Joan Smith: I'll always have my memories of Little Chef

A fry-up is disastrous if it is a compensation for something missing in your life
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The Independent Online

There are few places I'm less likely to eat these days than a Little Chef. On New Year's Eve, at the house of friends in Oxfordshire, I enjoyed a superb bollito misto with salsa verde and mostarda, which are not items you are likely to find on the menu in one of the chain's familiar red-and-white roadside restaurants. But then you are not likely to find an authentic bollito misto (made with ox tongue) in many British restaurants, and I don't think anyone would seriously suggest that it's the absence of haute cuisine which is threatening the troubled Litte Chef chain with closure.

Its problems are to do with class and history but not, I think, in the sense of its customer base developing a more discerning palate. People no longer use the A-roads where most Litte Chefs are situated for long journeys, choosing instead to race along motorways to get where they're going in the shortest possible time. But most of the food on offer at motorway service stations is spectacularly awful, and an overload of sugar is hard to avoid, even at the slightly more upmarket cafe chains where you can at least get a decent cup of tea or coffee.

I still think fondly of the Little Chefs I used to visit up and down the country, as many people my age do. Motorway services, on the other hand, strike me as grim, off-road shopping centres where salespeople try and sell you mobile phones as you make your way to garishly-lit, plasticky fast-food eating areas which have no access to natural light. Where the Little Chef was inexpensive and unpretentious, these places tend to have fancy names which bear no relation to the quality of the facilities.

In November, at a service area on the M4, I saw a placard urging drivers to try "our summer specials", which suggests global warming is a more urgent matter than I ever imagined. Last week, driving back to London from Somerset, I studied the people at a big service area and was struck by the almost complete absence of anyone who appeared middle-class.

In these places you can get burgers, chips and all the unhealthy stuff you've always been able to get at a Little Chef, but you have to queue for it, then join another queue to hand over a surprisingly large amount of cash. One of the attractions of the Little Chef - and I say this as someone whose early memories are entwined with the chain - was table service, along with the fact that you could see out of the windows, just like in a real restaurant.

In the 1970s, my then boyfriend's parents took us to the Little Chef in Reading - where the very first Little Chef opened in 1958, I'm excited to discover - to celebrate his graduation from university. Later, the Newbury branch was a god-send in the days when I was up and down to the peace camp at Greenham Common, providing hot food and drinks and a pay-phone where I could phone my copy to the office in London.

One bitterly cold new year's morning, longer ago than I care to remember, I went straight from a party in London and watched women from the camp break into the American air base at dawn and dance on the missile silos. After a while there were complaints from other customers (or so we were told), and the peace women had to stop using the Little Chef loos to wash off mud and grime acquired around the camp fire. But it was still a relief for journalists like myself to turn into the welcoming car park after dashing between the peace camp and the local magistrates' court.

A few years after that, when I found myself doing two things I'm in no hurry to try again - getting married and living in the English countryside - I became almost obsessively keen on eating at the Little Chef. I knew the menu backwards and it took me a while to realise that while a fry-up is fine if you're on a long journey and urgently need carbohydrates, it's disastrous if it becomes a weird form of compensation for something missing in your life. I was saved by my one of my periodic forays into vegetarianism, which put the Little Chef all-day breakfast off limits and lasted slightly longer than the marriage.

Back in London - single again, and living in an area blessed with wonderful restaurants - my Little Chef days became a distant memory, although I still enjoy a very occasional cooked breakfast. Now it seems that something similar has happened, for different reasons, to thousands of other people; the chain has fallen victim to social forces, not least the rise of grazing culture, which means that people eat easily portable food at all hours as part of the larger driving-and-shopping experience. It's not culinary sophistication which threatens the Little Chef, but the fact that sitting down to eat recognisable meals at prescribed times is so very last century.