Like many others, we watched Big Chef takes on Little Chef, often in horrified fascination – most of that horror being reserved for Ian Pegler’s excruciating screen minutes. Didn’t he just talk the most astounding amount of bollocks? Didn’t he?!
Pretty much all of what Pegler said and did annoyed me, not least the fact that he seemed so proud of himself for getting Heston onboard despite having failed, so it seemed, to have done even the barest minimum of research on his new consultant – Heston being so much more than snail porridge and liquid nitrogen, as the food at the Hinds Head so clearly shows. Unlike Mr Pegler, Heston could very clearly see that, in order to retain loyal customers and remain true to what the brand represents, whilst also attracting lots of new customers, the answer lay in offering greatly improved quality in a fairly traditional menu of British classics. Not a watered down Fat Duck. (Or, as Pete and I variously referred to it, Little Duck, Fat Chef or Dat Fuck). Thank goodness Heston ignored Pegler’s constant clamouring for blue sky thinking and stayed firmly within the box.
And one more thing, Mr Pegler, about your bloody blue sky thinking: whilst a sunny day with clear blue skies certainly lifts my spirits, I can think just as creatively and work just as effectively on a grey day as on a sunny blue-skied one, thank you very much.
So anyway, despite the press fanfare at the time, we never did visit the newly updated Popham branch until a couple of weeks ago. Google-mapping our route from home down to our cosy B&B in Broadwindsor, Dorset I zoomed in on the half way point and spotted Popham, which of course set off the ping ping of my memory! From there it was just a quick skip, hop and jump to checking the address of the Little Chef and deciding to stop there for lunch on the way.
Both Pete and I had strong childhood memories of Little Chef, Pete even more so than I, as his family always took their holidays in the UK and his dad never, ever took the motorway route anywhere. But visits during our adult years had always proved disappointing with cheap ingredients letting down simple dishes, not to mention the disgusting “scrambled” eggs, a truly vile creation.
It was strange entering the familiar interior, still sporting those blue sky ceilings and vivid red table tops. Service was friendly and we were soon seated at a vast table between comfy padded banquettes. I ordered the Hereford Steak and Abbot Ale Pie (£7.75), described on the menu as an individual, handmade pie with a baked suet crust, served with mushy pea mint gravy. Pete went for the Cheeseburger (£7.99). The burger is described as a chargrilled quarter pounder hamburger made from 100% British organic beef, served in a toasted bun with relish, sliced tomato, lettuce, gherkins and served with fries. One can add bacon and/ or cheese to that. We also ordered a side of chunky fries (£2.95) and a couple of coca colas.
After ordering, I couldn’t resist browsing the historic memorabilia on a nearby wall – photographs of Little Chef restaurants and staff, historic menus (one of which looked so familiar) and other little bits and pieces.
Whilst I didn’t care for the mushy pea mint gravy (either in appearance or taste) the pie itself was pretty good. I was particularly impressed with the pastry which had a lovely texture, lightly crisp on the outside, dense and moist inside – just as a good suet pastry should be. The filling was tasty too though I’d have liked it to be more generous and with a higher ratio of meat to carrots. But pretty good, overall!
The chunky chips were good too – crispy exteriors and soft inside.
The burger was good too – the bun, salad, gherkins, and burger were all decent. The only criticism really is that either the pattie needed to be bigger or the rest of the burger smaller. The fries were really rather good.
Given that we thought the food pretty good, but didn’t have space for dessert, we opted to stop again on the way back from our Dorset trip for a second handy half-way point lunch. On this occasion we ordered the Chilli Con Carne (£8.95), described as spiced minced beef with tomatoes and kidney beans, served with pilaf rice, soured cream and grated Cheddar cheese and the Scampi (£7.85), listed as breaded whole-tail scampi from sustainable sources in Scottish waters, served with fries, salad, tar tare sauce and a wedge of lemon.
The chilli con carne was pretty good – a lot better than the cheap versions so beloved of pub chains. Instead of cheap meat and the acrid taste of raw spices, this one was nicely spiced and seemed to use decent meat.
The scampi was very nice too. I didn’t love the tartare sauce but the scampi was moist within, crunchy without and the fries went down a treat.
This time we had space for the nostalgia-inducing Jubilee Pancake (£3.95) – the handmade pancake with black cherry compote and a choice of vanilla bean or soft whip ice cream sounded so much better than it’s original namesake – the last time I had this just a few years ago I couldn’t finish it, so awful was the cheap, chemical-tasting fruit filling and the tasteless pancake. The new version was lovely, with a soft, light pancake, delicious fruit compote and simple soft whip ice cream.
The loos still play those bizarre sound recordings (which are impossible to make out over the sound of hand dryers and flushes anyway, and just sound like some bloke has walked in to the ladies’ loos). Many of the food-related messages and cartoons on the wall are fading.
Bills are delivered with a handful of individually wrapped Jelly Belly jelly beans, a nice touch.
I’m glad that Ian Pegler has left Little Chef (though feel pity for whoever now has to nod agreeably to his inane corporate speak) but sad that Little Chef hasn’t rolled out the Heston menu to the rest of it’s branches. That said, The Little Chef website makes mention of “an emphasis on provenance, choice and quality ingredients, using suppliers introduced to us during the development of Heston’s concept”. Whether this goes far enough to tempt the nation back into the chain as a whole remains to be seen.