Chains. They’re shit aren’t they? Pumping out the same mass produced gastro-tat from John O’Groats to Land’s End.
Meanwhile, their poor mistreated minimum wage staff toil in thankless Dickensian obscurity as their tyrannical David Icke-ian reptilian overlords swim through mountains of tax-free offshore cash (probably).
But are the restaurants themselves really shit, or are we all just becoming insufferable snobs?
As always the truth lies somewhere between the two.
Some are unquestionably godawful; I spent two hours in a Harvester in Liverpool last year, and I’m pretty sure I’d have had more fun wired up to a car battery in an orange jumpsuit at Guantanamo Bay.
Equally, I’d be more inclined to carry a live, highly venomous box jellyfish in my pocket than the quasi-mythical Nando’s Black Card, a surer mark of beelzebub than a pair of horns and a birthmark in the shape of Ozzy Osborne.
Meanwhile, Frankie & Benny’s is where relationships go to die, spending your birthday at Bella Italia is essentially a cry for help, and if an actual French person set foot inside a Cafe Rouge, they’d burst into flames with disgust.
But amongst the dross, some chains aren’t so bad, at least in terms of the food they crank out.
Aside from their Skeletor-esque approach to labour relations, I have no beef with Pizza Express on the condition that there’s a voucher deal on. Naturally I’d eat my own arm before paying full price though, possibly with a side of doughballs.
Ditto for GBK – a handful of free monkey nuts does not make a chip-less mass-produced burger worth ten bucks, but they knock out some solid fare apart from that monstrosity with beetroot and egg on it.
So far so adequate. But chains don’t have to be just ok. They can be good. Enter: The Stable.
Down on the farm
The Stable is a chain done well – or at least the three branches I’ve visited have all been pretty good.
The number of Stables is somewhere in the early teens now – a long way from its humble beginnings in (surprise, surprise) a renovated stable in Dorset.
Their schtick is best described as West Country chic, but there’s an emphasis on keeping it local when it comes to their branches – there’s plenty of cheese and meat from the right side of the Severn Bridge on the Cardiff menu, and they’ve renamed a few of the more generic pizzas to make us feel at home (in Bristol the Cymru Clucker is the curiously titled Clifton Suspender, which sounds a bit unsavoury to be honest).
So what exactly do they ‘do’? Well, to loosely paraphrase quasi-fascist industrialist uber-bastard Henry Ford, you can have whatever you like as long as it’s pizza, or pie. And what else do you need really? As long as you like pies or pizzas (and if you don’t like either – honestly, what is the point of you?)
And the pizza is good. Really good. But here’s the thing when it comes to writing about pizza. It’s really, really hard. You all know exactly what it tastes like. It’s bloody pizza. Suffice to say, the base is light and crispy and the toppings are fresh and plentiful; the Fiery Dragon – Naga chilli, spicy pork sausage and mushroom with plenty of onion and garlic – was no slouch, even if it wasn’t quite the nuclear option I’d hoped for in terms of heat.
A really solid hot and spicy pizza, streets ahead of anything churned out by the mega-chains. Plus a cheeky scattering of fresh basil added a bit of unexpected freshness to go along with the heat.
I also managed to nab a slice of @scruffyDuke‘s Cymru Clucker – again, great quality ingredients – chicken, peppers, mushroom, mozzarella. Can’t go wrong really, especially with a bit of added chilli oil.
I am (not) a cider drinker…
There is one slight obstacle standing in the path of me raving about the Stable, and it’s really not their fault. The problem is cider. I just sort of… don’t like it. A bit of a problem when a place sells All of the Cider™.
I can hear the sound of furious Bristolians sharpening their pitchforks as I write this, but it just isn’t my thing. To paraphrase the lady with the funny hat from 4 Non-Blondes this time, I have tried. Oh my god how I’ve tried (speaking as an alumnus of the Ross-On-Wye Cider Festival class of 2012-2015).
Thankfully there’s a couple of reasonable quasi-craft beers on the menu too, including Frontier Lager. Cider lovers will be absolutely spoilt for choice though – I’ve had it on good authority that you can’t beat a pint of Thundering Molly, and there’s cider flights on offer too.
Horses for courses
In short The Stable gives you everything you want from a chain; reliable, uncomplicated and enjoyable grub at a sensible price, made with top notch ingredients. Plus, because it’s not a chain chain, you don’t feel like a giant unethical bastard for eating there.
It’s a bit like Buck Rogers by Feeder, to make a (grossly outdated) musical analogy; it’s probably not your favourite song, and there’s nothing hugely original about it – but you’d have to be a proper grumpy bastard not to enjoy when it comes on in the pub.
And as much as I love wanky artisanal hipster food – and I really love wanky artisanal hipster food – sometimes all you want is a good pizza while you kick back with your mates for a pint or three. Of beer. Not cider. Please.