In the past year, I have visited about 5 Little Chefs and I have generally been very impressed with the food and service received. Most recently, I visited the Little Chef in Popham on the A303, which was the first restaurant to receive the Heston Blumenthal makeover in about 2009. It is still reasonably nice but standards have clearly slipped since Heston stopped monitoring the branch as the restaurant was not very clean and one of the hand driers in the toilets were not working.
The food however, is delicious and has dramatically improved in the last 5 years, the mushroom risotto which I ordered was one of the best I have ever had but the menu has clearly been slimmed down and many of the more expensive Heston inspired dishes removed, which makes sense as the customers of Little Chef expect a cheap and tasty meal. The prices remain extortionate, especially for drinks. A (small - no pot) cup of tea costs £2.10 which considering a cup of tea costs about 10p maximum to make is ridiculous. The mains are also a little expensive, my risotto for example was just over £7 and I felt the portion was too small to deserve this high pricing. All the staff at Popham were very friendly and helpful although my food did take about 30 minutes to come, which considering the restaurant was not overly busy, seemed too long.
Not every resturant is as nice as Popham though. The majority have not been fully updated in 20 years and only about 10 have been converted to the new Heston Blumenthal format which seems strange considering the converted restaurants are much more successful. In the last 10 years, many restaurants have been shut by a variety of owners dropping the number of sites from over 400 in 2001 to 80 today so they are are a rare sight on my journeys however the best locations have been kept. If it was better run, Little Chef could be so much more successful today although it has recently been announced that RCapital are selling the brand so the name may disappear for ever which would be a great shame as the brand has so much promise.
Overall, I would recommend Little Chef as the high quality of its food outweighs the excessive prices and questionable decor and really hope the brand survives and it is bought my somebody who really cares about Little Chef and makes it great again.
We stopped at the Fourwentways Little Chef on a long journey, after difficulties getting into an earlier service station en route. If we hadn't have needed a 'comfort break' we would have passed by [and would have felt better]
Toilets were unimpressive - wet floors, unlockable doors, cobwebs, no soap and highly 'perfumed' in an unpleasant way. The tea was OK, but my other half determined the coffee to be undrinkable, and thought it was probably chicory. The table was sticky, and the staff too busy to get any pleasure from their work, making them look pretty much as miserable as they felt. The bacon butty was OK, and the sauce tray looked good. All in all, in the location it had, the place has plenty of potential, and with good management could be a good service stop-off, but currently, it looks like the staff are disorganised, demoralised and over worked.
On my many trips between Liverpool and Wolverhampton I always stop at the Whitchurch Little Chef for the Olympic breakfast.The staff are always courteous and pleasant and the food is always excellent and I have never waited more than 10 minutes.The toilets are always clean.The only criticism is please get teapots and milk jugs that pour properley.I look forward to many more visits in the future and keep my fingers crossed that the branch is not axed in the latest cost reduction excercise.
I worked in a Little Chef for 5yrs, and have to say they were worst employers I have ever had.
All these complaints of people walking into filthy restaurants with disinterested staff is completely understandable, when on a 'regular' Saturday morning we were only ever allowed 1 chef and 1 waitress to be working. 2 members of staff for the whole restaurant!! Think about the amount of stress these people are under when they have a restaurant full of customers and have to serve all of them, get their drinks, cook their meals, clear their tables, do their washing up, (our dishwasher never worked) take their money, and keep everyone happy with refills etc. This wouldnt be a problem if we were ever allowed the correct amount of staff, but we never were. Leaving all staff run ragged and absolutely knackered. I went 24 days without a single day off over the summer, and often had to do double shifts, 6.00am-10.30pm. And your 'break' involved grabbing a handful of chips from a meal that had been cooked wrongly.
Best before dates were a joke, and were never followed, things were often de-fuzzed before being sent to customers.
The 'incentives' Little Chef ran were unobtainable, and you literally had to ram these things down peoples throats until they final just said 'yes i'll have black pudding' for fear of being disciplined if you didn't sell enough. No matter how many double shifts you covered they didn't care, it was never good enough. I was once told that if I didnt do a shift on my only day off that week that my job would go to someone else.
There was precisely nothing good about this job, customers were understandably rude, and the company did absolutely nothing to help the situation.
I hated working there, and would never eat there.
