Column: August 24, 2011

I HAVE spent a bit of time on the road recently. I won’t go into details but it involved buckets, spades, deckchairs and knotted handkerchiefs.

In any case, I spent a lot of time in the sort of roadside dining establishments where the menus are laminated. This is just as well, as there is a high risk of vomiting on them. Not because of the food, which is uniformly wholesome and tasty, but because of the bumptious tone in which the menu is written.

I will give you a flavour. The following tsunami of magic guff is the blurb for fish and chips . . .

“Do we need to describe the crispy batter? Or go into detail about the piping-hot chips, the Birds Eye garden peas, the wedge of lemon or your essential slice of bread and butter? Thought not.”

Yes. “Thought not, but we’re going to anyway. Because we have to fill in this gigantic, door-sized menu somehow.”

I do not understand the target audience of this painful rubbish. If you have never heard of fish and chips, I imagine this might have a marginal use. But the final, smug “Thought not” is almost designed to make that diner think, “I feel an idiot for never having heard of this dish. I cannot order it in case I make a dreadful faux pas. Actually, looking again, I am not keen on the idea of eating the eye of a bird, either.”

My favourite entry in the Menu of Doom was for scampi and chips. It was fairly straightforward until it went off the rails spectacularly…

“Whole-tail scampi in breadcrumbs – sustainably sourced, of course . . . and served with chips and Birds Eye garden peas. Don’t forget to squeeze your wedge of lemon over it.”

I wonder again at whom this menu is aimed – perhaps there was an incident. Maybe somebody paying his bill at the till next to the lollipops was inconsolable after remembering he hadn’t squeezed his wedge of lemon over his scampi. Maybe it was more serious than that. Maybe it was more like this . . .

A LITTLE CHEF, THE BACK OF BEYOND.

DINER: Waitress, I require a quantity of sugar, some water, ice and a glass.

WAITRESS: Certainly, sir.

DINER: And a lemon squeezer.

WAITRESS: Sir?

DINER: You stupid woman! You have given me a lemon wedge. I had absolutely no idea what to do with it as I am a cretin. So I asked all my friends on Facebook, and apparently if life gives one lemons, one is obliged to make lemonade.

WAITRESS: I think you might have the wrong end of the stick. Allow me . . .

DINER: What have you done?! You have accidentally got lemon juice on my scampi, no doubt ruining it. I am going to sue you and the little chef after whom this establishment is named. Antony Worrall Thompson, probably.

DINER STRIPS OFF, RUNS AROUND RESTAURANT NAKED, SETS FIRE TO CURTAINS AND RACK OF TERRIBLE BOOKS.

The worst thing is, the Little Chef menus have actually raised their tone in recent years. Previously, fish and chips, scampi and chips, and steak and ale pie were “fish ‘n’ chips”, “scampi ‘n’ chips” and “steak ‘n’ ale pie.”

That is right. Somebody, somewhere, in Little Chef Towers, or, more likely, in a marketing “break-out area” full of people who would rather be seen on a park bench with a bag of sweets next to Gary Glitter than in a Little Chef, had decided that the word “and” was too highfalutin for the likes of the chain’s customers.

Thankfully, those days are gone, and Little Chef, under the influence of Heston Blumenthal, a man so born to the role he even sounds like a motorway service station, is improving.

Now all they need to do is stop treating their customers like simpletons. Then we can leave our buckets in the car with our spades.

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