Exploring The Food Chain (October 2004)
Love them or loathe them, chain restaurants are here to stay. They may be a world apart from that quaint little bistro, restaurant or gastropub, but at their best they offer consistently good food in pleasant and lively surroundings. On the plus side chains tend to be clean, safe and hygienic. They generally meet with the customers' expectations. They usually offer smart, modern surroundings. And thanks to professional management skills, what they do, they tend to do well. What you don't get in these places, largely as a consequence of their consistent, structured and formulaic approach, is bespoke character or a menu that changes much.
It's all about brand and identity and diners can be safe in the knowledge that if they enjoy the Pizza Express experience in Leeds, they won't go far wrong choosing the same venue for a night out in Harrogate. The lighting, design, menu and whole experience will all be familiar - no risk of the nasty surprises that sometimes come with trying a new venue. What most people have a problem with is the lack of choice in a given area. Often as not it's only the larger chains who can afford the prime town and city centre sites -- hence the limited and predictable make-up of our urban centres. Having said that, large numbers of people on a weekend need places to go, and often like nothing more than to fall into a large restaurant where they can be anonymously and unashamedly noisy and let their hair down -- the other advantage that a chain has over a small independent.
The quality of chain restaurants has shown a marked improvement in recent years and Pizza Express (pictured above) was one of the first to show how it can be done well. They have successfully managed to combine a quality look and feel with offering not much more than pizza (although there are some pasta and salad options). It's proved to be a brand that has focused well, knows what it's about and makes a good job of it. A model chain and very successful business, as is Est Est Est (pictured on home page), another Italian that has developed into a more international type of venue. Their restaurants however do tend to reflect their environment a little more than most. So you'll find for instance a more laid back, calmer, more natural design to one of their out-of-town venues than the more sophisticated, harder edge in the city centre. Other shining examples are the quality Italian chain Zizzi. These restaurants look good, are well lit and manage to combine a 'designer' look. They are smart, have a feel of quality about them while conveying a rustic charm which is down to their predominant wood feature interior design. Browns offer a sophistication of a different sort. Traditional in a more British sense with low-key lighting and candles helping to create a pleasing, more intimate effect. JD Wetherspoons offer quality at a fair price -- and with good beer to match. Not such a glamorous sounding name, but they do seem to care about the quality throughout the operation. This is down to the very conscientious management ethos that springs from their majority share-holding owner manager, who has a got a reputation for being keen on both quality and value for money.
Ask are a chain of the Italian variety, but are designed on a more British theme. You get hard polished marble tables in the Leeds restaurant, wood in the newer Wetherby venue, with both offering more sophisticated lighting than the more typical brightly lit Italian. Tiger Tiger is a brand that's springing up in most cities around the country now. They certainly offer variety here, having a number of differently themed dining spaces to suit your taste, from a formal and modern looking restaurant, to informal spaces, to a north American log cabin affair and even a north African themed, more intimate and subdued space with candlelit booths. Hard Rock Café don't change their tried and tested brand of the basic American dining experience based on meat, fries and Mexican dishes, complete with basic wooden furniture set within a rock-themed space, with rock memorabilia and naturally, live rock music on an evening. Not so much sophisticated but young and vibrant, Spice 4U is a relative newcomer to the Indian dining scene, having opened up several restaurants in Leeds, Bradford and Harrogate. Perhaps one of the first Indians to strive for something a little different, away from the traditional expectations. The brand does look unashamedly modern - almost brash -- with bright lighting and brightly coloured upholstered furniture. Jinnah is another Indian expanding chain, but more along traditional lines. What you get here is a buffet affair with deals aplenty.
Thai Edge is an emerging small Thai chain with an emphasis on quality, from its food to the decor, which is a clever combination of cutting edge modernity with traditional features gracing this elegantly designed space, not to mention the traditionally clad waitresses in their beautifully embroidered silk dresses. And they treat you like royalty. Worth a wander over to Leeds' Millennium Square where they're situated -- it looks great. Tin Tin is also a small and relative newcomer to the chain scene, and an unexpectedly modern diversion from the typical Chinese restaurant. Their latest examples to hit the street are high quality designer venues which are certainly worth investigating. Nothing too fussy here, just makes for a quality venue offering good Chinese and some Malaysian dishes. Ideal for client entertaining and socialising alike. Café Rouge on the other hand are placed to attract a discerning customer who appreciates a little style and tradition, and who doesn't mind paying for it. Their staff are often an international mix, even if not always French. Their venues offer something of a French flavour, their food is good quality and you get a very good wine selection.
Harry Ramsdens, who originally opened in Guiseley, Leeds, have now opened right around the country including 11 in the southeast of England plus what is now perhaps their flagship venue in London's Piccadilly Circus. This is a true Yorkshire success story, and although it is new to the chain scene, it is a fast expanding chain wrapping itself around the world, hoping to become the McDonald's of fish & chips. Nandos in The Light complex in Leeds is a destination that offers a consistently good chicken product in all its varieties, but predominantly cooked in its Portuguese traditional Peri Peri sauce. You'll find a Nandos in most major towns and cities now, with an appeal mainly to the young. Not so much sophisticated but good quality and a genuine feel to it with lots of wood and a pleasant, vibrant atmosphere. La Tasca is the pre-eminent Spanish chain operator in the area who offer something of an intimate atmosphere in vibrant surroundings on a Spanish theme. They like to make you feel not so much at home, but in Spain! So they open up their frontages in the summer, complete with heaters for the cooler summer evenings. Their food is of good quality and you get a decent selection of wines and beers to boot. Try La Tasca Leeds on Russell Street or the more intimate La Tasca Harrogate on John Street.
Pitcher & Piano offer a young and relaxed environment with decent bar food in both Leeds and Harrogate. You get a Mediterranean and international mix of bar food dishes with a moderate selection of beers and wines to choose from. T.G.I. Friday's is an American chain that serves up all those American meat-based dishes, plus a few Mexican options, along with several continental beers -- the American continent that is. They have a central wraparound bar as is commonplace in the States, with walls covered in iconic American memorabilia. Oh and of course, the all-American waitress smile!
Plenty on offer then, in the region, and of course, the more chain competition there is around, the harder the chains have to try to fight off the opposition. It's the customers that ultimately stand to benefit in terms of more and more sophisticated restaurant design, decor and lighting. And cynical as it might sound, maybe we need the chains to help us understand what it is we really appreciate from that boutique restaurant down the road.
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