My last greasy spoon review was of a roadside cafe off the A4 in Maidenhead, which is owned by an entrepreneur, Harry Patel. Today’s greasy spoon review is of a trial concept food outlet at the oldest motorway services area in the U.K., which is owned by a multinational firm whose British subsidiary alone turns over £200 million a year:
In 2012 there’s complexity in the world of greasy spoons, and, as discussed in the last post, “greasy spoons” are no longer really greasy. It’s a term that’s evolved. Likewise, in my mind, Watford Gap Services has now evolved, too. And to explain its evolution properly, I am going to subject all of us to the restaurant reviewing/Watford Gap Services equivalent of a common punishment set by a former Math(s) teacher: “write 1,000 words on the inside of a ping-pong ball.”
Repeat: This post is not for the faint-hearted. So if your attention span is at all affected right now, I’d suggest you come back another time or never. The most engaging blog posts tend to be shorter, I know, but this is my own website and occasionally I like to break the rules.
Just like the town of Slough, Watford Gap Services is associated with the mundane in the imagination of most Brits. Marking the divide between the affluent South of the country, and the North, it’s the sort of place Basil Fawlty would have avoided like the plague, with all his anxieties about being seen to be in the right place, with the right people, and reading the right newspaper.
These days most Brits have realised there’s no such thing as the right newspaper, and that there’s no such thing as normal, or mundane, really, when it comes to a motorway service station or anything else. Like most things such places are largely dependent on what one chooses to make of them, and only boring people get bored. Nevertheless I remember my dad driving down the M1 from Middlesbrough to South London in the 1980s, on the way home from visiting my paternal grandparents when I was a child, and mum insisting that I “hold it in,” if I possibly could, until we got home to Croydon, rather than risk stopping to even urinate at Watford Gap Services. Never mind eating there. So it’s a place that has always loomed large in my imagination. Perhaps as the Southern child of parents who crossed the North/South divide to take advantage of the opportunities afforded them by the baby boom, Watford Gap Services may have served, like many other things, as a focus for our family’s class anxieties when I was growing up.
Watford Gap Services is named after a geographical feature in the Northumberland landscape. Although if you Google the term the only results that will come up for a while are to do with the service station. The first motorway service area in the U.K., Watford Gap Services opened in November 1959, the same year Alaska was admitted to the United States as the 49th state, and Watford Gap Services is now run by Roadchef, a British roadside service area business owned by the Delek Group, which was established in 1951 by the Israeli government as the first Israeli business to own and operate a chain of gas stations. The Delek Group is controlled by Yitzhak Tshuva, who is number 683 on this year’s list of Forbes billionaires, and who was estimated to be worth $1.9 billion as of March 2012. In addition to Watford Gap Services, Tshuva has also owned the Plaza Hotel in New York City, and I look forward to reviewing the cooked breakfast over there at some stage.
I doubt very much whether Harry Patel, the entrepreneur in Maidenhead, is pulling down as much from selling Mega Breakfasts at the Square Deal Cafe as Mr. Tshuva is making out of Watford Gap Services. Mr. Patel’s interest in the Square Deal Cafe is private, of course, and I’ve not looked at the stock reports for Roadchef yet, so it’s highly possible that a prestigious site like Watford Gap Services could be a loss leader for the Roadchef group.
Most importantly for our purposes: How do Mr. Patel’s and Mr. Tshuva’s cooked breakfasts compare?
Well, they’re about the same. Mr. Patel’s breakfast is a little less focused on presentation and a little more on the mingling of flavours on the plate. Mr. Tshuva’s breakfast looks cleaner on the plate — right down to those little non-drip packets of HP sauce. But they both deliver in the taste department.
Watford Gap is clean these days, and given its captive audience—there aren’t too many more options before you hit London heading Southbound on the M1—it offers surprisingly good levels of service, not to mention automated massage chairs near the bathrooms for a few quid. As a pioneering service station Watford Gap Services is serving as a trial space for the Fresh Food Cafe, a self-branded cafe created by Roadchef, which is being run at Watford Gap Services alongside another Roadchef cafe, the Hot Food Co. If the Fresh Food Cafe finds a market, it will be rolled out at other Roadchef operations. If not, then it’s back to the Hot Food Co.
Voting with our mouths on a Friday morning my dining companion and I went for two large cooked breakfasts for £7.99 each, which I assume came from the Hot Food Co. side of the Fresh Food Cafe’s menu. If we’d been in a healthier mood, though, the Fresh Food Cafe does a nice selection of fresh fruit, good-looking pastries and “greek yoghurt,” which I would imagine slips down a treat as you’re reading MORE Magazine.
I do hope there’s a market for the Fresh Food Cafe, if only because I like to be around healthier, better-looking people and options while I’m gorging myself on a full English breakfast. Unfortunately I do wonder whether others are so desperate to be reminded that there are healthier ways to live and eat, particularly when they’ve only pulled in for a pee and something sustaining to stuff into their pie-hole before driving on. For example, as we pulled into the car park/parking lot at Watford Gap Services a nice man was feeding his two rescued Staffordshire Bull Terriers tinned dog food from the back of his car while smoking, and a troupe of young soldiers pulled up in a minibus to visit the McDonald’s. There weren’t too many yoga moms hanging around demanding freshness of any kind, for whatever reason. Still, I wish the Fresh Food Cafe luck in pushing the envelope.
Only discovering after our visit that the Fresh Food Cafe is a prototype restaurant explains the zealous reaction of the station’s duty manager to my taking photographs. Even though I explained to her that I simply like to review restaurants on my blog, she asked me to delete one of the images I’d shot, as it had been “taken on private property,” and I did so for the sake of convenience, before departing without discussing the other four presented here. I’d like to think she suspected me of being involved in industrial espionage.
Normally I ask permission before shooting any pictures for these quick hit restaurant reviews, but I couldn’t believe such a busy service station — where people had their smartphones out and were snapping pictures before I started — would have a problem with anybody taking pictures inside. As an investigative journalist in the U.S. I was threatened with jail and on one occasion, deportation, albeit by somebody whose mental health was probably compromised, for taking pictures on both public and private property, but nobody ever once asked me to delete an image I’d already captured. Without going into the background I politely asked the station’s duty manager to explain the legal justification behind her request. She said she would prefer to telephone her boss, and rather than engage in a lengthy discussion my dining companion and I decided to leave. But I’d be interested to hear from British media lawyers about the legal issues presented in this instance. Unless of course I hear, first, from attorneys representing the Delek Group, in which case you’ll probably see this post change of its own accord because ultimately I’m a lover. Not a fighter.
Tell ‘em what they’ve won, Bully…
Fresh Food Cafe, Watford Gap Services, M1 Northumberland
Stars out of five: ****
Nearest tube station:
Reservations? I couldn’t see a maitre’d but you never know. Probably best to just drive up and see if they have a table, although I suspect bank holiday weekends get a little crowded.
Veggie catered for? Yes, and in considerable variety.
Bill per person? £10 unless you are looking to destroy yourself.