The food in this little chef is without doubt exceptional,Heston should be knighted,Everthing on the menu is quality products and tastes like it too,All you doom merchants that like to slag off everthing about little chef should try this place,They are in the good food guide now,But then i sappose that wont be good enough for some.
having worked for little chef for 4 years i can truly say this is the worst company i have ever worked for and the rough deal the staff get its little wonder they dont care about there job. if you could take a tour of the kitchen you would not eat there in the last 4 years i have seen mould being scraped off food, out of date food being used, cakes being redated 2-3 times also if you get served a drink that is in a bottle but tipped in a glass before it is served its going to be out of date. The alleged free range eggs is a joke many times we have run out and cheap caged hens eggs are used, also the way the staff are held over a barrel to sell certain items is disgusting, ever wondered why they are so keen to sell you stuff you dont want? thats because the staff can face dismissal for not selling enough!!
the management dont have a clue i have seen many staff driven out to make way for friends and family to be employed, all members of staff are played off against each other so there is constant competition within the staff members to sell the most of a certain item (usually something that they cant sell and on its way out ) some of the equipment is dangerous and hazardous and it is never fixed at norwich little chef the griddle area which contains 2 vats of hot oil is very unsafe and has nearly collapsed and is propped up. the portions are always being cut to save on stock and to prevent management getting disciplined for stock loss, last winter the heating broke and senior management just allowed the staff to wear fleeces instead of getting it fixed never mind the customers that are paying rip off prices for microwave food sitting in a freezing restaurant.
we recently stopped at the little chef on the a14 north bound. The place looked as though a bomb had hit it, the tables that were unoccupied were uncleared. had to wait for a table to be cleared before we could sit. going to the toilet was a minefield of grime, the doors were black with fingerprints (built up over many weeks by the look of it) the hand drier was out of order so toilet paper had been provided as towels, unfortunatly the bin was full so consequently there was used paper all over the floor and the sinks were filthy. we had waited 15 mins and no-one had taken our order so decided to grab a bite and a drink at the garage opposite. NEVER AGAIN
My name is David, and I actively *like* eating at Little Chef restaurants, and find their "chubby chef" logo friendly and welcoming rather than the modern equivalent of a plague marker. I know that this will be a shocking confession to many of you, but bear with me if you would. I'm not going to try to convince anyone that this is the greatest chain of eateries on the planet, since it quite clearly is not - but I *am* going to make the case that some of the criticism the chain has come in for over the years is perhaps a little bit overdone. (Who said, "Like the steaks"?)
The Little Chef brand is one which provokes some surprisingly strong emotions, both positive and negative. For some people the chain of 300 or so roadside restaurants represents an older Britain from the bad old days when the phrase "British food" was still widely used as an insult. For others, it also represents an older Britain, but for them this is in the happier sense of a traditional, community-based society where families eat together at the table and take time to enjoy their food rather than guzzling down sandwiches on the go. Still, they have embraced some welcome new trends: all their eggs are free range, for example.
Being an old-fashioned sort of person myself to a large extent, I generally tend towards the second of those views. There are certainly faults to be found with Little Chef restaurants, but I don't think they are remotely as awful as many people like to make out. My suspicion is that at least some of the unimpressed comments come from those whose last experience of the chain was a run-down and soon-to-be-closed branch in about 1998, and things really have changed since the bad old days when - this is truly astonishing for any restaurant - one branch I visited had completely run out of steak!
Little Chef restaurants tend to have smallish car parks, which does seem rather odd for a chain catering for travellers, so beware! This is a table service chain, but tables are non-booked, so when you go in you have to hang around behind a "Please wait to be seated sign" until there is a free space. Except at the very busiest times, however, this is unlikely to cause any significant delay. You don't seem to get much of a choice where to sit, though I expect that if you made a specific request the staff would do their best to accommodate you. Now that smoking areas are (thankfully) a distant memory it doesn't matter so much anyway. Seating is usually fairly comfortable, on either long sofas or individual chairs.
I generally prefer to order drinks first, to give a little extra time to peruse the menu. The range of beverages is not huge, and concentrates on the usual fizzy-pop-and-coffee selection, though there is a very limited range of alcohol available for those adults who are not driving. (They used not to serve alcohol at all, but clearly there is a demand.) These usually arrive quickly, but it's a good idea not to slurp them down straight away as - the occasional special offer apart - you don't qualify for free refills. You might want to fill in some time by nipping to the toilet, since for the most part these are acceptably clean, if not likely to win awards.
