Picture this: you’re sitting at a bustling London restaurant and there’s a queue at the door. Here, beige is desirable, al dente is unheard of and the menu is stamped with calories eating away at your appetite. Friendly, approachable and broadly trustworthy, this is a place where many invest their hard-earned cash again and again, despite the fact that the food is usually average. In case it isn’t clear, you, my friend, are at a classic chain restaurant; the likes of Nando’s, Pizza Express or Wagamama.
These days, however, the megabrands have competition, for there is an increasing number of new chains stealthily mushrooming all over the capital. Much like many of the really, really big ones, once upon a time these destinations were cult institutions, rushed by Londoners hungry to humble brag on social media. Now, thanks to that success, the number of their outposts is inching up and up.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with expansion. The more fresh pasta, chips and pizza the merrier. Though, as the tale as old as time goes: as businesses scale up, their standards often scale down, and that is what’s much less fun. So is it still worth spending our money on these businesses’ cult status? There’s only one way to find out…
Greek Street, 2018: impeccably branded in mint green to match the quaint Italian Brewer Street deli founded all the way back in 1944, the compact space arrives just in time to ride fresh pasta’s new wave of popularity. Here, it’s fairly good, but far from the best. This spot’s charm lies in the brand’s history, warm, low lighting and Negronis.
Now: there goes the charm. Replicated four times in as many years (as well as three times in Japan) with about as much care for Lina’s legacy as a Hallmark film, you’re better off buying Jamie’s tortelloni from Tesco.
Chain reaction: 3/10
Beak Street, 2012: we’re high on the Olympics and steak has been democratised. Bare brick walls are cutting-edge and the lights are so low that even the Tinder date you caught picking their nose looks sexy. Life is good. The flat iron (a cheaper cut) is enjoyable, but better with unctuous béarnaise and decadent creamed spinach, and sensational when the main event is only a tenner.
Now: at a glance, all seems well. At all 13 heaving yet bookable sites, the free salad has been replaced by complimentary soft serve, the steak is an absurdly affordable £13 and a glass of house red is a mere £5.50. These days, however, the service can be as patchy as the murky glassware, while cold steak, watery creamed spinach and split peppercorn sauce aren’t unheard of.
Chain reaction: 6/10
Great Windmill Street, 2015: with support from the team behind Hawksmoor, ex-lawyer Gordon Ker manages to revive the humble chop in the UK. Like all the best Soho restaurants, it’s dark, dingy, mischievous and full of theatre. At £23, the ‘All In’ — a mix of snacks and a large stack of chops — is a delicious revelation, as is wine by the litre on tap and generous scoops of cheesecake served tableside.
Now: despite the fact there are five branches, the brand is still busier than EmRata’s DMs. At only £25, the price of the ‘All In’ has risen comparatively less than the Freddo, and has somehow retained its quality. Plus, the use of cull yaw (old sheep) continues to move the sustainability conversation forward.
Chain reaction: 9/10
Dean Street, 2013: what’s better than three pints of Guinness at The Toucan? Rolling across the road for several slices of the intriguing new wave of Neapolitan pizza that’s sweeping the capital. Good luck, though, as everyone and their mum is spilling out of this higgledy piggledy pizzeria making a name for itself thanks to its owners’ penchant for pillowy, spotted crusts and excellent tunes.
Now: boasting 19 sites across the capital, it seems a miracle that somehow the pizza at these fun, accessible, eccentric restaurants is still as satisfying as ever. Don’t believe me? I order the double pepperoni and hot honey with a half of Camden Hells at the London Bridge branch almost every week and have the receipts to prove it.
Chain reaction: 10/10
Sticks ‘n’ Sushi
Wimbledon, 2012: alright, so this is already a chain, but only in Denmark. A slinky Japanese-Nordic inspired affair, like all of those countries’ hottest imports it’s brooding with an air of sleek, effortless sophistication. Nobu is passé and everyone is queuing up for succulent cubes of Wagyu on a stick and artfully placed California rolls like it’s the second coming of Jesus.
Now: steer clear of Shoreditch High Street, the latest of the group’s nine London restaurants, at the very least. While the service is good, here most things have been sweetened to the taste of the Cookie Monster, and bland, doddery old slabs of fish, ultra processed skewers and tough tempura will make one’s blood run cold — even on a sugar high.
Chain reaction: 1/10