Bodeans BBQ Smokehouse, Soho

By rights, Bodeans Soho branch should for my family be the epitome of comfort food and an experience to savour.  Ever since we went together to a smoke-pit restaurant in Florida in 2006, this has been a theme to which we have often returned.  It was there my kids developed a taste for pulled pork, to the extent that when we got Lindsey’s GCSE results in Seattle in 2011 I offered her the choice of any meal in any restaurant to celebrate – she chose a pulled pork sandwich in the Hard Rock Cafe!

Sadly the BBQ/smoke pit concept is rare over here, even if ribs and steaks and US-style diners are now common as – well – McDonalds.  A shame – I think they would greatly appeal.  Bodeans website certainly looks attractive, the menu enough to make you drool and the wide selection of craft beers are appealing to men of my age and disposition.  Judging by the queues forming, they would argue this to be a highly successful format that works a treat, and three branches suggests the chain has every intention of expanding into further London outlets, maybe even further afield.

However, my report is that Bodeans flatters to deceive.  The food I would travel for, but the experience is not one I want to repeat until they make significant changes.  A shame indeed!

Problem number one: Adam and I queued to ask to book a table.  Turns out you can only book for parties of 8 or more.  Are we OK to get a table in the downstairs restaurant at 1pm?  Yes, says the friendly waitress, should be no problem.  We turned up at 1pm to find the restaurant full and with a 30 minute wait time, and the upstairs deli crammed to overflowing.

Not a great start, even if the staff are willing, but for me it would work far better if you could guarantee your table and not have all the unnecessary aggro getting it.  With the Company Shed you go on a blackboard and you know when you will be eating; here, we didn’t know whether we were coming or going.  The organisation was a total shambles, leading to the obvious conclusion that they are not geared up for the volume of business and work off best endeavours rather than coming up with a better system that does not leave customers fuming.  As Ryanair discovered, you can only go on treating paying customers with contempt for so long before they go where they feel wanted.

To illustrate this point, Wagamama branches are frequently full to overflowing, but I’ve yet to wait more than 5 minutes for a table there, and I’ve never felt unwanted – lessons to be learned, notably that it pisses people off if they have to wait ages for tables, when it would not hurt them at all to offer the ability to book.

Some negotiation got us on to the list for a table and a text to confirm I am on the waiting list, so I joined the queue to obtain drinks. An American girl serving then span a bizarre yarn that even though they sell many alcoholic drinks, they are only allowed to do so if we are ordering food.  I told her we were waiting to eat downstairs, so she sold me some over-priced drinks (Cranberry juice, black cherry soda and a discounted Point Black Ale that started its retail life at £5.25 for a small bottle, a rip-off by anybody’s standards, but is now reduced to £4 because it wasn’t selling.)  She then proceeded to the basement to find said beer and eventually located me 10 minutes later.

When eventually we were shown to the restaurant, it turned out to be a dark and dingy cellar, barely lit but for the illumination of baseball games silently displayed on various TV screens.  The place is crammed and with a buzz of conversation such that I was struggling to hear anything spoken either by my kids or the waitress.

This led to another confusion later, when we changed some of the side dishes with our meals but I did not hear that there was a £1.50 charge levied for each change.  I was not at all impressed by this unnecessary and punitive way to extort more money from the punter.  It costs them precisely nothing to change the options, so the charge feels like a further rip-off.

The pulled pork meals at £9 a time are fairly reasonable value, the combo of pulled pork and baby ribs toppish at £15.50 or thereabouts; I finally paid over £50 for three dinners and one drink each.  Not at all a cheap meal, perhaps more in-keeping with a decent bistro or gastropub cooking raw ingredients from scratch.

Surprisingly the portions are nothing like the American equivalents either; in a typical American smoke pit you would probably end up with twice as much on your plate, and a doggy bag to take home the remainder.  Here we polished off all the food with some ease and if anything still felt a tad hungry.

When it came, the meat was evidently well-cooked, tender and tasty, especially the ribs, though disappointingly all the meat was reheated to a lukewarm temperature.  The sides were OK but nothing special – box standard chips from the freezer and creamed corn from a can, for example, so not too much effort expended to justify the prices.  An array of BBQ sauces with which to douse the meat provided some interest, but the whole meal was decidedly far less effective than it might have been.

A word too about the loos.  I can’t speak for the ladies but the gents offered a trough for urination and looked like it hadn’t been cleaned any time recently.  This tends to reinforce my view that the attention to detail at Bodeans is chaotic and well below what you would expect of an efficiently-run diner.

It’s packaged, it’s formulaic, but it doesn’t take care of its customers.  I expected a much better experience and really think the management should take a long, hard look at what they do, especially the no bookings policy.  A little thought could make this a much, much better restaurant.

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