Can Pret a Manger cut it as a dining venue?

One central London branch is piloting dinner service until 11pm - part of a wider trend of fast food establishments branching out into the restaurant world

Oscar Quine
Monday 13 April 2015 10:02 BST
Waiter service for diners begins at 6pm with Pret A Manger’s new ‘Good Evenings’ menu, at its Strand branch in London
Waiter service for diners begins at 6pm with Pret A Manger’s new ‘Good Evenings’ menu, at its Strand branch in London (Rick Findler)

A sit-down dinner at Pret a Manger – the very idea will send shivers down the spines of many an office worker. Since opening in 1984, the quintessential white-collar choice of British lunchtimes has become synonymous with dining al-desko and grab-and-go sarnies – churning out 64 million of them a year. So can the chain really convince restaurant-savvy Brits that it is a contender for a relaxed evening meal?

One central London branch is piloting dinner service until 11pm. But, come 6pm, everyone I have invited to dine with me there has politely declined. I finally rope in a colleague – on the proviso he can bring his girlfriend. After a day at my desk, with a Pret cheese and ham baguette for lunch, I head to dinner as a third wheel.

Inside, it’s all low-lights and soft jazz. A group of female friends sit at a high-table, drinking Prosecco. They erupt into laughter. It’s like being in a Cinzano ad.

Pret’s creative chef, Nick Sandler, has worked on the project for six months ahead of its full launch this week and says he is pleased with the initial feedback. “At 6pm, we have the big change-around from daytime Pret to evening Pret,” he explains. “That involves putting the lovely cutlery on the tables and having of course the service as well.”

Greeted by a host at a podium, guests order at the counter and food is served to the table. Sandler says most of the ingredients are “current Pret ingredients” but adds that he’s “been allowed 11 extra ingredients – I’ve tried to really make sure they count”.

The lemon rosemary chicken breast salad, sweet potato wedges with crunchy polenta crust and sourdough-bread toasties showcase new ingredients and come recommended. We take all three, plus Korean barbeque pulled pork with quinoa, cauliflower and broccoli mac and cheese – both available at lunchtime – and an £18.50 bottle of Pinot Blanc.

The food is good, the presentation snappy and the price a real winner – a main and a drink costs less than a tenner. But to a palate attuned to Pret over a decade, the flavours are over-familiar, giving the impression of eating fast food.

The trial is part of a wider trend.

Chains Itsu and Leon also now offer informal dining spaces open late. Others look to their prime-positioned sites to generate new revenue. Starbucks is trialling a dinner service, while Burger King has introduced an alcohol-free pina colada slushie and Nandos a quinoa salad.

Pret HQ is cagey on whether the trial will roll out nationally. Diners I speak with at other tables are in two minds – some, here for the novelty, say the experience is tarnished by association with hurried office lunches, while others, gushing with praise, say they’ll be back. Me? I’ll stick to my ham and cheese baguettes.

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