As the chain of mid-range Italian restaurants run by star TV chef Jamie Oliver goes into administration, the reactions will be mixed. Some may mourn the closure of these restaurants, which offered a veneer of breezy cool and authentic “Italianness”. But, ultimately, sales weren’t high enough to keep them afloat.
For “foodies” there is something a bit naff about a chain restaurant. They may well smugly roll their eyes at the bottles of olive oil with Jamie’s friendly face staring at them encouragingly from the label and reach instead for something more “authentic”.
But chain restaurants are as authentic to the British food world as the inns and taverns of the 18th century. While Jamie’s Italian and a number of other mid-market chain restaurants are closing down, history tells us that the chain restaurant in its different guises will remain for many years to come.
Like the inns of the 18th century, chain restaurants fulfil people’s basic need to be fed and so offer a commercial opportunity. With the rise of the middle class in the 19th century that had cash to burn, there came new markets for cooks – and new opportunities to transform eating out from a biological necessity to a leisure activity in its own right.
The first major British chain restaurant was the much-loved Lyons Cornerhouse. The founders of Lyons opened their first tea house in 1894, and the chain of Cornerhouses began in 1909, lasting until well into the 1970s. These respectable restaurants were welcomed by the British public who were hungry for eateries that were accessible both financially and culturally.
Where the elegant restaurants of the Victorian era could be intimidating to the lower middle classes, Lyons Cornerhouses were easier to navigate, with simple, English-language menus (unlike the elegant French menus of pricier venues) and familiar dishes. Even with all the familiarity, there were still exotic flavours, such as their weekly curry nights.
Like Jamie Oliver, Lyons also had an elegant dining restaurant which operated separately from its mid-priced chain. In Lyons’ case it was the upmarket Trocadero in central London. For Jamie, it was Fifteen in trendy East London, an upmarket restaurant he launched in order to train homeless people to work in the restaurant business.
Ease and safety
Diners at Jamie’s Italian may, like patrons of Lyons, have appreciated the ease and safety on offer from a chain. Jamie’s is not McDonald’s. It looks like a restaurant, has an enticing menu, and waiters come to your table to take your order – and later to check on the progress of your meal. There is an ease, perhaps even an elegance, to this. Like the “nippies” who waited on tables in Lyons’ establishments, staff at Jamie’s Italian were always cheerful and put guests at their ease – you might not know much about balsamic vinegar or wild boar ragout, but it was OK because the staff could guide you to make good choices.
Perhaps Jamie Oliver had a knack that other successful restaurateurs in British history have had – of understanding that when it comes to fine dining many Brits have a bit of an inferiority complex. We want to eat elegantly, but we are worried about who is judging us.
One of the first restaurant critics in the UK, the military man turned journalist, Lieutenant Colonel Newnham-Davies summed this up way back in 1899. In a book chapter on “The Difficulties of Dining” he wrote that “It requires a certain amount of bravery” to ask questions about the menu, and order a truly first-rate dinner in a London restaurant.
The great chef of the late 19th century, August Escoffier invented a formula to help nervous dinners at the Savoy: he would meet with them in the afternoon and compose a menu to suit their needs and make them proud. He kept a record of each meal served, to spare diners the embarrassment of ordering the same dinner twice. At Jamie’s Italian the service was less bespoke, but your possible anxieties were anticipated and averted by the cheerful and knowledgeable staff.
Why, then, has Jamie Oliver had to call in the administrators? Perhaps there is a point where familiarity leads to contempt. While Lyons kept its Cornerhouses going for nearly six decades, in the 21st century we have more choice and a greater desire for novelty. But the restaurant market is saturated. And there are parallels with the ultimate closure of Lyons, which was due to a mix of overstretch and a downturn in the UK economy – both of which are clearly at play in the demise of the Naked Chef’s 25 restaurants.