Focus: 'WIMPY' - The sign that says we're greasy, we're British and we're lovin' it

And it's the sign that hung above the country's first burger chain, 50 years ago this week and a generation before Big Mac invaded. Here Katy Guest spends a day in a Wimpy bar, where customers can smoke and nobody orders them to have a nice day...

Remember a time before burger chains? Probably not. It's hard to imagine Britain before supersizing, before onion rings and happy meals and going large. But 50 years ago, Ronald McDonald was only a glint in his daddy's eye.

Remember a time before burger chains? Probably not. It's hard to imagine Britain before supersizing, before onion rings and happy meals and going large. But 50 years ago, Ronald McDonald was only a glint in his daddy's eye.

The fast food industry in Britain started as an innocent item on the menu in Lyons Corner House in Coventry Street. Post-war customers used to toasted crumpets and rationed tea came from all over London to try the trendy new "burger" being served from a counter. Anything American was the height of fashion, and this meat patty was named after a character from Popeye, J Wellington Wimpy. On 18 May 1955 the "Wimpy Bar" expanded into shiny new premises of its own. Britain's first burger chain was born.

Gordon Jack, now a Wimpy district manager, remembers it well. He has worked for the chain for 47 years, and remembers when a burger in a bun was a revolutionary idea. "Customers hadn't seen anything like it," he says. "It was very quick. Everybody loved it."

Fifty years on at the Wimpy in Greenwich, some still do. In the corner booth at 9am on Thursday, three generations of women are enjoying a Country Feast. For £3.25 it includes bacon, sausage, egg, baked beans, tomato, toast and coffee or tea and comes with a real bottle of HP sauce, not an infuriating sachet. As they lit up a cigarette - most Wimpy franchises still allow smoking - they share their family photos and call out, "Will you be cooking for us tomorrow, Hassan?" He will.

Part of the joy of Wimpy is that things tend to remain the same. According to a spokeswoman, the chain changed nothing when McDonald's arrived in this country in 1974. "Nothing at all." Wimpys still have tables and chairs, and knives and forks, and knickerbocker glories. It was the first fast food chain to offer a beanburger (1985) and a Quorn burger (1997) but otherwise the menu is virtually identical to the one that so delighted its customers in 1955. Except that the world famous "bender" (inspiration of many a schoolboy snigger) has become a rather dull frankfurter again.

Mehmetali Rizki is one of 215 Wimpy franchisees in Britain who own and run their own restaurant. He moved here from northern Cyprus in 1978 and has worked for Wimpy ever since, on and off. He bought his own franchise five years ago. "We get every kind of people in here. Lots of people come in every day, like Alan. He always he comes on Wednesdays at 11 o'clock. His wife comes with him and they have jacket potatoes and apple pie with cream. They talk all the time about horses. We like them and they like us."

Daphne Caton, 83, has been coming to Mr Rizki's Wimpy for years. "It's very convenient and everybody is very nice here," she says over her lunchtime fish and chips. "They're very friendly, because I'm very infirm, and they always help me."

Unlike Colin Spencer, food historian and author of British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History, who says he has never eaten in any fast food chain - and isn't about to start. "Society has been slowly becoming more Americanised since the Second World War," he says, "and [the opening of Wimpy] was one of the most vivid examples. It is selling the image of America, and that kind of culture, as much as it is selling food."

The trouble is that the image is outdated. Nor is he impressed by Wimpy's menu, which shows images of red telephone boxes, beach huts, a cricket match and the White Cliffs of Dover. "Those facile images of Britain are just a way of conning you into thinking you're having traditional British food," he believes. "It has no roots in our history. What a pity America didn't develop chains of fish and chip shops - it never seems to go the other way round, does it?"

There are now 300 Wimpy restaurants in the UK, only half of the number at the pre-McDonald's peak, and none in the West End of London. Some people might eat there because they have ethical objections to the golden arches but it can only be a few. It is a very long time since Wimpy had any glamour whatsoever.

In Greenwich, they don't care. Mr Rizki believes Wimpy survives because customers aren't treated like faceless hordes. The service can be almost as old-fashioned as the menu. Ten minutes before closing time, an old man staggers in, avoiding the furniture, thanks to years of practice rather than judgement. "Hi, Sid," they call. Mr Rizki watches Sid's swaying reflection in the window as he orders a burger to take away, "with onions and ... some ..." "We know," replies Hassan. "Fried onions and brown sauce. Take care."

