Editor-At-Large: Let's do the time warp again

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The Independent Online

I can't think of any business venture more doomed at the moment than running a restaurant. Just as the City pages have been full of the worst losses for decades in the catering sector, so a new eaterie opens every single week. We've become a nation of people obsessed by food, buying cookery books by the bagful, and poring over them while we microwave a ready-made meal.

I can't think of any business venture more doomed at the moment than running a restaurant. Just as the City pages have been full of the worst losses for decades in the catering sector, so a new eaterie opens every single week. We've become a nation of people obsessed by food, buying cookery books by the bagful, and poring over them while we microwave a ready-made meal.

"Why eat in when you can eat out" has become our mantra, with the proviso that dining out must be cheap and fast or expensive and fashionable. The only business that's guaranteed to boom is that of the restaurant PR, spewing out acres of press releases extolling the virtues of the latest wood-fired grill or Indian fusion cuisine in the suburbs.

Is there any limit to the number of choices available to the hungry wage-earner on a nightly basis? Loyalty to your local has simply vanished. So the business has polarised, and the combination of foot and mouth, 11 September and the subsequent lack of tourists, has meant the worse six months' trading ever.

Chez Gérard, which owns Bertorelli and Livebait, plans to sell eight of its 31 branches. Signature Restaurants, which owns three of the most fashionable and successful places in London, The Ivy, Le Caprice, and J Sheekey, has problems with its Belgo chain. (Although the branch in Covent Garden is doing well, they plan to offload two others.) It is also selling the Collection in Brompton Cross – one of the most fashionable lunch places when it was owned by Mogens Tholstrup a few years ago. Furthermore, the terminally trendy Pharmacy in Notting Hill has had an "appalling year", in spite of the Damien Hirst artworks. Neat Restaurant, which opened a year ago in the Oxo Tower and whose owner had already won Michelin stars, has closed. Stephen Bull sold up his chain and decided to run a pub with food in the country. Good or bad reviews make little difference when it comes to getting bums on seats.

Of course, the other end of the spectrum – those places that serve food that is not food but stuff you shove in your mouth to end hunger pangs – has never been more popular. The Compass Group, which owns Little Chef and Harry Ramsden plus a load of motorway service stations, made so much money last year that its executive chairman gave himself a 40 per cent pay rise. Someone told me recently that Little Chef was trying to upgrade its image. Don't make me laugh. One of the most shameful things about Britain is the muck we serve people in establishments like this. When I die I'm going to throw a party for all my enemies in a branch of Little Chef. It's already been planned in meticulous detail – my answer to the Queen Mother's funeral.

Among this turmoil, one restaurant chain stands out: Pizza Express. But even it suffered last year, and decided to advertise for the first time. It's very unusual for a restaurant to advertise, and apart from those grisly epics you see at the local cinema for Chinese, Indian, and Italian places you can fall into after the movie, I can't remember any. Maybe Berni Inns had a go ages ago, but let's draw a veil over that. Importantly, the BDH/TBWA ad agency cleverly decided to concentrate on the fact that food wasn't the big issue here. We all go to Pizza Express to gossip, discuss the office creep or a friend's ghastly new lover. The catchphrase "word of mouth since 1965" says it all. (A hard core of 1.7 million customers pops in for a pizza 10 times a year.) Going to Pizza Express is about social intercourse, the vital exchange of low-level chat. It's not about breaking new culinary frontiers. We want something we've eaten dozens of times before; we want exactly the same menu, and the same wine you can sluice down simultaneously. We don't want surprises or ghastly innovations, such as Thai chicken or bacon and egg pizza, thank you very much. Certainly nothing with lemon grass or red rice. We want the same sad little carnation in a little white vase in the centre of the table, the same daring option of extra chillis with our American Hot, and the guarantee that you won't be the worst-dressed person in the joint.

Look at the cheesy bloke in the ad: those grim brown trousers, shoes you wouldn't donate to Oxfam, and a haircut even Paul Weller would reject. He is the embodiment of the youthful cheeky chap who holds temps in his thrall: Mr Confident in spite of his attire. The two dolly birds are captivated by whatever twaddle he's spinning them and the upshot is surely going to be an after-work trip to discuss it all over a pizza.

We can laugh because it's a joke we're all in on. 1965 or 1995, we've all done it. How many times have we left the office to savage a colleague's reputation over a Veneziana and a glass of Chianti? How many times have I suffered heartburn at 3.30pm after shovelling down a Capricciosa with extra mushrooms and a Peroni while sneering at a fellow executive's lack of skill at memo writing?

Pizza Express is not where you go for an affair. All the men who cheat on their wives take their secret love objects to wine bars where they drink too much and eat nothing, rolling back into the office with flushed faces at 3pm clutching a sandwich in a bag. The Pizza Express is a safe, sex-free zone, a levelling experience. It's totally unpretentious, beyond fashion, like the Queen's hairdo or John Humphrys' interviewing technique. Deep-pan pizza never stood a chance.

In the meantime I've become obsessed with Mr Brown Trousers – an unlikely sex symbol, I know. In real life, he's not Paul Merton's younger brother but David Wederal, a 23-year-old office manager for Next. And guess what – he looks like that in real life too. Perhaps I'll email him and we can go for a pizza.

Moving from the Sixties to the Seventies, we know that leading designers, from Tom Ford at Gucci to Dries Van Noten, have brought back the kaftan. Ancient Zandra Rhodes versions are selling for a fortune – too bad I have already flogged mine. Now the Kaftan King himself, Demis Roussos, has decided the time is right for a major career relaunch, complete with British tour and new album. (Mock not – it's already in the charts.)

Unlike Brown-Trousered Dave, Demis is the same age as I am. Over the 35 years that it's taken Pizza Express to build up their empire and decide to feature Dave as their secret weapon, Demis has managed to take off and put back on 100kg and sell 30 million records, whereas all I've done is eat approximately 375 pizzas, put on 10kg and not hung on to my kaftans.

Demis was for ever consigned to the scrapheap of taste when Mike Leigh's monstrous Beverly tried to seduce the neighbour to one of his records in Abigail's Party – recently voted one of the top 100 TV moments of all time. Still, the Seventies will not go away. Mamma Mia! is still packing them in in the West End, while Ben Elton's musical based on the songs of Queen, We Will Rock You, starts previewing tomorrow. You have been warned.

Incidentally, I fully expect King Kaftan to be around, if not for ever and ever, then at least for the rest of the year. You might be interested to know that the millionaire boss of BHS, Philip Green, flew the Love Walrus out to perform at his outrageously lavish 50th birthday bash the other week. I'm convinced BHS will be stocking drip-dry kaftans as an alternative to housecoats any day now.

'Demis Roussos: The Definitive Collection' is out on Philips records. His tour continues until 5 May. For details visit www.flyingmusic.com.

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