If you have even the tiniest morsel of restaurant connoisseur in you, when you think of chain restaurants it will conjure up images of average food, lacklustre atmosphere and you will expect nothing new. We are faster becoming more snobby about the places we choose to eat, favouring the new boutique bistro down the road that only use organic, local produce over your nearest chain variety.
This is all fantastic, but maybe we are too quick to overlook the good side of these group restaurants. It is now that we have some of the greatest so called ‘chains’ that aren’t just glorified microwave technicians. There’s more imagination with the décor, better quality of food and techniques of cooking and the overall experience is just generally, well, better.
This is in no way to say that we should abandon the independents, quite the opposite in fact, but maybe include the greater groups in your Friday night search.
Food lover and blogger Sarah ‘North West Nosh’ Nosh sums it up perfectly. ‘Some, like Jamie's Italian, do try and cook their food from scratch. The standards are high and they train their staff well. Unfortunately there are some 'microwave' chains, but it's usually all about price - if you can get a jaket potato with chilli for £2.00, then you know it's come out the micro! If you want safe, well cooked food that isn't regionally different - then try out one of the upper end chains - you know what you'll get and the experience should be worth it.’
Obviously there are some quite new ideas such as Hooters opening in every city; the latest breastaurant craze, but if you want a table with a view there are many other options.
Searching out the closest Carluccio’s will mean you have the experience of dining in a celeb chef owned establishment, without the ‘celeb’ prices. Even though every restaurant looks generally the same, it’s as bright and fresh as an Amalfi lemon and the food is consistently great quality. A Loch Fyne in any city will pretty much do the same - they deliver quality fish as fresh as the daily catch in stylish, nautical surroundings – you always know what you’re going to get.
Self confessed gastronome and expert foodie David Crichton says, ‘Yes, a connoisseur will often avoid these places by a large margin, but for the masses they bring that guaranteed product which people like. Also great for families as most places cater for everyone. Chains range from fast food to top end bistros, the difference being at the high end all of their products seem to be differentiated. Just look at Piccolino for example.’
Group restaurants have now caught onto the idea that what diners are looking for is something special, different and as good to look at as it is to eat. There are now some great chain restaurants that wouldn’t necessarily make you feel you were eating in one – boutique feel surroundings and a significant raise in food quality.
Here, in no particular order, is a list of the top 10 UK restaurant groups to delight the senses.
What: Italian born Antonio Carluccio opened ‘Carluccio’s’ Italian food shop in 1991, which expanded to a café in 1999 (first opening in Market Place, London). Today, Carluccio’s operates from over 57 UK locations.
Why: A joint Italian food shop and café serving breakfast to dinner, a little taste of Italy.
2. Loch Fyne
What: Loch Fyne started with one inspirational idea – to grow oysters in the clear, fertile waters of Loch Fyne – and has developed into a cluster of businesses whose success is built on an honest approach to superb quality food.
Why: A wide choice of fresh fish and shellfish, directly from the shores of Loch Fyne. You can also order for home delivery.
What: Owners of Zizzi, Gondola Group, also own Pizza Express and Ask. There are currently 87 Zizzi restaurants in the UK.
Why: Many restaurants boast a masonry oven visible over the counter to the customers, where pizzas are prepared and then baked in the oven to order.
4. Gourmet Burger Kitchen
What: GBK’s philosophy is to create simple burgers that are the best in town and made to order. They have introduced unusual items, such as wild boar, buffalo and venison burgers to their menu. In the UK 23 new stores opened in 2008 which brings the total number worldwide to 50+.
Why: GBK pride themselves on using the freshest, local West Country beef from independent farms to create their burgers.
What: The first Wagamama opened in London’s Bloomsbury in 1992, inspired by Japanese noodle bars and asian flavours, to launch a casual dining experience within a stylish and contemporary setting.
Why: Wagamama quickly developed a reputation for its fresh and delicious food, great service in a minimalist environment. It has since grown into an award-winning global brand.
6. Pizza Express
What: A pizza joint that started from a young boys love of pizza – after a travelling career, Peter Boizot realized there were no pizza places in London, so opened Pizza Express, Wardour Street, London in 1965.
Why: Peter met artist Enzo Apicella two weeks after opening to combine a love of music, unique design and exceptional food.
What: Strada is a group of Italian restaurants which 64 (as of April 2008) restaurants, mostly in the South of England. The group is owned by Tragus Ltd, owner of Café Rouge and Bella Italia.
Why: Strada serves freshly prepared dishes using seasonal produce. The menu offers hand stretched pizzas, fresh pastas, risotto and grilled meat and fish dishes.
8. The Lounges
What: Describing themselves as a ‘home from home’, the lounges are a group of neighbourhood food-led café / bars who also have city centre branches of the Cosy Club restaurant.
Why: Serving burgers, tapas and specials in a comfy environment. Take advantage of the quirky and eccentric interiors.
What: Part of the ‘Individual’ restaurant group, there are 21 Picollino’s restaurants in the UK. A combination of classic décor and fresh, seasonal produce, Italian cheeses, meat and seafood, all delivering pure classic Italian flavours.
Why: They state they visit the regions, meet the producers and are committed to sourcing the best quality ingredients.
10. Brasserie Blanc
What: Raymond Blanc, Michelin starred master chef of the famed ‘Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons’, has opened a group of restaurants ‘Brasserie Blanc’ around the UK. With only a small amount of the group has become part of the Loch Fyne restaurant group portfolio.
Why: A taste of a Michelin starred menu, using regional French food in classic and inspiring locations, such as the Friary Building in Bristol’s Cabot Circus.