Hut. It's not a very nice word, is it? It brings to mind something ramshackle, without proper cooking facilities and quite possibly with a leaking roof. It's not ideal as a name for a restaurant... But somebody, somewhere, named their prospective chain Pizza Hut. And now, 51 years and 34,000 restaurants later, the name has passed into the language – so much so that a new advertising campaign shows a tempting crisp, fresh pizza with just the word "Hut?" on it.
That is what my son says when I ask him if he fancies a summer-holiday treat of a meal out at the Hut. "Hut?" he says in an unconvinced tone. "Why not Express?" And therein lies the problem with Pizza Hut – it's been overtaken in terms of fun and quality by other chains. But the look of that new pizza has piqued my interest, and I want to see whether the Hut can regain some kudos.
Since my son passes, I take eight intrepid co-workers to give the new menu a good working over. We have a vegetarian, a junk-food junkie, a visiting French student and several cuisine connoisseurs to accommodate – let's see how the Hut handles us.
It's easy to be sniffy – the menu has such classic comments as "Our mozzarella cheese comes from British cows" and "Rules of the Hut: talk while you eat". But even though the garlic ciabatta resembles a standard bread roll, and that mozzarella comes out of a box marked "with added starch" (something we spotted out the back on delivery day), there's plenty of choice for hungry lunchers . There's no shortage of those lunchers either – from Kensington office folk working the £7.99 set lunch to backpack-toting tourists looking to refuel.
For £6.99, the Everything Buffet is a greedy eater's dream. Two pasta choices, an endlessly replenished array of thick- and thin-crust pizza and a surprisingly perky salad selection. There is "proper" hummus, cherry tomatoes, Greek salad, balsamic dressing – all the things my salad aficionado friends expected not to find. "Better than I remember" seems to be the consensus.
Quantity is one thing; what about quality? I want to see how the Hut compares with Express and others when it comes to the crunch. The mozzarella and tomato salad (£3.79) tastes... OK. There's fresh basil on it, and the cheese, British and starchy as it may be, is soft, without that industrial squeakiness some mozzarella has.
I follow it with a Tuscani pizza, the chain's newest, thinnest, crispest offering and the one that's starring in that ad campaign. From a choice including Carne Amanti (meat lovers in old money), Pollo Portobello, Caprino and Verde (with asparagus, spinach and peas, no less) I opt for Prosciutto and Rocket (£9.49). At the risk of being sniffy (again), I do wish restaurants would either educate their staff in what they're offering (enabling them to describe and, importantly, pronounce their own menu) or call the food something easier. Our waitress struggles with carne and prosciutto before giving up, muttering, "Sorry, I can't say those names."
So, the famed Tuscani. It comes on a large black board that makes slicing the 30cm or so diameter pizza easy, but I find eating off black slightly offputting. It's certainly thin and crisp, and the prosciutto and rocket are both fresh and packed with flavour. What is unforgivable is a sickly sweet passata that overpowers everything above and below it. A waitress brings a proper giant pepper grinder (haven't seen one of those since the 1980s) so that I can get some other flavour going, but it can't fight the red goo.
Others fare better with a Hawaiian (no accounting for taste) and a Hot'n'Spicy – although at £4.99 each, they looked good value until they arrived, side-plate sized. That buffet seems a better and better idea.
We polish things off by sharing a trio of cheesecake slices (sweet), profiteroles (very sweet) and Hot Cookie Dough (so sweet we can feel the enamel on our teeth dissolving, though it's voted top pud).
We waddle back to work full but not entirely satisfied and on a major sugar high. Pizza Hut is stuck in that middle ground between the high-volume, ever-churning world of fast food and the more relaxed, discerning restaurants it hopes to emulate with the newer menu items.
Perhaps the best news for the Hut I can offer is that I'd take my kids there – even if I'd have to talk them into it.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Pizza Hut, Kensington, 2 Kensington Church Street, London W8, tel: 020 376 1800. Open from 11.30am-11pm daily. Price for nine, including soft drinks, £120
Second helpings: Authentic pizzerias
4 Market Row, London SW9, tel: 020 7738 3021
A new wood-burning stove, imported from Naples, advertises the seriousness of intent at the atmospheric Brixton Market site that was formerly Eco (RIP); fans claim it offers the best pizza outside Italy
2 Moor Lane, Lancaster, tel: 01524 36333
Still good, after nearly 30 years, this welcome oasis, owned by the sister of Pizza Express's founder, still specialises in top-rate pizza
121 Bath Street, Glasgow, tel: 0141 204 0440
A genuine family-owned Italian, in the city-centre, famed for its excellent pizzas and its lively atmosphere
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2009'