There was a great hoo-ha about the Heston Blumenthal-led makeover of Little Chef a couple of years ago, and the main menu has certainly improved in recent times, though thankfully without losing its traditional qualities. The main meals seem to be aimed mostly at very hungry people - the Mixed Grill in particular is absolutely enormous, although its £13.99 price tag is also extremely hefty for a no-frills eatery like this. Most of the main courses, such as steak and ale pie or all-day breakfasts, weigh in at around the £8 mark - still not cheap, but not quite as ridiculous - and there are some smaller meals such as jacket potatoes for a fiver or so.
This is not a fast food restaurant, and is not the place to come if you are in a hurry - though on a Sunday evening, when little else is open, you may have no choice. I have more than once had to wait a full half hour for a main course, which I do think is a little bit excessive, although 15 to 20 minutes is more common. On the plus side, the service is usually friendly and the food itself is generally very tasty. Little Chef restaurants have always been good at the traditional fry-up type of dishes, but in the past anything that departed from this was variable to say the least. Quality control has definitely been tightened up: for example, last year I had a truly superb lamb shank, easily as good as a decent gastropub's, though disappointingly the current menu (they change slightly with the seasons) does not seem to feature this dish.
I don't often have dessert at a Little Chef, as most of the main meals are extremely filling, but when I have done I have had few complaints. The range of desserts available is not particularly large, and it concentrates on being filling rather than healthy even more than the main menu does - things like sticky toffee pudding and ice cream sundaes feature heavily - but everything I have eaten has tasted more than acceptable. They are relatively inexpensive, however, most coming in around the £4 mark, so a drink and a dessert alone can make a good choice if you are looking for a lighter repast and a rather shorter break.
It's also worth mentioning that a limited range of foods, such as bacon sandwiches and fish and chips, can be bought to take away. I have no experience of this service, which to be honest seems like a tacked-on afterthought, but I suppose it could be useful for some people. A selection of the restaurants are associated (in the same building) with a little coffee shop, and some others with a Burger King. This is nice in that if you like burgers, as I do, it gives you a greater choice of food - but also a little strange in that Little Chef have their own burger range!
Assuming you're dining traditionally, however, you get your bill at the table, but you have to go up to the till to pay it. Most Little Chefs (perhaps all of them by now) have a small shop at this point where you can buy the same sort of things you see in motorway service stations - bags of sweets, road maps, trashy novels etc - though the range is very restricted and the prices can be hair-raising. I would recommend sticking to the core meal service: although that is also nowhere near the cheapest option while out on the road, you can certainly get filled up! For that reason, Little Chef still has a place in this traveller's heart.
Little Chef used to be a British institution and the place which you always looked forward to seeing at the side of the motorway on your long journeys as it offered you an excellent chance for a stop and refreshing drink as well as a good meal to fill you up but unfortunately recent times have seen it in a massive decline.
I used a Little Chef within the last year or so when my wife and I went down to visit her family and we stayed in a Travelodge as the nearest place to get anything other than this was a taxi journey away and so we decided to just give it a chance and get some breakfast. When we went in there were about 7 people in the restaurant and one lady working as the waitress with another in the kitchen.
The food took quite a while to come over to us and did not look that appetising when it arrived but we were both hungry and so went with it and it tasted ok and filled the gap but it was on the way out when we were paying that we got the shock. As we had stayed in the Travelodge we got a discount on our order but the bill stay came in at a small fortune and was certainly far too much for the quality of food on offer.
The restaurant itself felt old and dated and I felt that the staff had been working there all of their lives as they seemed almost resigned to their fate.
- Huge portions
- Restaurants are in desperate need of refurbishment
- Staff seemed fed up
- Poor quality of food
All in all I would say to go to a decent pub for your food needs as you pay less and it is better quality and the chances of it feeling as old and dated as a Little Chef is next to none.
It's very rare I eat in Little Chef as I find the prices to be extraordinarily high for such a basic restaurant chain, considering the meals aren't even anything special I do baulk somewhat at paying restaurant prices for café food. However, a couple of weeks ago my sister received some complimentary vouchers for Little Chef so after shopping we decided to pop in for a bite to eat on the way home.
I wasn't impressed at all, not one little bit. While the restaurant was clean, the food I felt left a lot to be desired and the restaurant was woefully understaffed with the same girl having so many different jobs to do that I felt quite dizzy watching her flying around!
