Is a great English fry-up safe on the motorway?
Decca Aitkenhead samples the breakfasts that tycoons fight over
Sunday 31 December 1995
In a dramatic effort to fend off a hostile takeover bid from Granada, the hotel group Trust House Forte is poised to sell off a flank of its empire to Whitbread. At the heart of the deal lies the chain of Happy Eaters; nestling at the heart of the Happy Eater menu sits the all-day sizzle.
Many high-minded doubts have been aired in recent weeks, over the appropriate future for such a weighty institution as the Savoy, jewel in the Forte crown. Less concern has been heard for the all-day British breakfast, a proud and fine tradition.
Will it be safe in Whitbread's hands? What might Granada do with it? Is the Happy Eater its rightful custodian? Weighty institutions demand weighty consideration: on Friday, from a Whitbread dawn in the icy wastelands of east London, to a Happy Eater finale on a condemned west London thoroughfare, via the River Room at the Savoy and the M4's Heston Services, breakfast was taken.
You have to be quick to get a Whitbread breakfast. The Brewers' Fayre Travel Inn, Beckton, serves between 7am and 9am sharp. You also need a good-natured disregard for the stench of tobacco; despite the cleaners who polish around you, it is difficult to overlook the fact that you are breakfasting in a pub.
Just pounds 4.99 (you learn from your only slightly soiled menu) secures a traditional fry-up, plus the usual extras. This is a modest sum. It is a modest meal. Mushrooms that taste like sweaty water, a slim rasher of tasteless bacon, which looks for all the world like it has arrived on your plate via the kitchen floor, a "herb" sausage which contrives to taste of neither herb nor sausage - all presided over by a landlord whose efforts to translate a 9pm over-the-bar manner into a 9am over-the-coffee approach are woefully misconceived.
The couple opposite are sitting directly under a mountain bike, suspended from the ceiling, emblazoned in cider promotions. They don't appear to mind and say that they are having a "great time at the Inn".These are Americans eating a Continental breakfast.
To observe that the breakfast room at the Savoy is another world would be crass. In several respects, it would also be untrue. The toast (immaculately decrusted) is chilly, the ham watery, the strawberry jam surprisingly ordinary. But they (note the plural - we have no fewer than four waiters) do serve the king of sausages, the queen of mushrooms, and a flawless pot of tea.
The whole experience brings to mind breakfast at one's elderly great- aunt's (she would, however, make better jam).
It is not so much lavish as refined, a delightfully genteel affair, a thoroughly civilised way to start the day. Should you eat all on offer, it could also quite conceivably signal the end of your day. At pounds 16.25, it is one of the cheaper ways to get a table at the Savoy, but one of the more expensive ways to tempt yourself out of bed.
If Granada succeeds in its bid for the Forte group, it will bring a wealth of breakfast-making to the business. Heston Services, just west of London on the M4, has been dishing out fry-ups to tetchy motorists for longer than I can recall. Motorway services have a reputation for ambience and cuisine right up there with Her Majesty's Prisons; Granada's efforts to overcome this include battered copper pots and pans and plastic cloves of garlic hung merrily along the wall, questionably fresh fruit on ye olde barrels and, astonishingly, no-smoking areas.
For pounds 5.75 you can select eight "items" from the servery - fried mushrooms swimming in a bath of grease, serviceable fried bread, moderately warm toast, barely grilled tomatoes, and those sausages that taste rather good until the industrial pulp dissolves, disconcertingly, on impact. Eggs are fried to order - encouraging, until your server cheerfully butchers it into bubbly mash before your eyes.
But Granada services dish up a fine piece of bacon, thick, tasty and unquestionably the best of the day. The table is spotless, the staff good- humoured, and for entertainment the table-top adverts cannot be beaten. "Soho brasserie?" asks one caption, over a picture of a motorway services coffee shop which not even a halfwit could mistake for a Soho brasserie. This is not the best breakfast you will find, but it is far from the worst.
And so to the Happy Eater.There is something deeply reassuring about this place with its garish children's monstrosity of a climbing-frame out front, the piped carols and the waitress in her green nylon uniform and Nikes, who confines herself to a functional: "Yes, please?"
There is also, by this stage, nothing I want less than a full fried breakfast. But for pounds 4.99, a steaming plate appears, and the mushrooms are a triumph. The sausage is honest and herb-free, the toast is piping hot, and the baked beans taste like they come from a can whose label one would recognise.
The Happy Eater breakfast has a sublime integrity. We are not asked to pretend that we are not in a pub; nor that we are at the finest breakfast table in the world; nor that we are not really in a motorway caff at all. The Happy Eater is a worthy home for an honourable institution.
As the last trace of grease is wiped from the plate, there is no lingering sense in the pit of your stomach that you have been had. All you have had - and it is a fine feeling - is breakfast.
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