advertising;see it on T.V. it means its crap, that's why it needs the Advert. Perhaps Waitrose are to some degree an exception that proves this rule.
You are preaching to the converted.

Anonymous said...

Krista aged Red Fox, Dorset Blue Vinny, Dorset Knob triple baked. There is an art to putting cheese on your knob (That does not sound right at all). Mark Hix is also a fan.
Top marks with The Lancashire.

Anonymous said...

AMEN, brother.... AMEN!!!

You've so eloquently put in words what I've been trying to say for years!

Anonymous said...

AMEN, brother.... AMEN!!!

You've so eloquently put in words what I've been trying to say for years!

Krista from said...

"money shots of cheap mayo" ha ha brilliant!

Krista from said...

"money shots of cheap mayo" ha ha! Brilliant!

Tiffin Fiona said...

Loving this review from half way across the world. I lived in the UK for 2 years and the other thing that fascinated me about these types of ' chain restuarants' is they all have the same menu. Same scampi, same prawn cocktail, same 'ye olde' bangers and mash, same steak with pepper sauce etc etc. Where's the variety? The point of difference? Regardless of budget, you don't want to to be seeing the same menu recycled over and over. Who wants to visit two Michelin restuarants and see the same meals on offer?

I applaud your insistence on quality and eternal search for the best cheese plate!

Anonymous said...

It's always packed, and the people who go there think its the best meal out they will have.

Chavs eh. You can shit on a plate, charge 'em 20 quid and they will thank you for it.

The recaptcha for this is "cnttly one", i guess i am a bit of one at times.

Anonymous, as I'm too much of a coward to slag off chavs with my real name.

Unknown said...

By far the most amusing article I have read this year.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the funniest reviews I've ever read! Sad thing is, you're right. Tons of people either can't be arsed to care or never tasted anything much better, so it will continue ad infinitum. Or those pricks that bring their kids there coz they don't think children are capable of ingesting normal decent fresh food.
Much respect

Michelle said...

Oh you poor thing. What a truly dreadful meal that sounds (and looks) and I can't get over the price they charge for the stuff.

I honestly don't understand how restaurants like these stay in business?

British restaurants have improved so much in the last 20 years, there's no need for anyone to ever eat (or pay for) rubbish like this.

Funny review though :)

Chris Pople said...

Alex C/Krista: Sorry for slow reply! Alex, yes some great choices there and this may be just me but I never have more than 3 or 4 different types on the same board - and certainly never two types of cheddar. (Also particularly not Davidstow which I really don't like at all). Nothing wrong with Reblochon though, and yes I love oat biscuits with cheese. Do you have one of those little tete de moines shaving devices?

London Olive said...

I love this post - a brilliant read and I wish more was written about how terrible some of the big chain restaurants are. Plus I (proudly) fall into what some would call the "restaurant snob" category I think... One question though (sorry if I missed this in the post) - why were you required to go to f&b in the first place?!!

Alex C said...

Hi Chris
I do have one - it's called a Girolle - my sister brought one back from Switzerland. It makes a very pleasing shape to the cheese, like a girolle mushroom, but I prefer a simple cheese slicer because the Girolle stuffs up the texture.

I'm with you on the 3-4 cheeses generally, but this one is for xmas and needs to serve 8-15 people for about 4 days, one or two of whom are generally pregnant.

Davidstow is an odd one - horrible if bought in Tesco and much better in Waitrose (different packaging too), the Cornish Quartz is really decent, lovely and strong and tangy with little crystals of nom in there too.

What goes on your ideal cheeseboard then?

Anonymous said...

This is the thing with f&bs, it's really not cheap! recently went there as fiends fussy OH flat out refused to go anywhere else, and felt utterly robbed of £14.

While obviously not fantastic, I find places like Carluccios, Ask etc will feed you for a similar price, and the food doest have that distinct ready meal feel to it

Missy said...

I literally agree with everything in this entire review. It boggles my mind that people choose to go to places like this!

Bryn Davies said...

May I, belatedly, put in a word for Stilton. It doesn't go with other cheeses, that's sort of the point, but it does go with Port. Wonderful.

Anonymous said...

Sorry bub, but you're completely wrong in everything you say here- except that salad and wine suck. F&Bs is far, far better than pretty much every 'chain restaurant' you're likely to find. I've been to various establishments around the country and only once have I ever encountered bad service, even when the place was packed out. They offer good food at good prices, and what more can you want? You're right, 'food snobs' will get castigated by the general public, and rightly so, because who the hell wants to pay a hundred quid for a few sprigs of some unidentified vegetable and some kind of strange red stuff, maybe with some squid if you're lucky? Nobody, except the people who can afford such things- who have obviously forgotten how nice it is to tuck into a plate of chicken, ribs and fries on a cold winter's night. Can't believe someone could be so snobbish as to give F&Bs 0/10. Absolutely ridiculous.

anon said...

I was unfortunate enough to end up in one of those places a few years ago for a works Xmas dinner. The reason being, a couple of fussy twats in our team who didn't like Indian etc... etc... Really terrible food. I cook a lot of Mediterranean food myself from scratch which knocks anything in F&Bs into cocked hat.