We both ordered a starter, main course and dessert from the main menu. Little Chef also have a breakfast menu which is served until 11am and a children's menu which is available daily.
My prawn cocktail was very nice, I must admit. While small the prawns were juicy and flavoursome, served in a tangy Marie Rose sauce with a slice of brown bread on the side and a small side salad. I thought the dish was equal in quality to any I've had in a pub restaurant, although I don't let this fact blow me away as it's not exactly the height of culinary supremacy to be able to mix some prawns and sauce together and pop it into a bowl!
I have had bad experiences with Little Chef steak in the past so steered clear on this visit, opting for gammon instead. This is where the problems began. The first gammon steak brought to me was so rubbery that I struggled to cut it let alone chew it so I sent it back and asked for another. To give her her dues, the waitress was very apologetic and agreed with me that my meal was completely unacceptable. After a wait of around ten minutes (during which time my sister had finished her meal) another meal was brought over - only it wasn't a new meal, it was the same gammon steak which by now had been almost cremated as the 'chef' (I use the word loosely) tried injecting a little life into it by warming it through a bit more. And before anyone asks how I knew the gammon was the same piece, well, it was elementary my dear Watsons - the piece I had cut out was still missing and there were various score marks on the meat which I had made previously in an attempt to find a bit of edible gammon! Disgraceful and, yes, more rubbery than ever!
I gave up on the gammon and asked the harassed waitress if I could change my order to scampi and chips as I find that's usually a relatively safe bet in most eating establishments. When it arrived it was pleasant enough, rather non-descript in eating out terms and nothing I couldn't have prepared to a nicer standard at home. The meal just felt like it has been too hastily prepared; the scampi was probably frozen and deep fried as needed, the peas weren't of the best quality and while the chips were tasty and fresh they were exceedingly greasy and left unappetising drops of grease on my plate. It was an average scampi meal, that's all.
I'd requested a side order of coleslaw and was pleasantly surprised by this. I had initially been taken aback at a pile of coleslaw costing 95p, but it was worth every penny and as sad as this may seem was actually the highlight of my visit! Large pieces of shredded cabbage, onion and carrot were beautifully married together in a creamy dressing. The dressing had been spiced somehow but I cannot quite put my finger on what the magic ingredient was, although I'm sure I spied some mustard seeds as I was eating so very possibly it was simply a spoonful of this condiment stirred through to create this very yummy side order.
For dessert I went for Bread and Butter Pudding and, like the scampi, this was nice enough but nothing special. It was obviously home made, the problem was that the person who made wasn't terribly skilled in the art of comfort puddings. The textures of the pudding were all good; crispy sugar on top, soggy bread and a creamy sauce, but the flavour simply wasn't as well rounded as it should have been and this left the pudding resembling (flavour wise at least) something taken out of the freezer and reheated.
My sister had Tomato & Basil soup, fish and chips and the same Bread and Butter Pudding as me for dessert. I didn't sample any of her food but she commented several times about how dull and uninspired the fish was and also left a good half of her dessert - which is most unlike my sister as I have very rarely seen her refuse anything sweet in our lives! She did say how tasty the soup was and it certainly looked thick and creamy, perhaps Little Chef should rebrand themselves as 'Starters Our Forte' as this was really the only course they really excelled in during our meal!
It's not even as though Little Chef is a cheap establishment to eat in, in fact it's more expensive even than eating in a nice pub restaurant. Our main meals were around £8 each, the starters roughly £4 and our lacklustre dessert was £3.95. By the time our drinks were added we were faced with a bill of over £40 - and this in what is essentially a greasy spoon with a more pleasing décor! Honestly, we have a pub restaurant locally where we sometimes eat and this costs us just half of this amount for far better freshly cooked food and a much nicer atmosphere.
Speaking of which, isn't the setting of a Little Chef restaurant so, well, sterile? Most branches you go into will all have the same dull neutral colour scheme, the same cheap furniture and practically identical staff - and there are never enough of them working! The waitress during our most recent visit was absolutely lovely, nothing was too much trouble for her and I don't really envisage her working there for much longer. She was openly critical of the way the restaurant was being run and seemed genuinely embarrassed by how appalling my gammon was and the way my complaint was dealt with in the kitchen.
Of course, this review is based on just one visit to Little Chef but honestly I have visited dozens of different branches of the chain over the years and have always been disappointed by the food and also the cost involved with visiting such a run of the mill establishment.
