Spoiler alert. If you haven't seen the film Forrest Gump, skip this first bit. In fact, skip the whole film. It's dreadful. Mawkish, faux-serious – surely one of the worst 'good' movies in the canon. Mysteriously popular on its release in 1994, it's the inspiration behind Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, a new-to-London mega-restaurant in Piccadilly Circus packed with flashback-inducing Gumpiana.
Second spoiler alert. If you haven't already eaten in Bubba Gump, skip that too. It's not a restaurant. It's a cavernous, laminated, wipe-down, deep-fried, hokey simulacrum of a restaurant, sucking up shoals of tourists in the catering equivalent of industrial fishing.
Already an established chain in the States, Bubba Gump is a themed seafood restaurant which operates in a kind of fictional dreamspace. Somehow, it manages to conjure a feel-good leisure experience out of a downbeat, disturbing movie dealing with disability, prejudice, war, mutilation, cancer and bereavement. There's no restaurant in Forrest Gump; everyone is too busy running away or dying to eat out. And that's probably the right decision, if the alternative is eating at Bubba Gump.
This first UK branch occupies the enormous space in the Trocadero recently vacated by Planet Hollywood, whose mix of movie memorabilia, Americana and lowest-common-denominator food Bubba Gump emulates. In a boon for lazy satirists, entrance is via the gift shop, and surprisingly, on a rainy Saturday lunchtime, we don't have to queue. Turns out that most of Piccadilly is already inside, in two interconnecting rooms roughly the size and cosiness of twin departure lounges, kitted out in corrugated iron, primary-coloured booths, fishing nets and acres of planking.
Every surface is covered with folksy gewgaws, inspirational Gump quotes and replica memorabilia. But the smiles from the staff are genuine, and service comes with proper Southern-style pep, including whoops and claps from the posses of waiters who pounce on anyone celebrating a birthday.
The huge laminated menu offers 101 varieties of breaded seafood, plus a vast range of sandwiches, tacos and burgers. But the focus is on shrimp – shrimp gumbo, Cajun shrimp, Shrimp New Orleans, coconut shrimp (their shrimp, to be clear, is what we Brits call prawns). There's a Deep South theme, and many of the dishes reference the film, such as the enticing 'Bubba's After the Storm Bucket of Boat Trash'.
We try to cast our net wide, but dredge up mostly turkeys. Calamari bites, heavily coated in peppery, KFC-style batter, taste mainly of the stale oil they've been cooked in. The few stubborn prawns lurking in a skillet of mac'n'cheese have obviously been on a long and stressful journey.
Lobster rolls are about to have a moment in London, thanks to the Goodman group's Smack Lobster, where for £7.50 you can score a brioche-style sub loaded with lobster meat, mayo and adventurous fixings. Here, for more than double that price, you get a squelchy paste of seafood, like lobster-flavoured yogurt, in a mouth-drying, industrially sweet roll.
Even nastier is chipotle-crusted tilapia (£15.75), a mushy heap of indeterminate white fish loaded with some kind of paste reeking of garlic and onion powder. The only decent thing we eat is the 'hand-breaded' Southern-fried shrimp which comes as part of 'Forrest's seafood feast'. Along with the worst atrocity of the meal, hush pups, little battered bites which evoke cat food and that bit of the beach where the sewage pipe runs off.
Forrest famously said that life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get. Well whatever you do, don't get either of the chocolate-themed desserts here. The brownie is as cloying and pasty as fudge icing, and the chocolate chip sundae is rejected for being too sweet – by an eight-year-old.
The soft drinks, too, are sickly. The young couple near us order theirs in flashing glasses. But their lunch goes wrong, and the girl collapses, sobbing and keening, while their light-up glasses flash poignantly. Perhaps the only aspect of our meal which authentically captures the unsettling tone of the film.
Bubba Gump must be the worst place in London to bring someone you're planning to break up with. It's all about Fun, with its ping-pong-bat drinks menus and flipover car plates for summoning a waiter. It's also overpriced. And mean; glasses and tableware are plastic, and the horrible coffee is served with UHT milk.
We try not to catch anyone else's eye as we leave. No need to buy a souvenir at the gift shop: the taste of garlic powder and stale oil will last long enough. We'll also remember our visit through the new threat it has introduced to our parenting repertoire; behave yourself or we'll take you back to Bubba Gump.
Ambience (for a child's party) *****
Ambience (for a break-up) *
Trocadero, Coventry Street, London W1 (020-3763 5288). Around £30 for two, without wine or service
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