Restaurant chain Little Chef inspires a big amount of love
I took a long car journey this week to Surrey and, while in a soulless service station on the M25, had a pang of nostalgia for Little Chef.
Service stations today are like aircraft hangars: huge buildings fringed with fast food outlets with a central dining area which forces you into close contact with the kind of people you'd generally cross the road to avoid.
A few weeks ago, Little Chef closed 67 of its failing restaurants and announced it would be putting the remaining outlets through 'a pre-pack administration to offload a number of toxic leases.'
I don't know what that means because I only registered the words 'pre-pack' and 'toxic' for some reason I can't put my finger on.
Personally, I blame Heston Blumenthal. In 2008, the Patron Saint of Mental Food That Looks Good On Telly But That You Probably Wouldn't Choose To Eat On The M11 set about revolutionising the Little Chef menu with some 'blue sky thinking' and 'taste explosions' all within a budget of �6 per head.
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Predictably, Blumenthal's ideas were so mesmerisingly insane that no one in their right mind, even Little Chef customers, wanted to eat them.
They didn't want lamb thyroid hotpot with oysters or smoked salmon and scrambled egg cooked in a bag of Lapsang Souchong tea, they wanted the Olympic Breakfast. Or the gigantic teacake. And then the lolly.
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Let me nail my colours to the mast: I love Little Chef. Without it, the world would have been a darker place, especially on the A11 at Attleborough, where its fluorescent lighting was the only sign of human habitation for about 15 miles until its untimely closure.
Although concerned to hear of the chain's plight, I remain quietly confident that Little Chef will survive – after all, he has already seen off the Happy Eater and sent its deeply disturbing mascot (a livid red, dead-eyed Pacman) packing in 1995.
Even without the logos, you could always tell your Happy Eaters from your Little Chefs by the presence of pollution-caked play equipment bolted to a piece of unforgiving tarmac outside the former. It was here that your kids could choke down the passing fumes of 10,000 lorries while you ate the very antithesis of a good meal.
Little Chef, on the other hand, needed no such gimmicks. If you were lucky, you got a picture and some stubby, germ-laden crayons with which to colour it in.
Today, the illustration of the Little Chef is the kind of thing children are asked to look at with cold hatred before taking part in a Jamie Oliver-inspired cookery lesson involving vegetables they will later refuse to eat.
A visit to a Little Chef was the highlight of any long journey by car, a time when you could sit and argue with your family in comfort and marvel at the strange things on sale in the ladies toilets.
Chewable toothbrushes, chocolate condoms, garishly-packaged intimate wipes: it was like a Hamley's toy store for the slightly grubby or the next stage of Heston's menu.
I ate breakfast on January 1 2000 at Little Chef in Acle having worked through the night and drawn the shortest of short straws: ringing in the new millennium in Thetford.
I once had a boyfriend who – and for once I am not employing artistic licence – took me to a Little Chef for a meal on Valentine's Day.
We sat at a table by the window where we gazed out on a sea of traffic, an electricity pylon and some trees stripped to the bark by pollution while we ate fried things – it was like a BBC4 documentary or a Mike Leigh film.
We are no longer together. He was the one that bought me a whisk as a present, too. And ran off with a lesbian. And sold my TV to pay his rent – in comparison, the meal at Little Chef constituted our honeymoon period.
I realise that people like me, who merely feel nostalgic about Little Chef rather than actually getting off my backside and going there for a Jubilee Pancake and a free read of the Daily Express, are the ones to blame for the restaurant's decline.
I hereby promise that on my next big journey, I shall visit a Little Chef, where they don't tell you when to eat breakfast, where a single, planet-sized teacake can sustain you for 1,000 miles, and where my daughter ate her first ever fried egg.
You can't buy memories like that. But you can still get a free lolly at Little Chef, and in these dark days of recession, you can't look a gift horse in the mouth.