This was the final straw though and Little Chef has now been added to the list of 'life is too short to eat at.....' restaurants I keep in my head.
Prior to last weekend I hadn't eaten in a Little Chef since I was a child but twice in the last week I've found myself staying in a Travel Lodge where the only eating place in walking distance was a Little Chef and so I was a captive audience first at the restaurant at Cambridge Fourwentways and then at the restaurant which is part of the Oxford Peartree Interchange service area.
On walking into each of the restaurants I was pleasantly surprised. Both restaurants were light and airy with friendly and welcoming staff who seemed pleased to help. The seating areas were basic but comfortable with some bench seating and other just basic tables and chair seating and there was no problem with us moving furniture about to better accommodate our party
The food whilst basic was enjoyable. The breakfast menu contained the standard cooked breakfast, breakfast rolls, smoked haddock and selection of cereals etc. The restaurant staff were happy to take special orders exchanging one item for another and no extra charge was made for this.
The general menu contained what I would consider standard pub/diner fare - lasagna, burgers, bangers and mash, jacket potatoes etc. The desert selection was more varied with a particular favourite in our group being pancakes.
The restaurant at Oxford in particular was well set up for families with a plentiful supply of high chairs and a selection of toys to keep kids occupied while you wait.
Waiting times were not too long. On the one occasion that food took a while to arrive we were warned that we could be waiting up to half an hour before we ordered and in fact the food arrived much more quickly than this.
For me the two major downsides were the toilets which left a little to be desired in terms of cleanliness and something that is perhaps to be expected with such a captive audience, the price. A two course meal and a couple of drinks cost £16 with a basic breakfast costing £8.
Overall better than I expected.
Having stayed at the Travelodge in Adlington Cheshire the Little Chef is next door. So my husband and I decided to have a full cooked breakfast before our departure. We walked across the car park and entered the Little Chef at which point a waitress ushered us to our seats. She handed us some menus and immediately took our drinks order. On returning with the drinks she then took our breakfast order - quite simple - 2 early starters, a portion of mushrooms and two slices of toast. By the time the food had arrived the tea had been drunk, so we asked for another 2 pots of tea. I don't know why they insist on using these small teapots as half the contents end up on the table as you pour the tea out. The breakfast did not look very appetising, the food was served on small plates and everything seemed to be floating in beans, we also had no cutlery. By the time she had got back with the tea the toast had still not arrived, neither had the mushrooms! When I asked about the cutlery she pointed to another table and said "there's some there". I got the cutlery, the toast and mushrooms had still not arrived! My husband then started to question the breakfast that was served as it looked like a child's portion at which point she got very angry, stormed towards the chef who then told us to leave.
We did and we won't be going back again.
This is the worst Little Chef I have been to, and obviously gives an awful impression of the company. The staff here could do with visiting the Little Chef at Bangor to see how the food should be cooked and how the staff respond to the customers.
I never like going to little chef but many times when we stay in Travelodge, they seem to be the adjacent restaurant and we land up eating there. Their food doesn't taste good for the price we pay. Their breakfast is the one I usually have as I try and avoid eating their lunch or dinner as much as possible. I had recently been to the little chef in Bangor in North Wales. There was one lady trying to manage the place in the morning- serving, cleaning and taking orders. As it was a little busy the day I went, I had to wait for her for nearly 15 minutes. I ordered their Olympic breakfast and again for the meal to turn up on my table it took 13 minutes to be precise. I agree that it is not a bad time to get food but not in services. In services people tend be in a hurry or on their way to some important meeting- they can't be so late. I was really annoyed and asked her if she could hurry at least with the bill. By breakfast total bill was £7.25 and she billed me for £70.25 and processed my credit card details. She did refund the amount and billed me for the correct amount later. But the worst part was that she didn't even bother mentioning the mistake to me and said she is having some problem with the card machine so if I can sign instead of entering the pin. I got to know it only when I checked my credit card statement. i was lucky I paid with credit card because if I would have used my debit card then I would have been overdrawn and probably got charged for it. I agree mistakes do happen but the least the lady could do is inform me so in case some problems occurs I wont be shocked and will be able to handle it.
They have different types of breakfast- Olympic, continental, and some rolls ranging from £3.50 to approx £10. Almost same items plated differently. Usually little chef is found near motorway services usually attached to Travelodge or burger kings.
I just hate these little chef restaurants, don't like their service, their food nor their staff. I would not recommend anyone to go to little chef unless they really need to!
