I was going to write about the Fray Bentos individual steak and kidney pudding this week, which isn’t so much a meal as a world entire, but then there was this . . . incident. And so it is I return once more to Pizza Express, and gladly.
I’ve animadverted on this particular purveyor of farinaceous discs in this space several times already, but feel no compunction in returning, doglike, to the colloidal matter which, let’s face it, looks like vomit. Why? Because I’m Homo pizza-expressus if I am anything: not only have I eaten at this chain for as long as I can remember, but I’ve also raised four strapping children on its nosh. The last time I crunched the thin-crusty numbers, I calculated I had paid for several football fields’ worth of Margheritas, Venezianas and American Hots – and although I’m not going to do it again, let me just state for the record: you owe me, Pizza Express – truly you do.
What made the incident so very galling is that after a dip in attendance now that my kids’ palates have grown a tad more sophisticated, I’ve resumed dining there regularly. Why? Its Soho 65 pizza (on a gluten base) satisfies all my pernickety dietary requirements, and the decor – two parts constructivist to one of the Amalfi coast – is easy enough on the eye. True, I never enter a Pizza Express and think, “Wow! What a show-stopper!” But by the same token, I seldom do so and then speedily retreat because it’s an utter shithole.
Take the Pizza Express in Langham Place, just south of Broadcasting House and cheek by jowl with a branch of Byron. I’ve taken to eating there on Mondays, because that’s when I get my fundament greased by Doctor Wong of Wimpole Street. The place is a symphony of pale wood and pale wood-laminate, so, as a dynamic media professional (who requires regular fundament-greasing), I’m right at home there. So at home that I think nothing of puffing away gently and discreetly on my electronic cigarette.
The other lunchtime I was doing just this when the manager appeared and peremptorily informed me: “You’re not allowed to do that here.” I, naturally enough, asked why, and she replied: “It’s company policy.”
Well, surely, a bullish fellow such as me can be forgiven for reacting to this red flag. “Yes,” I snapped back, “it may well be company policy, but it isn’t against the law, and I’m not at all sure it’s legally enforceable – so why is it company policy?”
Anyway, I’ll spare you any more of the back-and-forth; suffice to say I wasn’t very successful in conveying this distinction to the no doubt harassed and underpaid manager who was, after all, only doing her job. The upshot of the incident was that I, considerably aggrieved, did not stop, and she, considerably aggrieved, reported me to some Higher Authority. (I picture a sort of giant Arcimboldo figure, its cheesy features composed of many and varied pizzas.)
I know this, because the next time I popped in I was bearded by another manager. “I need to talk to you,” he said, “because you were abusive to my colleague the last time you were in.” I cavilled at this: “‘Abusive’ is an overstatement. ‘Forthright’ would cover it.”
“The thing is,” he pressed on, “it’s against company policy to use electronic cigarettes . . .”
Again: I’ll save you the repeat-order of dialogue. Once I’d established I wasn’t going to be forcibly exiled from the mozzarella Eden, I engaged more fully with the manager, and he conceded that, no, he had no idea as to the whys and wherefores of this policy.
“All your colleague had to do,” I said, “was give me a reason, and I would’ve complied right away. I’m sure you, in your work, have to do all sorts of stuff that’s ‘company policy’ but which you think is utter bullshit.”
Somewhat hesitantly he concurred, and that is how we left it, after I’d further mollified him by conceding that I could be “a bit of an arsehole at times” (just ask Dr Wong).
And it’s true: I can be. I would estimate that 99 per cent of the time I am completely civil to people in the service industries, and at least 50 per cent of the time I’m a heavy tipper. (Ask Nick Lezard if you don’t believe me: I’ve sat across restaurant tables from him, settling the bill, and watched his mouth gape in disbelief as I bestow on the waiter pretty much Nick’s own weekly wage.)
Yet there are certain things that do drive me completely spark-a-loco. Company policy is one, and the way that baristas nowadays ask you for your name before frothing your coffee, so they can inscribe it on the cardboard cup. Yes, yes, I do understand the practicalities of making several sweet slops at once, yet there is still something so intrusive about it that I always quibble – and the form my quibbling takes is to reply: “Hitler, my name is Hitler.”
Possibly the biggest surprise my life has to offer is how compliant 99 per cent of baristas are with this bizarre (and possibly abusive) request, obligingly scrawling the hateful designator without any cavilling whatsoever. I’ve various theories about why this should be so, but on balance my suspicion is that the reason for their compliance is quite simple – it’s company policy.