“Do you mind if we perch here?” said the chubby little chappie in the blue suit as he and his porky pal – think layered blond hair, quilted gilet, jeans; think Chiswick, or Chester, or Chorleywood – hovered beside our table. “Yes,” I snapped, “yes, I do mind if you ‘perch’ here, it makes you sound like a brace of homicidal birds from The Birds who’re just waiting to pick us clean; however, you may sit here if you like.” They availed themselves of this opportunity and my friend Alex and I returned to discussing the matter in hand: All Bar One. “I’m slightly ashamed of myself,” he confessed, “but I hate it above all other chain eateries.”
“Me too! Me Too!” I cried. “But why do we hate it so much?” I cast a frenzied look around the high-ceilinged room, with its enormous plate-glass windows fronting the busy street, its expanses of exposed wood, its mega-blackboard neatly pseudo-chalked with the menu, its brass-topped tables and bar, its post-office clientele sousing their cares in Chardonnay, its huge earthenware pots from which suspect fronds groped. On the face of it, what wasn’t there to like?
The All Bar One chain started in 1994 with a single outlet in Sutton, Surrey, and has expanded over the years to where there are now 40 of these hybrid gastropub-cum-wine-bar-cum-bistros, from Edinburgh in the north to Portsmouth in the south. Back then, a brace of birds had the idea of opening a joint that was appealing to lone women who found pubs dark and intimidating – hence the trademark big windows, which afford female wine-bibbers a cloak of lightness, while allowing those passing by to check out the interior. Alex, who over the years has shinned up the moisturised pole to become editor of a major British men’s style magazine, knew all about All Bar One’s feminist credentials, but . . .
“I just can’t help it – maybe it’s a snob thing.”
In my case there was no maybe at all: it’s definitely a snob thing. Moreover, All Bar One was arguably the vanguard for all the banal Slug and Lettuce, Pitcher and Piano uglifications that have smeared their corporate slime across Britain’s high streets.
I stalked off between the high tables equipped with highchairs – an import from US sports bars that has no real function unless there’s a screen somewhere in the mid-distance showing NFL playoffs. That there isn’t at All Bar One is at least one thing to be thankful for. A sign directed me to the “LAVATORIES”, a term I haven’t heard spoken for years, although my late mother used to insist that it was the acme of U, as opposed to the horrifically non-U “toilet”.
This further pretentiousness galled me, and in the lavatory itself someone had left a full pint glass of greenish-amber fluid beside the commode in one of the stalls.
I hoped that this was an ironic comment on the relationship between beer and urine.
Back at our table, Alex had been served with his supper. The menu at All Bar One is capacious: taking in breakfast, specials, fresh from the grill etc, there are scores – if not hundreds – of items. Moreover, each of these items is a sentence in and of itself, complete with entire descriptive clauses, active and passive verbs, adjectives and even adverbs.
This laborious menu prosody documents a cuisine that sounds not so much like a fusion – but a car crash: Sesame tempura chicken fillet served with cucumber salad and a soy & wasabi dipping sauce, or indeed, grilled sea bass fillets with a spiced red lentil, potato and butternut squash ragu served with Asian-style pesto – which is what Alex had opted for, while I risked the tiger prawn linguine with a ginger, lime, saffron & smoked paprika cream.
It was an intimidating list of ingredients that suggested a dish of uncompromisingly strong flavour – not so much piquant as pokey. But I needn’t have worried. It turned out that there was a reason for the highchairs, because both our dishes were utterly, butterly tasteless. Alex’s orangey pulp of a ragu even looked like baby food, and he did it childlike justice by picking at it for a while, then setting his fork down. As for my linguine, a proper menu listing would’ve been: thawed prawns throttled by tasteless pasta. Nevertheless, I ate it all with gusto – after all, there’s a fine line between hatred and love. And if you’re a late bird like me you’re best off settling for anything that looks even vaguely wormlike.