10 THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT WIMPY

The broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby proposed to Bel Mooney in a Wimpywith a £3 ring.

The actor John Hurt was helped through Rada by a girlfriend who was working in a Wimpy.

In 1981, an IRA explosion at the Wimpy in Oxford Street killed a bomb disposal expert.

In the 1967 film 'Bedazzled', Dudley Moore plays a Wimpy chef who sells his soul for the love of a waitress.

In 1984, Spandau Ballet agreed in a Wimpy to "split the money equally". Theylater fought this in court.

Marc Bolan washed dishes in a Wimpy after leaving school at 14.

Joe Lyons opened his first teashop in 1894 at 213 Piccadilly, where a pot of tea cost 3d (just over 1p). It was turned into a Wimpy in 1981.

The boxer Chris Eubank worked at a Brighton Wimpy in 1988. By 1990, he was world champion.

In 1985, Wimpy restaurants in South Africa opened to all races, years before apartheid officially came to an end.

The Mr Wimpy uniform is made by the people who used to produce the hit TV show 'It's a Knockout'.

'Cheap, but nasty. My cast-iron stomach turns and runs screaming out of the door'

By Terry Durack, Glenfiddich Restaurant Critic of the Year

Winning the most prestigious award in the world of restaurant reviews guarantees two things. One, a hangover of single malt proportions, and two, a call from the editor offering a dream assignment.

So when the phone rings, I'm packing my bags. Will it be a transatlantic jaunt to cover Thomas Keller's glamorous, new Per Se restaurant in New York, or an in-depth piece on the state of the three star restaurant in France? Whatever, I'm ready for it. Not only that, I deserve it.

"We want to send you to a Wimpy restaurant in Whitechapel", he says. "It will be great fun. Plus you get to eat one of those weird curly frankfurters with a fried egg."

The deeper meaning seems to be that if I can judge the delicacy of pea shoot and goat cheese soup with foie gras croutons, I can surely manage a weird curly frankfurter.

Wimpy has made much of the fact that its kitchens cook to order. I wouldn't push it, if I were you, guys. The point of cooking to order is to produce something better and fresher.

The classic Wimpy burger (£1.80) is sad and squishy. This is truly awful food, from the flat, thin, greyish, tasteless pastiche of a patty to the soft sugar-sweet bun, and the "salad" of a single pale tomato slice, shredded iceberg and raw onion. It is soft enough to preclude the need to chew, and conveniently processed into a form that does not require digestion.

The curly frankfurter (previously known as a "bender in a bun", which had the gay community in stitches) comes as part of an all-day breakfast platter (£4.65), with small incisions in its side to make it curl in the deep-fryer. It had never occurred to me until now that anyone could deep-fry a frankfurter. But even it is edible compared to the egg, for which grease is the word. Not only is the yolk uncooked, so is the white.

My stomach turns and runs screaming out the door, leaving the rest of me with two bits of flat, dead, meat resembling the eye of bacon, and chips that are dry and crisp. They have no potato flavour at all, but I have reached a point where no flavour is preferable.

Around me, people order cheeseburgers, chips, knickerbockers glories, milkshakes and cola. The place looks like a canteen in a children's correctional facility, with its pastel colours, fixed metal chairs, quasi booths and assorted posters. Most people smoke before and after eating. Some, during.

In line with current trends, there is variety of "healthy" eating options, including a lean burger and a chicken-flavoured Quorn burger. Nobody orders them. Under-12s can enjoy the Megabite kids' menu: chicken chunks with chips, fishy nibbles with chips and cheeseburger with chips. Just the sort of thing you need after being forced to eat vegetables and pasta at school all day.

Desserts read like contestants in a how-fat-can-you-get competition. The winner is the Brown Derby (£1.80), an oversweet doughnut topped with oversweet ice cream, oversweet chocolate sauce and nuts.

Lacking context, I go to a McDonald's and nibble a Big Mac (£1.99), bland but clean-tasting. The place is bright, spotless and safe, with Starbucks-style couches and aggressively promoted salads.

My Wimpy experience not only leaves a nasty taste in my mouth, it turns my cast-iron stomach into a washing machine of rumbles, gurgles and spin. If this is food for the people, the people need help, not to mention antacids.

My verdict? Cheap, yes, but nasty. Next assignment, please.

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