Everyone’s been getting a bit exercised of late about the chainification of Greenwich’s restaurants. First it was Nando’s and Frankie & Benny’s down by the pier, then Jamie Oliver, bish bosh, moving into the old Bar du Musée, and now, this very week, comes news that Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ’n’ Biscuits has taken on the lease of the Rivington Grill for its first outlet outside North Carolina. Even so, I wasn’t remotely prepared for what I saw this afternoon, as I stopped to gaze wistfully at the locked door of Ristorante Soteri and wonder, not for the first time, just how special the Chef’s Special cottage pie had really been: a notice taped to the window bearing the unmistakable logo of Mudchute City Farm. Now, I never had Mudchute City Farm down as particularly expansionist; they always seemed perfectly happy over there on the island, serving up Tuscan sausages or vegetable crumble in a slightly ramshackle shed by the goat pens. So the idea that, even as I stood here peering at Signore Soteri’s sadly stripped interior, teams of Gloucester Old Spots might be tugging trolleys laden with seasonal ingredients and locally sourced vegetables through the foot tunnel to a new outpost in Greenwich, right next door to Goddard’s Pies, was a tantalising one.
As I was pondering this, three girls emerged out of the sun.
“Can we ask you some questions?” one of them said. “It’s for school.”
“OK,” I said, shielding my eyes.
“What did you think of the Olympics?” said the same girl, reading from a small strip of paper.
I pondered, trying – and failing – to place her accent.
“I liked them,” I said.
She turned and glared at the girl next to her.
“He says he liked them,” said this second girl to the third, who nodded, and wrote something down on a piece of paper attached to a clipboard.
The first girl turned back to me.
“Are you proud that England held the games?”
“Pleased, not proud,” I said. And I was going to go on to tell her why it’s not really possible to be proud of something you’ve not yourself actually done, in the same way that I’m pleased to be British, and sometimes relieved, but never proud, because proud makes no sense. But she’d already turned to stare silently at the second girl, who was relaying my reply to the girl with the clipboard.
“He’s pleased not proud.”
I shrugged inwardly, and waited for the next question.
“Do you know how much it cost?”
“How much it cost? No, not exactly, I…”
“He doesn’t know,” said the second girl to the third.
The first girl smiled brightly.
“Thank you very much,” she said.
And off they trotted, leaving me staring once more at the poster for Mudchute City Farm. I like the thought of pigs in the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College. Opposite the Old Brewery, perhaps?
I wonder if they were Brazilian, from Rio?
Obviously people have been up in arms about the fact that local residents won’t be able to get into Greenwich Park for the duration of the Olympics. And I’m sure they have a point, but… how about a little sympathy for those of us who were caught on the wrong side of the fence when the gates clanged shut? There I am, happily gambolling about in the rhododendron dell one afternoon, and the next thing I know I’m looking around thinking, “Where’s everybody gone, what’s with the big blue fence, and why is that horse staring at me?”
So, that’s why this blog hasn’t been updated for most of July. I’ve been digging.
Luckily, I soon tapped into Greenwich Park’s mysterious network of underground tunnels and, despite surprise encounters with some dinosaurs, a buried spaceship, and someone who may or may not have been King Arthur (he was asleep, and I didn’t like to wake him – or any of the blokes in armour he was with), managed to make my escape. And what a strange world I found waiting for me outside: a world of totally over-the-top road closures, massively over-staffed stations, and comically over-priced buffets at the Trafalgar (£40? For a buffet? In a pub?). It’s going to take me a few days to digest – all the changes, I mean, not the buffet, which I obviously wouldn’t touch with a three-foot spoon, any more than I’d pay six-fifty for a bit of cheese on toast (to pick from their regular non-Olympic let’s-rip-off-the-tourists bar menu) – but, in the meantime, here are some photos. Clicking on the thumbnails below the slideshow will bring up bigger versions, and informative captions.
Oh, when I got home, I was also surprised to find a letter on the doormat from Greenwich Council explaining that, in order to avoid upsetting Our Olympic Visitors and/or scaring the horses, they’d be emptying our bins in the middle of the night for the next three weeks; and another one, from TfL, saying that if I wanted to go to Lewisham first thing in the morning, I couldn’t. I responded to both these bits of information in the only way that seemed sensible: I rewrote the lyrics to Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman and posted them on the Smoke blog. If you want to sing along, you can find them here: SE10 Binman.
If you don’t… well, I’m not coming to any of your parties. Unless they’re being held at the Trafalgar, and you’re paying.
Since last week, there’s obviously been only one topic of conversation here in Greenwich: the opening of something so outlandishly bizarre and incongruous – something so, frankly, foreign – that most of us, despite the evidence of our own eyes, still can’t really believe it’s been allowed to happen. Ever since the planning application first went in, and we were asked if we had any objections, it’s been hard to take it seriously. This sort of thing was all very well in France, we said to each other, but… in SE10??? The idea was preposterous! Who on earth did they expect to use it? Especially with those prices.
But we were wrong. And so it was that, last week, behind carefully arranged barriers, Café Rouge duly unveiled their new pavement seating area, bringing a little slice of Continental-style café culture to the Royal Borough, possibly in a raffia basket with a small pot of jam.
And… you know what? Good luck to them, I say… because the thought of Greenwich’s Jean-Paul Sartres and Albert Camuses… Camu’s… Camus’s… sitting round small square tables at the bottom of Stockwell Street passionately wrestling with the great philosophical conundrums of our age is one that appeals to me greatly. In these dark days of TOWIE and Fearne Cotton, anything that encourages philosophical wrestling should be encouraged. The topic of debate isn’t important; what’s important is that debate is taking place, whether it’s about personal responsibility, the decline of Western liberalism, or what the point is of TfL telling us in its service updates whether or not either cable car terminal is out of action, given that a cable car with only one functioning terminal is, to all intents and purposes, a kite.
