Although my job is to heap fulsome praise on high-end restaurants, you’ll hear me often talk in equally florid terms about Pret a Manger. “As a Londoner with no family close by to care for me,” I heard myself say, in earnest recently, “Pret is a matriarchal figure in my life.” And yes, this is a big statement to describe a mega-chain sandwich shop that sells a decent artisan cheddar baguette, but bear with me. I find real beauty and zen-style calm in chain dining establishments. I live a silly life as a restaurant critic, where all maitre d’s and have trembly hands and lip sweat, where the ladies’ loo has always been emergency scrubbed and re-stocked with paper. My diet is strewn with emulsions, smears, distillations and things served three ways. I spend my life smiling wearily at weird, seasoned, genital-based offal.
So, in the rare spaces amongst this madness, I love to bask momentarily in the soothing chill of a fully-stocked 11 a.m. Pret fridge. I like to behold a new supply of my dietary mainstays: the Teriyaki salmon sushi salads, the blandly satisfying chicken, broccoli and brown rice soup, that green tea and peach water which tastes curiously like a watery-squash I remember drinking as a child in hospital after a bad arm fracture. Weak, sweet, thirst-quenching, restorative. I drink it by the gallon.
Whisking my little silver tray to a quiet corner for half an hours downtime on Whatsapp. The staff are chipper but non-intrusive. They don’t give a flying fig that I am the glowering tits-and-teeth off Masterchef. Pret staff are hot, youthful, bright-eyed sorts from Portugal and Italy who spend their downtime dancing and shagging. They don’t watch much telly. I am a mere Love Bar-buying dot on their daily existence. Of course, this means that when I am ever doled out a gratis cappuccino, they’ve made the snap-decision they like me, and it makes my heart thump with glee.
But, believe me, you can tell much about a person by their attitude to the chains; how their nostrils pucker at the thought of a Pizza Express Pollo Ad Astra or a plate of warm dough balls. Or even better, whether they would — under any circumstances — set foot in a Wetherspoons for curry night. Never marry these people. Life will be long, arduous and hungry. “But the best pizza in town right now is the traditional Neapolitan marinara at L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele in Stoke Newington,” tedious twonks will announce, before regaling me with tales of their two hour queue-time. This, perhaps, is true. Maybe Michele’s delicate, precise combination of tomato, olive oil, oregano and basil makes that marinara truly worthy of a legion of influencers, Insta-bores and food scene hangers-on. Perhaps it is worth making a military operation, involving sick leave and dispatching a ringer to N7 at 3 p.m., out of securing a table for you and three friends.
But there are many times in my life when I don’t want precise, perfect food. Nor for that matter culinary excellence. And I certainly do not want to be around the influential. I just want to be fed something I’ve eaten five dozen times before that never fails. Happiness, I have found, is not a state of mind which lasts all week, or even all day — it comes in small joyous everything is alright, right now bursts. And there is pure happiness in a deferred deadline, a sneaky two hours off, a half-deserted Pizza Express, good gossipy company and a massive glass of Montepulciano. I don’t need the menu. I’ll have the olives, the dough balls, a Fiorentina with a side salad (which will never arrive without chasing the waiter, and then a further beg for extra dressing.)
As my editor waits somewhere for 800 words on the latest liquid nitrogen frozen patisserie, I’ll be in Walthamstow Pizza Express, next to the Vue Cinema, eating the Caffé Reale figs in mascarpone. The chains provide this gentle, unobtrusive nurturing. They are my friend, not my foe. That glorious site of a purple Pret sign in the distance with its lights still on, after a long day dealing with tosspots. A green tea, a chocolate brownie and a shuffle through Twitter. A Leon Hotbox. A Wasabi chicken katsu curry. The Wagamama Yaki Udon and a large glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
Over the last six years I have lost my father. Not in one fell swoop which anyone can dispatch a wreath to. No, in tiny incremental steps. His brain gradually eroding. My already tiny family unit retracts hourly. Over these years, the only place my dad has agreed to eat at is the local Wetherspoons, close to his Lake District home. No faff, no fuss. By turn, I am majestically au fait with the big flappy menu. You know where you are with a Wetherspoons. And as time has gone on, I’ve been grateful for the fleeting moments, sat eating Balti on Curry Club Thursday where both of us know where we were.
Yes, there is high irony here that I am one of London’s best known restaurant critics. Or, that I am in grasping distance of Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume, The Samling or Ambleside’s Lake Road Kitchen, or dozens of Michelin-chasing gastropubs, the finest game, the sweetest local ales and the grittiest natural wines. But at ‘Spoons, you see, a large glass of Pinot Blush comes free with all mains. In fact, if you buy two glasses you may as well get the bottle, the bartender will always tell you with a wink. With my food critic head on for a moment, Wetherspoons Vegetarian Wellington with mashed potato and veggie gravy is actually rather decent. If you’re going to the bar, get me a double Knob Creek with Diet Coke. We’ll pick the car up tomorrow, if we can remember where we left it. There is a time to be choosy, to frighten restaurateurs and to demand culinary greatness. But, trust me, I’m a professional: we all need to let our hair down.