The best chain restaurants in the UK
We love independent restaurants but there's good stuff on the high street, too. Five restauranteurs share their favourite chains, including Byron and Wagamama
Russell Norman, Polpo, rates Pizza Express
Russell Norman runs several highly-rated London restaurants, including four Polpo sites inspired by the informal bàcaro of Venice, and two NY-style diners, Spuntino and Mishkin’s. polpo.co.uk
Russell Norman has eaten the best Neapolitan sourdough pizza and the most sought-after Roman al taglio slice, but he happily admits: ‘there are times when I have a bit of a craving for Pizza Express pizza.’ He is mystified by those foodies who automatically dismiss chain restaurants: ‘They have a black and white, “chains bad, independents good” view, but there is a place for chains that deliver consistent quality.
I don’t expect incredibly bold flavours at Pizza Express, but I do expect a certain freshness and flavour that is rarely missed.’ It is all a matter of what you use the restaurant for, says Russell. He has never eaten at a Pizza Express without his kids – three of them, aged eight to 24 – but it has become a ‘very handy standby’ for the Norman family.
As a restaurant pro, Russell is full of admiration for the staff training and the centralised ingredient-buying which ensures that, from his local Blackheath branch to the most remote location, a Pizza Express margherita or fiorentina (‘I ask for the egg to be soft, because their default is to cook it hard.’), always tastes the same. And what does he drink? ‘San Pellegrino. I’m not a huge fan of bottled water, but there are occasions when very fizzy San Pellegrino, straight from the fridge, hits the spot.’
Starters from £3.75, mains from £8.45; pizzaexpress.com.
Kavi Thakar rates Byron
Kavi Thakrar is one of the founders of Dishoom, which has three casual, all-day Indian restaurants in London. The latest of these tributes to Bombay’s Irani cafes is in King’s Cross.
In 2008, Kavi Thakrar had just returned to London after living in the US and, after five years of being spoiled with great burgers, Byron was a godsend: ‘I love the simple menu, the quality sourcing, and the respect shown to the meat: it’s not overcooked, it tastes fresh and juicy. There aren’t hundreds of toppings on the burger – to me, the burger is the showpiece – and the bun is not too sweet, not too sour and the right size. The meat-to-bun ratio is critical.’ For Kavi, Byron has also been very good at creating restaurants – he uses the Hoxton Square branch near his office and also Westfield with his family – which feel individual. ‘They’re very smart at that.
I love the approach to service, too. It’s laidback. You don’t feel rushed. But at the same time you feel very looked after.’ In terms of the menu, Kavi loves the classic cheeseburger, the chilli queen with chipotle mayonnaise, and the courgette fries. ‘They’re a brilliant way to convince yourself you’re being healthy,’ he laughs. He does have one issue, though: ‘It winds me up that they charge me for the sauces. It seems a bit cheeky – but they are good sauces.’
Burger meals from £9.70; byronhamburgers.com
Joycelyn Neve rates Wagamama
Joycelyn Neve runs the Seafood Pub Company, a small group of upmarket, individual dining pubs in Lancashire. Its newest site is Aughton’s Town Green Brasserie.
Joycelyn Neve has been a semi-regular at Wagamama since her late teens, when she and her mates would hit the Printworks branch in Manchester. For her, it remains the ideal, quick, urban refuelling option. ‘You wouldn’t go for a romantic meal or special occasion, but I love Japanese and pan-Asian food, the quality’s consistent and it’s good value. You’re fine as a solo diner in there or with a group of friends, the atmosphere is always bustling and it’s really user-friendly. For instance, if there’s a queue they can tell you exactly how long it’s going to be, as soon as you walk through the door.’
Unlike many chains, notes Joycelyn, Wagamama’s menu is wide and regularly updated, so she has never grown bored of it: ‘There are healthy veggie dishes on which still really deliver on flavour, but if it’s a hungover day, you’ve comfort food in the noodle dishes. I like any of the ramen and the stir-fried yaki soba or if, if I’m being healthy, the chilli chicken salad, and always have edamame beans. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but there’s always choice. Use Wagamama for what it’s meant for and there isn’t anything to dislike,’ insists Joycelyn, ‘unless you’ve got a really noisy eater sitting next to you, but you can’t really help that!’
Sides/starters from £3.50, mains from £7.75; wagamama.com
David Mooney rates Carluccio's
David Mooney is the executive chef and co-owner at New Moon Pub Company, which runs several top Northwest food pubs. Its latest venue is Liverpool’s Old Blind School.
When David Mooney first encountered Carluccio’s in the mid-90s, he, like many people in Britain, still thought that: ‘Ciabatta was the guy who played centre-half for AC Milan.’ On a day trip to London, he remembers being mesmerised by the deli: ‘It seems ridiculous now, but these things, fresh pasta, sundried tomatoes, that weird, dark balsamic vinegar, were a revelation. Carluccio’s was quite funky and modern too, all stainless steel and polished marble and, at the time – now, I know it’s a lot more rustic – I thought, “this is Italy on a plate”.’
He swerves its breakfast menu: ‘Carluccio’s is best approached after midday.’ But, otherwise, David maintains that the chain makes ‘a fairly good stab at genuine Italian food. I quite like the salumi (cured- meat) boards, the pasta dishes are strong – give me a bowl of spaghetti with parmesan and olive oil and I’m happy – and the Milanese, which uses chicken rather than veal, is light, not oily, crisp outside and really moist.’ Above all, Carluccio’s is reliable. Across the UK, it delivers decent food, great coffee, interesting Italian wines (‘I’m drinking frascati at the moment – lovely for summer.’), and terrific service. ‘That’s our biggest issue in this country,’ says David. ‘At Michelin level we’re good as anywhere in the world, but if you go to a large town and you want to eat a good standard of food, that’s where we struggle. Carluccio’s delivers that consistency.’
Starters from £4.95, mains from £8.25; carluccios.com
Neil Rankin rates Côte
‘In London I can name you 15 fantastic independent pizza restaurants and the same goes for burger chains and Italian joints, but French restaurants? Not so much. There aren’t many people doing that food.’ Which is why, when he finds himself hankering for steak frites, he occasionally ducks into Côte. ‘Is it first date material? Probably not,’ he laughs. ‘But if you’re with a friend, you want a chat and a quick steak, it fits the bill.’
Côte’s staff may lack a little Gallic ‘va va voom’ and, of course, you cannot gaze at the Seine or Eiffel Tower as you eat there, but, says Neil, the standard at these classically- styled brasseries – stripy awnings, acres of wood, mirrors and maroon banquettes – is not radically different to that which you might encounter in the identikit brasseries which occupy every street corner in Paris: ‘It won’t blow your mind, but you get a good steak frites and béarnaise, nice onion soup or steak tartare and it’s not expensive. People think as a chef, I must be hard to please, but I’m not. I understand food costs. I understand if I’m buying a steak for £14, there’s only so far you can take that, quality- wise. If that expectation is met, I’m happy.’
Starters from £4.95, mains from £11.95; cote-restaurants.co.uk