Yes, you read that right. The Little Chef. And no, I can’t even pretend I stumbled here out of necessity, drawn by a crippling hunger on some arduous journey. I went out of my way to go. ‘twas a bright and mild evening and my other half and I were journeying for a long weekend in Dorset. Knowing we’d not reach our destination in time for supper I proposed stopping en route. I confess, I’d been meaning to go for some time and had engineered this diversion ever since seeing the trio of programmes featuring guru Heston Blumenthal being called in to salvage the dying fortunes of this former roadside institution.
In truth, it would be unfair to genuinely critique what is, essentially, a chain of cheap roadside refuelling stops – they do that themselves – so this is less a review, then, more a…comment. What was necessary, however, and is worthy of comment, is seeing how this simple café has worked, or not, in being reinvented by one of Britain’s most revered culinary movers.
For one, the presentation immediately hits you. I’ve no basis for comparison, having not been to a Little Chef for nigh on 30 years – I remember the waffles with ice cream – but you can tell this has had work. Watch any restaurant revamp show and it’s an integral part. Gone are the cracked plastic seats and Formica-topped tables; gone is the bland, tired – even mouldy – décor. In place are diner-style booths, a large central ‘bar’, open kitchens and even a waiting area. A ‘waiting area’? In a Little Chef? Perhaps it’s popular in Popham. Finally, in what I assume was a tongue-in-cheek homage to the Chief Executive’s preposterous catchphrase, wanting “blue sky thinking”, there’s even a ‘blue sky’ ceiling. Crucially, though, it’s clean. It feels made over.
Now, to the food. For those of you unfamiliar with the television programme, the first attempt to revive the chain attempted to bring Fat Duck thinking to the menu. In this instance, sending Heston in was akin to asking Michelangelo to fresco the ceiling of a working men’s club. Adding oysters to the steak and ale pie and herb-infused oil to fry the eggs for the Olympic Breakfast seemed a little off the mark, never mind financial margin lunacy, but it would almost insult the clientele. So, weighing up his market, Heston simply surveyed the great British public and, marrying our simple, yet favourite, tastes with what he stood for, he simply gave the existing menu a make-over.
The result is a happy medium between expectation and tradition. There’s nothing surprising on there, with the possible exception of ox cheeks, and clearly Heston couldn’t resist the odd flourish as I spy black forest gateau mousse and a green tea-soaked sponge for the trifle base but, in the main, it’s more comfort food taken up a notch. There’s the odd token descriptive shout-out but they’re not overdone; the steak in the steak and ale pie is “Hereford” steak and the ale is “Abbot”, the bacon in the All New Olympic Breakfast is “Wiltshire-cured”, but I’ll forgive these as it’s important to stress the pedigree of the ingredients. Rather, the menu remains simple, humble even, with “scampi”, “fish and chips” and “bangers and mash”. I think I even saw prawn cocktail on there – some things have clearly stayed on the menu since the ‘70s. That’ll be the tradition, then. And, really, it lives up to its expectations. In an effort to draw the fast food comparison I chose the burger. Listed as “100% organic beef” I had a feeling I wouldn’t be getting an offal-based, breadcrumb-filled, limp oily mush, instead it’s a meaty, densely-packed pattie. My other half opted for the steak and ale pie – the baked suet crust was a little heavy but the filling was rich and plentiful and, with an inspired finish, it’s served with a delicious mushy pea “gravy”.
Most intriguing of all are the toilets. Literary sound-bites accompany you as you tend to your ablutions and there is a smattering of culinary advice on the wall tiles. Nice touch, and certainly a talking point.
As we left, I couldn’t help but ask the duty manager what’s next. Was the trial a success? Is it being rolled out to all branches? Is Heston coming back? Are profits finally up? It was all top secret, naturally, but I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of this…
The follow-up programme, Did Heston Change Little Chef? was screened on Wednesday 28th October, 9pm, Channel 4. It is available to watch online.