Food courts are not a new phenomenon, in fact they are often to be found lurking around shopping centres and other places where people congregate, grow hot and tired, and ultimately need to sit down and take in some light refreshment. Nothing wrong with the hypothesis of course, but the principle behind this is choice. The official version is probably be that the level of competition means the outlets will be honed to a fine point of food plus customer service, all the better to give us what we want.
I’m far from convinced on this point, so my own theory is somewhat more cynical. Regular readers will know my view that too much choice is not a good thing, either from the optimum quality of fulfilment, or especially for the consumer; give the average shopper more choice than they can cope with and they become so mesmerised they can’t say no. Does this style of dining provide the best possible food and the best value? Absolutely not!
When it comes to Westfield, Stratford there is more than one location in which restaurants congregate – the fast food merchants on the ground floor being the most obvious place to congregate. In the Marketplace area they are more like separate ate restaurants to be browsed at leisure, where in the 3rd floor food court they are wall-to-wall. Granted that being stuck up in a turret means you could easily ignore the global food court, but the sheer volume of people queueing and dining indicates they are doing something right… doesn’t it?
I’ve previously chided the likes of Harry Ramsdens for translating the excellence of the original Harry Ramsden name and reputation into a commercial profit-driven outlet at motorway services and suchlike selling inferior commoditised food, menus changing constantly to persuade people to visit more frequently in preference to selling based on what is fresh, top quality and seasonal. On the contrary, they will flog you whatever they can find a marketing angle for that nets the greatest profit.
You know what? I’m yet to be convinced that any of these outlets can provide genuinely high quality food, since invariably their raw materials are prepared elsewhere and shipped to site for warming up. Or maybe that is simply my prejudices about how food should be served. Can all the people queueing at Westfield fast food counters be wrong? Well, yes and no…
Tell the truth, this is the second time I’ve been. The first time was on my first visit to Westfield with Adam. That time he sampled Caribbean jerk chicken with rice and peas, plus fried plantain and I tried the Vietnamese noodle soup. Both those were pretty good, to be fair: Adam’s was a touch heavy on the chilli for his tastes at the time, though it tasted as I would expect of a moderately authentic Jamaican jerk chicken. Mine was up to the standards of Wagamama, which is no bad thing, even if the ingredients are largely manufactured off site and shipped in using vacuum packs.
This time Adam was adamant: he wanted pizza, and since there is a Franco Manca‘s wood-fired pizza counter it would be churlish to refuse him. His margarita was a pretty reasonable choice, and certainly looked the part without having the crisp texture or stringy cheesiness you would expect in the true Italian product (see my blog on pizza.) The pizza was cooked from fresh dough and was pretty decent value at around £5, though it was let down by the vendor charging £1.55 for a can of coke that retails for 57p in Tesco. Big black mark for that example of exorbitant overcharging, for which there is no excuse whatever.
I looked around at the other options and did not honestly fancy any of them. Yes, there is a salad bar, a fish and chip outlet, the aforementioned Vietnamese and Caribbean, plus a vaguely African-Latin place that doesn’t seem too sure what it is (ie. selectively global.) But from expediency I chose a place entitled Square Pie. Square Pie sells square pies, funnily enough, plus a range of typical accompaniments including peas (garden and mushy), gravy, mash, wedges and suchlike. The staff, of whom there were lots, seem friendly enough. Not too bad then? Don’t bet on it: this was a huge mistake on my part.
What struck me most was that the food is what you might expect to be served in a hospital or works canteen. No, tell a lie, it was probably worse. A sad excuse for pie (which they had to force reluctantly from its container), coated in soggy pastry and with a “steak and mushroom” filling that tasted of very little – certainly not slow-cooked beef steak and braised mushrooms. On the side were an acceptable mash, a very stingy portion of mushy peas and a dribble of tasteless packet gravy, an epithet that applies to the entire meal. It was washed down with a cup of black coffee, but no refill. Total charge: £9.69 of your pounds, please, which for this money this was simply a bad product served in a portion sufficiently small that I felt hungry again almost immediately. For a tenner I’d expect a product you could serve with pride, and this was not it.
The main difference is that a canteen would have charged less than half that, probably offered greater portions, and been no worse. The staff seemed surprised when I told them it was awful, but if I don’t stand up against appalling standards I doubt if anyone else will. That’s the problem – we Brits don’t complain enough. This review will go to Square Pie’s management, and I dare them to take the criticism on the chin and improve rather than brushing it off. They can certainly do better, and they bloody well ought to provide a better product to justify the price.
So in the event I ever eat at Westfield again, something I won’t do in a hurry, I shall try the marketplace downstairs. The food there did look at least moderately appearing and to be better value. But then, I could always wander up the road to the centre of Stratford, where there is an excellent friendly cafe selling food made the same day from raw ingredients, and cooked fresh to order for a fair price. That’s what good food is about, and don’t let any food outlet persuade you otherwise.
PS. Reply from the MD of Square Pie:
I’m very sorry to hear about your disappointing experience at Westfield Stratford, I take the quality of our food and service very seriously and it seems this time we didn’t hit those standards for which I apologise.
I have contacted the team about them this morning, can you tell me when you went ? It seems that your pie was either under baked or the oven too hot to keep it a soggy bottom and will be reinforcing with the team the system we have which should ensure this doesn’t happen. I’m also disappointed that you left hungry, that should certainly not be something we can be accused off and will be checking our portion controls. I do believe when properly served our food is our very good quality and for its price offers great value but this cannot be said I appreciate if the portions were not right or the pie is undercooked.
As a business I pride ourselves that we encourage feedback both positive and negative and I have acted already on all your comments
I do of course offer a full refund of your meal or if you would prefer two meals on us to try us again, please do let me know which you would prefer.
Best wishesMartin Martin Dewey Managing Director Square Pie Top 10 British meals in London – Time Out 2012 Spitfire Gate Old Spitalfields Market 105C Commercial St London E1 6BG Tel. 0207 247 2100 www.squarepie.com we don’t cut corners
Dear MartinMany thanks for your prompt and fulsome reply – and I accept your offer to sample company products again and write another honest review! I think the fact that the pies were not fresh out of the oven and had clearly been sitting for some while under infrared lamps did not help, and I don’t blame your staff who were friendly and helpful throughout.As mentioned in the review, I do wonder whether a top class pie can really be served in the context of a food court outlet, but I guess I need to try one of your restaurants for a fair comparison. My major problem is that I have strong memories from many years ago of a restaurant specialising in really superb pies with excellent pastry and filling to die for, cooked fresh to order in large dishes and sufficient to feed 3-4 people a time. You ordered a pie for a table, then shared. If you could match that standard I would be singing your praises!Kind regardsAndy Millward
PPS. Reply from Franco Manca:
Thanks very much for the email and much appreciated feedback/ review….very interesting read.CheersDavid