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Why I Bloody Love Chain Restaurants

Photo: Maria DelRio
As I write this, I’ve been sitting in Café Rouge for three hours, eating tiny gherkins and peppers the size of commas off an antipasti board, before spooning pea risotto the precise consistency of savoury rice pudding behind my teeth. As chain restaurants go, the imitation French brasserie is about as convincing as Bardot’s blondeness and just as seductive. I am, of course, in a branch in the middle of a Centre Parcs off the A614 by Sherwood Forest, but really I could be anywhere. Anywhere except maybe Paris.

In 2015 the UK restaurant turnover had risen by 39% since 2010, according to the Financial Times, despite that howling recession we had. Britain – the muddy collection of hills and houses I call home – loves chain restaurants. We have 339 Nando's, 113 branches of Ask Italian, over 400 Pizza Expresses, 23 Wahacas, more than 120 Wagamamas, 115 Bella Italias, 106 Cafe Rouges and a plan to have 120 TGI Fridays by 2020. Amen. Because if variety is the spice of life, then chain restaurants are the carbs; steady, predictable, reassuring, omnipresent.

A photo posted by Cafe Rouge (@cafe_rouge) on

Some people turn their noses up at chain restaurants, or visit only with the preface that they know how kitsch they are, that they’re doing it with a sense of irony – or at least with a 2-for-1 voucher. But for me, there is nothing knowing about my love of Harvesters. When my boyfriend invited me to a Toby Carvery in a shopping centre in Romford to chew through a giant Yorkshire pudding and mountain of carrots beside his near-silent grandfather, I was absolutely and genuinely thrilled. I felt like one of the family; a family who knows the value of a £5.99 plate of meat and potatoes. When one of my oldest friends chose to spend her hen do at a Centre Parcs near Mansfield, I was thrilled at the idea of a long lunch in a chain French bistro, overlooking a water flume and just metres from a fire evacuation point.

Why do I love chain restaurants? Because they will cater for large groups. They will let you in wearing sports shorts. Your server will happily take a photo of seven people sitting around a table airing their chins as they smile for yet another photo that makes them look like the AGM of a local newt appreciation association. There are high chairs, there are gluten free options, there is a huge bowl of sub-Crayola colouring crayons at the entrance so you can spend the 14 minutes it takes to sort out the bill by doing an intricate illustration of your ex’s genitals on the back of a napkin. They are forgiving, family-friendly, familiar and – if you drink enough – huge fun.

I have been on dates to Pizza Express and for lunch at Nando's. I have slurped noodles with my sister at Wagamama and begged friends to explain the cure for commitment phobia in La Strada. I once, notably, dressed up in a huge red 1970s nylon, backless frock and ate the entire Valentine’s Day menu at Bella Italia, entirely alone, for an article. Yep, from cocktails and bruschetta to coffee and ice cream, all alone, on Valentine’s Day, in the middle of central London, all dolled up and with screaming red sleeves, I sat there on a wipe-clean leatherette seat and munched my way through a symphony of cheese and wheat. It was work, but it was wonderful.

According to FT reporter Khadim Shubber, I’m not the only one. The UK has seen a “boom in new restaurant openings, with 'fast casual' chains that combine the speed of fast food and the quality of sit-down dining." That’s right: just like our love of athleisure clothing, RnB, diabetes-inducing doughnuts and oversized cars, we are following our American cousins down the road of restaurant chainery. With the recession we had less money for big indulgences like holidays and cars, so we spent our disposable income on small pleasures like cheap meals out. We're also less keen to go to the pub, so perhaps that's why we're choosing eating out instead. And, well, the temptation is right there on our high streets, where chain restaurants are increasingly replacing independent stores.
Sometimes, a candlelit meal in an undiscovered gem, down behind the bins of a local wig shop can be inspiring, amazing. Sometimes shelling out a week’s rent on a meal so highly strung it all but weeps on the plate from performance anxiety can make you feel special and glitzy, like you’ve made it. And sometimes you just want to spread your legs under the formica topped table of a greasy spoon cafe and shovel your way through a collection of potato, egg and beans. But more often – most often, I’d wager – what you want is a mid point.

You want somewhere you can slip your shoes off to scratch your ankle with a toe, without getting a withering look from the sort of waiter who pointedly calls you "madam" while explaining the difference between a prawn and a langoustine. Somewhere you can wear heels without everyone assuming you didn’t go home last night. Somewhere you can meet a first date without having to incorporate a long and rambling allergy investigation into your sexy text-based Game of Thrones fantasy. Somewhere that will have a vegetarian option that isn’t just chickpeas in ketchup. Somewhere your dad can find using the sat nav. Somewhere with a toilet that actually locks and isn’t made of poorly-painted chipboard. Somewhere you can sit at a table on your own without the burning stare of the waiting staff making you feel like a poorly-flambéd banana. Somewhere that everyone can get to, afford and enjoy.

In the somewhat words of Charles Dickens, we eat in chains, forged link by link, yard by yard, and girded on our own free will. If we’re lucky. If we’re willing.