I always wanted to write a blog on Pizza Express, though ultimately it would have been just another piece not by AA Gill, using phrases that aren’t as good as Gill’s were, not capturing the essence of Pizza Express in the same way that Gill did. AA Gill’s piece on the chain remains one of my favourite by any food writer. It meanders from Richard Curtis hating him to Desert Island Discs and dates with girls. More importantly it is the perfect eulogy to the group; how it belongs ‘to no particular group or social class; from Buddhist dukes to Methodist lesbian dustman’, and how it is ‘a sort of gastronomic post-modern version of The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special’. I miss him and I’ve never met him, unlike a friend of mine who once shared a hot tub with him in Dubai. Hearing that was one of the very few times in my life I’ve been truly jealous.
If Pizza Express does close following the reported debts, it’s a loss to us all. You know what to expect in a Pizza Express; a cardboard like base for a very average pizza, served on a faux-marble table, washed down with a pint of Peroni priced according to predicted inflation rates in 2080. And that’s any Pizza Express, anywhere. From the one down the road from where I live to the Dubai airport branch; the only variable is the accent of your server. It’s a child friendly, lay-back-and-think-of-England small dent in the wallet for a sizeable feed, packaged up in a black cardboard box. They gave us chilli oil on tables, warm greetings, consistency, and a healthy attitude towards leftovers.
The urge to pile onto a business that has dodgy foundations is an easy one; chains are bad! Good riddance to all! Bullshit. Chains are chains because they have mass appeal. What might not appeal to this food snob might be your ideal dinner, in much the same way your gas mask wearing group sessions of how’s your mother with the neighbours might not appeal to the next person’s nine pm missionary with their life partner. It’s okay to appeal to the middle ground; if our political parties applied the same logic as Café Rouge we wouldn’t be on the brink of civil war. Most people aren’t bothered about how long the dough has proved for, the place of birth of the beetroot, or how many sisters the roast chicken once had. They just want convenience; a place where they can reserve tables, order something for everyone, and split the bill seventy-seven ways if they want to, maybe even using a voucher to subsidise the bill. And who am I to tell them otherwise. I cater for the few people in the world who have the disposable income and lifestyle to make dinner choices based on where is best, not where circumstance dictates what they eat.
For the many low scores I’ve dished out over the years my problem has never been with chains; it’s been about cynicism and value for money. For every new Lounge Group opening serving inedible food there is a Pho committed to affordable quality, whilst I’d take a McDonalds breakfast every day over the shite I experienced from a local farm shop this weekend. I’d personally rather eat a Byron than the peanut butter sugary mess of a burger I ate from an award winner a few weeks back, and give me a Wagamama over Katsu Kitchen every day. Remember the very first Jamie’s Kitchen in this country? Of course you don’t. You’re still too busy trampling over his legacy because he dared mess with your turkey twizzlers. Chains feed the families, the first dates, the work parties, and they mean that I can get a table in my favourite places. For all of these reasons, they aren’t that bad.