I am not a fan of Little Chef restaurants due to a couple of bad experiences which I will tell you about here.
The first was when visiting Little Chef at Doncaster, where myself and partner were staying overnight at the adjacent Travelodge.
We were hungry and thought we'd give the Little Chef a try. It was early evening when we visited and apart from ourselves there were only a couple of customers, so it was virtually empty. We ordered two meals and drinks from the menu which arrived not long after.
The meals themselves weren't too bad, although the chips were a bit bland and cardboard-like. However, as we began eating, one of the staff appeared and began hoovering around the tables, even asking us to lift our feet etc! I was a bit irritated by this - surely they should hoover etc after closing? Also eating a meal with a noisy hoover droaning away was hardly enjoyable.
After finishing hoovering the same staff member then re-appeared and came over to our table asking if we knew the lottery numbers which had been drawn ? I apologised, telling her that we didn't know. She then went on to ask if we were staying at the Travelodge, I replied that we were, to which she said "Oh you smell like you are, that's why I asked! I mean you both smell of shower gel!"
I was quite surprised at this and was feeling a little more irritated now as we were trying to eat our meals, and she was standing over us!
She disappeared again only to then return a minute later. She came back to our table and began reaching across to pick up the bowls which contained sugar, sauces etc and began re- filling them, even though they did not need re-filling. I was beginning to wonder by now if this was some sort of set-up and that we were being filmed secretly for some TV show!
We finished our meals and she came to collect our plates and asked "You don't want desserts do you, cos its really quiet so we thought we'd lock up early?" My partner said yes, he did want a dessert and thought the Little Chef was open late? She replied that it is, but seen as how it was so quiet they thought they would close.
She brought our desserts but was clearly not happy and we clearly heard her moaning about us to the 'chef'(I use the term 'Chef' loosely) and another staff member.
To our surprise, the staff then began locking up, turning off lights etc while we were still eating, and the staff member who had faffed around our table came over with our bill, asking us when we left could we leave by the fire exit as the front doors were locked!
My partner replied would they like us to clock them out too? To which she walked away and went to tell the other staff what he had said.
Some customers arrived by this time and were trying to get in, but the staff just ignored them. We left the money on the table and left by the fire exit - the staff stayed out the back of the restaurant till we left.
I was still annoyed about the whole experience on returning home, and wrote to Little Chef who did reply, stating that they would look into it and if I sent them by receipt they would refund me. However I had not kept the receipt so could not do this, and they were not prepared to refund without it.
Not long after this we were in Carlisle and stayed overnight at the Travelodge there. Again there was a Little Chef and we decided to take a chance on eating there as we were tired, and thought nothing like that could happen again!
Well, we sat down. The restaurant was quite full, and we ordered two meals. We waited around 10 mins before realising that a lot of people were also waiting for meals and beginning to complain.
Eventually after 45 mins our meals arrived, we reminded the waitress that we were still waiting for our drinks and she said she would see to it. They never arrived.
The meals ( fish and chips) were awful - overcooked and very dry. We decided we'd had enough and decided to leave. A few other customers had left also without paying.
The restaurant had a sign up offering a 'No quibble guarantee' which read that if you were unhappy with your meal, then you did not have to pay for it. We went to the till and told the woman there that we were not happy, the meals were terrible, we never got our drinks, and we weren't prepared to pay for it, to which she replied 'I don't blame you!'. She looked totally fed up herself.
We left and vowed never to visit a Little Chef again. I would say to anyone to try and find somewhere else to eat.
Following the Channel 4 documentary, you're all itching to know what eating at Little Chef, Popham, in the wake of Heston is really like. And I'm about to tell you.
The recent Channel 4 show, Big Chef Vs Little Chef, bought in one of Britain's top chefs; Heston Blumenthal. His mission was to revamp the sticky, tired, motorway restaurants, which had become as comically dated as a bleached mullet haircut. The nation (or at least The Boyfriend and I) were on the edge of our seats. Would it be top class food? And more importantly, would we be able to afford it?
These questions and more left us driving down the A-God-knows-what in the pouring rain to the Little Chef in question. It was marked not only by the stereotypical red sign, but by the huge queue of cars and the flash of cameras. Finding out from a lady on her way to the BP garage that the wait for the table was an hour and a half, I queued inside the door to get our name on the list while The Boyfriend struggled to park the car. Packed doesn't begin to describe it, with trendy couples, upmarket families and be-frocked children everywhere. I began to feel a little underdressed in my hoodie and jeans.
