Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Taste of the Past

I had occasion, yesterday, to be out amongst the gainfully employed as they made their collective way to their individual places of employment. This came about because my wife is on a two-day training course in a distant city that makes it more convenient for her to travel by train instead of by car and, due to my uxorious nature, I drove her to the station.

Seeing people bustling about with a sense of purpose—while juggling cups of coffee, briefcases and smart phones—left me with an unexpected pang of nostalgia that lasted a full five minutes. That was when my wife texted to tell me the trains had been cancelled. Not “her” train, “the” trains. Monday morning, rush hour, no way to get anywhere, thank you British Rail. And then I remembered why I was so glad to accept redundancy.

Ah, the memories this brings back.
So I drove my wife to the aforementioned distant city, thereby becoming reacquainted with the frustrating ritual of driving through a maze of unfamiliar streets, in rush hour traffic, searching for a place I’ve never been to before. Fortunately, my wife had been there before, but only by train, and then by following pedestrian paths to the location. So we went to the station and followed the roads that sort of matched the direction she would have walked in if she had come by train, and eventually we found it.

(You’re wondering now why, if we got to the train station, I didn’t just let her out and tell her to walk the rest of the way; so am I.)

At any rate, after dropping my wife off and pointing the car confidently toward home, it occurred to me that it would be some time before I made it back home for a delayed breakfast, so I decided to relive yet another “Road Warrior” experience: eating at a Little Chef.

The UK's answer to Denny's
I have written about Little Chef before, but for the sake of new readers let me reiterate that Little Chef is a sort of UK Denny’s, but without the ambiance and fine cuisine.

I haven’t been in one for a while, but the only difference I found was that the staff—perhaps due to the current economic climate—was a touch less insouciant. I don’t want to imply that the staff might benefit from a customer service primer, but one time I entered a Little Chef at a motorway service stop only to be told by the waitress, who was lounging in a booth, that I would be better off eating at the Burger King across the hall.

Actually, a Burger King would be more inviting.
At Little Chef, I quickly learned to order griddled eggs (sunny side up) instead of scrambled because when I ordered scrambled the guy sent down by the Job Centre that morning couldn’t even be bothered to stir the powdered egg mixture and I ended up with something that looked like melted yellow Play Dough (but didn’t taste as good) with a side of yellow powder. With a fried egg, you can believe that, whatever it is, it has at least seen the back end of a chicken.

That said, their griddled eggs are suspiciously uniform in size, texture and color, leading me to speculate they are assembled outside of Bangladesh, where child laborers sew surplus egg yolks from the chiffon pie factory next door onto synthetic “whites” made from genetically modified petroleum by-products skimmed from the surface of the swamp behind a nearby oil refinery. These are then flash frozen and flown to a dispensing point just north of Manchester where they are distributed to individual Little Chef restaurants around the country for thawing and placing on customer’s plates next to other specious culinary items.

Seriously, don't they look just a little too perfect to be real?
At least, that’s what I remember them tasting like, and the pair I ate yesterday tasted about the same, only colder.

But my visit accomplished its purpose; I returned home with my nostalgia ache fully resolved, and replaced by mild indigestion.

I took my wife to the station again this morning. She just texted to say the trains are merely late today, but for the moment, at least, they appear to be running. Good thing; I don’t think I’m up for another visit to Little Chef just yet.


  1. I always wonder how those "bottom of the barrel" restaurants manage to stay in business. I love your description of Little Chefs. If I ever have the opportunity to pass one by, I will do so on your say-so!

    1. They come as a package deal with Travelodges--they are always in the same, out in the middle of nowhere location so if you stay at a Travelodge, you generally have little choice. But if you are frugal enough to voluntarily stay at a Travelodge, you should be frugal enough to eat at a Little Chef without complaining ;)

      Also, Little Chef did go into administration a few years back and many closed. I thought it was the end of the chain (so did they) but they were rescued and appear to be on the come-back.

      But, like McD's, if you're travelling, you're bound to run into one and you know what you are getting. Just keep your expectations low ;)

    2. So they sorta have a captive clientele! The Denny's in my area went out of business some years ago. I think they survive because they're popular with the oldsters for breakfast and they're less expensive. When I'm traveling, I will opt for a local cafe before stopping at a McD's or a Denny's. At least at a local spot, you have a chance of getting something good or unique!

  2. Ugh. Back in the day when I used to drive up north from either London or Bristol, they were about the only "restaurants" on the motorways. Yuck!

    1. There are more options now -- which possibly explains why Little Chef went into administration a few years back -- but no matter what the restaurant, it's still motorway food.

  3. This reminds me of a Guardian notes and queries that asked why you never see posh people at Uk motorway service stations.

    I've tried to explain Little Chef to Americans here before. They can't get their head around a diner chain so bad that it's actually bad.

    1. True, I have never seen a posh person in a Little Chef; it's mostly groggy business travellers and an occasional family on their way to the caravan park for a holiday.

  4. Oh, how you make me laugh! I will never look at a fried egg the same way again.

    You may have given me a new must-visit restaurant for my trip to Britain ;)


  5. They have always been dreadful, but unfortunately at some point about 20 years ago they had enough money to buy up many of the small, very good independents. We have always known them as 'Little Thiefs' because although now the portions are pretty generous, they used to be very small.

  6. I realise your comments are based on recent years but they used to be so much better. I worked in various branches when they were part of the Trusthouse Forte group and, believe me, they were a lot better than many other catering establishments I experienced. The training was second to none and hygiene and maintenance were a top priority. The food was good because the suppliers were the same as used by Trusthouse Forte hotels. The rot set in when they were taken over in 1996 and then went through a succession of different owners, all of whom cut costs, failed to invest in the sites and raised prices. They are now owned by a Kuwaiti company who have pledged to turn them around and get them back on track again. Oh and by the way, of the 16 million customers we used to serve each year I can assure you we had our fair share of 'posh' ones

    1. I must apologize, not for my comments, which were tongue-in-cheek, but for the late arrival of this comment. Apparently, it has been languishing in the spam folder. I just now came across it. I would have liked it to appear in a more timely fashion.