I would like to think I'm not a food snob: in my job as a restaurant reviewer I've visited Heston Blumenthal and Pizza Hut and found points to favour and to criticise in both.
But I've avoided Subway until now. I'd thought it was a sandwich bar, and a sandwich is a sandwich, right? Wrong. My visit yesterday revealed that these are no sandwiches, that Subway's slogan "Eat fresh" is scandalously misleading, and that it may be fast, but it certainly ain't cheap.
The lunchtime crowd listlessly chomps through foot-long rolls while rave-lite music pumps out, so everyone will eat faster. I take my place in the queue but the grimly efficient system of assembling the subs means suddenly I must order before I'm ready. In panic, I choose the classic Meatball Marinara on "hearty Italian" bread. Four meatballs with tomato sauce are placed on the 6ins roll, with two triangles of cheese. I add lettuce, tomato, cucumber and red onion, then the whole thing is toasted, wrapped and served. It's taken about 45 seconds.
It doesn't sound too bad, does it? But for £3.59, I get pappy white bread compressed down to a shell, grey, spongy meatballs in a sickly sauce spooned from a plastic bag, vivid orange processed cheese, and salad clearly cut and on display for some time. Eat fresh? Not likely. What's most odd is that there is no discernible flavour.
And yet, for some reason, I find myself determinedly chewing through it. This, I suspect is why Subway succeeds; it serves food for people who don't really like it, who are rushed, jaded and lacking in imagination. Even McDonald's is more fun.
A small roll and soft drink has cost £4.78; for £1 more I could have had a Moroccan meatball box at healthy fast-food chain Leon, including brown rice, coleslaw, and zingy beef, lamb and cumin meatballs in a rich tomato sauce. But Leon has just 10 branches, all in London. Subway has 1,400 across Britain. The experience reminds me of that old joke, "Waiter, waiter, this food is terrible ... and there's not enough of it'. To use the damning verdict of the critic: avoid.