I’ve begun a personal boycott of chain restaurants. I’m so dismayed to see how they’re taking over our urban centres, killing off any sense of place, any feeling of uniqueness. It’s becoming a big problem in the UK. High streets increasingly look cloned, with the same brands popping up everywhere. Chains with 40, 50, 60, or more branches are not unusual.
Yet they offer nothing local or different, just a nationwide, frequently global offer cooked up by hedge fund managers in distant boardrooms. Worse still, they drive out independents by pushing up rents to unaffordable levels.
Cash-strapped councils, thinking short-term, embrace these chains. They even brag about attracting them to their cities, interpreting their arrival as a sign of gastronomic progress and buoyant food culture. But they couldn’t be more wrong.
For starters, and I say this as a regular restaurant critic, chain restaurant food is average at best, but more often than not, indifferent or poor. Either their formula is a cut-and-paste fusion of other dated chain concepts – burgers, panAsian, Tex-Mex, steaks – or they’re a national ‘roll out’ based on one original, authentic restaurant. But celebrated establishments are one-offs. Try to stamp them out with a cookie cutter and all you get is a feeble imitation.
And there are multiple reasons why chains never match the food heights of the best local and independent restaurants. Local suppliers – the very people who could furnish ingredients that reflect local seasons – don’t get a look-in with chains that buy centrally from large companies. The business model of most restaurant chains is such that many components are pre-prepared in one central factory kitchen, then shipped out frozen or chilled. The other day while reviewing a chain restaurant, I was served khaki green sludge as ‘coriander salsa’. It could have been boil-in-the-bag for all the punchy flavour of fresh coriander it had.
I think many of these chains are effectively bewitching us, to the extent that we don’t actually submit what’s on our plates to critical scrutiny. Decor is a huge part of it. They have the big budgets for fitting out restaurants slickly. Some strike up an association with a food celebrity or chef. This bestows an instant halo of quality that rarely, if ever, truly reflects either the skill of the titular person or the original famed establishment, but lends faux legitimacy to the fact that their prices are the same, or higher even, than local independents.
Chains are astute at marketing too. For instance, by refusing to take bookings so as to create a queue outside, they make people think that they must be serving something special. I’ve spent 40 minutes in a chain waiting for the beeper to ring, only to find that there are lots of free tables inside.
There’s no doubt in my mind that overall, independents serve infinitely superior food, are better value, and are, quite simply, more interesting. They represent a hugely important outlet for genuinely local, high-class produce that keeps cities varied and distinctive. They employ and train up locals as professional chefs, not merely as reheaters and assemblers of pre-prepared food. Use them or lose them.
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Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.