We entered into conversation with people who had come from all over the country to eat at Popham, admired the Sky ceiling tiles and watched would be diners have their photos taken with the staff. One thing Little Chef has never been good at is speedy service and this was no exception - the waiting list was over two hours long when we were called for our table.
For those of you who've seen the programme, we were seated around the large red communal table in the centre of the restaurant with several other couples. Not romantic or quiet, but well positioned to get a good look at their food and hear their comments on it, so excellent for the purpose of writing this review. There are also red booths set along the outer wall of the restaurant under the window, in typical Little Chef style. I visited the toilets, which had the recipe tips on the brickwork and the piped music and babble.
We'd originally gone for brunch; by now the waiting time had stretched the meal to dinner and I was starving. On the way, I'd longed for Heston's pimped up version of the all-day breakfast known as the Olympic and the menu failed me. There are two vegetarian choices and considering the size of the menu, this is unspeakably bad. One was macaroni cheese (I'd rather eat my own hair) and the other was beer and vegetable casserole. There is no vegetarian breakfast and they wouldn't serve one without meat. The Boyfriend ordered the Olympic and I ordered the only thing I could.
Our good mood lasted a good deal longer, through a glass of Fanta (which came with ice and lemon), a very nice cappuccino and another 45 minutes. Eventually, the assistant manager asked us if we'd been served yet and we mutely shook our heads. There were two chefs working the hectic and tiny open kitchen, around eight waiting staff prowling with drinks orders and three teenage staff just stood inside the kitchen area doing nothing. The staff almost outnumbered the customers and the three doing nothing continued in this vein the whole time we were there; it was a curious contrast between these and the hardworking cooks.
Finally, we watched them heat my sachet of casserole and slop it into a bowl. Looking at this, I was even more devastated that they'd refused to serve a breakfast without meat on it. At least The Boyfriend's meal was freshly cooked. The girl opposite me had ordered the mixed vegetables, which they tipped straight from a Tesco Value sack. I know it's Little Chef, I realise the whole point is to serve a precooked dish, but to see it cooked is simultaneously reassuring and disappointing.
My minute portion of casserole was a thin salty soup, with the saving grace of some very nice mustard dumplings. The bowl was effectively a cup in the centre of a giant rim and even with a side order of peas, I was still on the hungry side. The Boyfriend's Olympic looked and tasted beautiful (I tried some of the eggs and the toast) and went down in minutes. Looking around, the most popular dishes seemed to be the Haagen Dazs fondue which nearly every family table ordered, and the mussels which arrived in a steaming black cauldron. The Ox Cheek had been the number one dish and had now sold out. Heston's space age cooking touches were evident, some kind of atomiser brandished near those who ordered the Fish and Chips and a dehydrated tablet of towel which swelled to full size in the finger bowl.
Still hungry, The Boyfriend ordered a waffle and I chose the Sticky Toffee pudding for dessert. His waffle was huge and my Toffee pudding was delicious; a hot steaming date pudding, with smooth toffee sauce and vanilla bean ice-cream which tasted of real vanilla rather than an artificial substitute. We also had a pot of tea, which came with cups, saucers and teaspoons. Small touches, but noticeable by their absence in other Little Chef restaurants.
The bill came in at £29. Average for Little Chef, but cheap for Heston.
So, in three months, Heston is returning to see if Popham will lead the way for other Little Chefs.
Will Popham work? I can see this restaurant becoming a success now that he's tapped into a core market of upper-middle-class families who don't want to drag their lobster ordering offspring to the Fat Duck at Bray. Smaller portions may push out the current long distance travellers and lorry drivers looking for a substantial meal, but the prime location of this restaurant between London and the West Country holiday cottage will keep a steady supply of foodies.
Can it work everywhere? Maybe not, I suspect that this restaurant is a novelty and that the posh competition of Marks & Spencer's Simply Food and the quick hit of lard from the super speedy Burger King may yet outwit him.
Does it work for me? I so badly want Heston to revamp Little Chef; to create a haven on my journey where eggs are not runny and there are no hairs in my lunch. I would love to look forward to stopping there in the way that I did as a child. Without a better menu, however, I probably won't go back; the only main meal choice available for me was disappointing enough that I'd swap it for the more filling and much cheaper option of a chilled sandwich and a bag of crisps.