And, of course, this culture of debate, this desire to question the true nature of reality, will be infectious. As I passed by the tables this morning, for instance, on my way to get the paper, a stiff-aproned waiter was grimly stabbing some half-deflated red and white balloons with a steak knife – a prelude, I assume, to tying plump new ones on the railings in their stead. But, as he pierced the rubbery skins, one balloon broke free, and – caught by the July breeze – sailed off up Greenwich High Road. The waiter paused, his fist still tight around the knife’s thick shank, and an expression of existential foreboding passed across his face; it was like he was watching his own hopes and dreams slipping out of reach and disappearing, just like that balloon, in the general direction of Deptford Bridge.
A week ago, when they only had tables out on the veranda, I’m sure he’d just have carried on stabbing. He looked the sort.
In other news, they’ve just opened a cable car – I think I alluded to it earlier. And this is also a fantastic development, as it means I can finally visit my relatives in Silvertown.
I wonder if they still sing the old songs?
P.S. For more Greenwich-Café-Rouge-related fun, there’s a small post on the Smoke blog too.
When early inhabitants of Stratford and Walthamstow first paddled their goatskin coracles down the Lea and out into the deep and turbid waters of the Thames, what went through their minds, I wonder, as they warily eyed the squalid huddle of straw-topped huts on the muddy southern shore and saw emerge from within them several dozen squat, hairy trolls brandishing sticks and rocks and rocks-on-sticks? No doubt they simply shook their handsome heads and – after a bit more hunting and gathering in the upcoming Canning Town area – rowed back upstream to their Essex hearths to eat some steak and berries and count their blessings (counting having recently been invented by a short-tempered hunter from Leyton who kept losing track of what he’d gathered).
It seems a perfectly reasonable reaction and, over the generations, such attitudes tend to get encoded in the genes – which is why, when I was growing up in Leytonstone, most people were still of much the same mind about folk from across the water. “South of the river?” they’d murmur with eyebrows raised. “It’s all a bit Millwall over there, isn’t it?”
First impressions, to put it bluntly, are tenacious. Which is why people are currently making such a big hoo-ha about the slew of gaudy new restaurants under construction by Greenwich’s rebuilt pier. Nando’s, Zizzi, Frankie & Benny’s… all these, protestors say, give visitors totally the wrong impression of our town: such eateries should be stuck between World of Leather and a 10-screen multiplex, not blocking the sightlines at a UNESCO World Heritage site. What’s more, they add, whipping their hobby horse into a blinkered frenzy, they’ll draw custom from local independent restaurants.
Well, possibly. But are these people seriously suggesting that a tourist’s first vision of Greenwich, when he or she steps unsteadily off the Thames Clipper, should be not Nando’s or Zizzi but a new waterfront outpost of Green Village or Ristorante Soteri, each containing a solitary sad-faced couple in beige slacks trying to choose between the chef’s special cottage pie or the margherita pizza with salad and chips?
Plus a stall selling tiny frosted cupcakes at £3.50 a pop?
I must admit, I’ve never actually been in a Nando’s. As a vegetarian, I’m not really their target demographic. Our Spanish chums may regard the chicken as a herb and the pig as a garnish but here in the UK, thankfully, vegetarianism still means not eating things that can look up at you with big sad eyes and whisper “why me?” But my carnivorous chums speak very highly of the peri-peri chicken, and apparently the staff are treated pretty decently, so… if I have to spend the rest of my life in a silky cape Fighting Evil (for those who’ve ever wondered about my day-job), I think I’ll give Nando’s a miss and reserve my superpowers for Michael Gove.
I’ve never eaten at a Zizzi either, but I’ve just looked at their menu on-line and it all seems perfectly acceptable, once you’ve remembered that buffalo mozzarella doesn’t actually contain any buffalos. To be honest, it’s probably exactly what you’d want if you’d just had a sixty-minute boat ride from Westminster Pier on which the only refreshments available were Carlsberg and Twix. Just like Pizza Express was exactly what we wanted when we ended up in Guildford the other week and needed somewhere decent but efficient that would let us get to the theatre by 7 p.m. (I’ve no idea if there were sit-ins and effigy burnings when Pizza Express opened opposite St Alfege’s, by the way – it was before my time. My suspicion is probably not, though, because people like Pizza Express. Pizza Hut, of course, wouldn’t have done at all; if Pizza Hut had moved in, irate locals would have been hurtling down Crooms Hill in 4x4s to chain themselves to the salad station before you could say “sorry, you want to stuff what in my crust?”)
Oh, obviously it would be lovely if the tourists all piled into our local restaurants and bars; but then it would be lovely if our local restaurants and bars offered something worth piling into. Peter de Wit’s café may well be a Greenwich institution, for instance, but advertising an all-day-breakfast in your window makes little sense if, at 2 p.m., the sign on your door says SHUT. Obviously the great thing about being independent is that you have a perfect right to be as bloody-minded as you want, and to pull down the blinds at the very point in the day at which people most want to eat, just as you have a perfect right to ban astronauts or people wearing wimples, but… it’s clearly not a business model that the big chains have been tempted to emulate.
Which is why they’re big chains and not an endless source of frustration and bewilderment.
But, equally, we all have a right to protest, so… please, dear endlessly miffed people of Greenwich, rage on, rage on. Though I still feel that objecting to the coming of Nando’s by sacrificing a chicken in the grounds of the National Maritime Museum makes you look a bit, well, too much in touch with your pagan side.
But, then again, I am from across the water.