Will Self: Forget the Fat Duck, here’s the place for tourists’ hottest forking action

Will Self explores the places people actually eat.

Garfunkel's. Photo: m.caimary on Flickr via Creative Commons

When, back in the mid-1990s, I was asked to write restaurant reviews for the Observer, I told my then editor that I wanted to broaden out the chomping field and give due weight to the sort of places where people actually ate. This premature stab at the idea of Real Meals was greeted with some scepticism – Britain was about to be submerged beneath a cresting wave of extra-virgin olive oil and the consensus on the edible was that thi-ings can only get bett-er! But before the axe fell on the pancetta and I was compelled to spend evening after evening having jus drizzled over me, I managed to fire off a couple of despatches from the front line of chain restaurants.

Scorpion king

One of these was about Garfunkel’s, which was – and thankfully still is – the sort of joint where a callow teenage boy might take his first date. With its brassy, banquette-laden interior, photos of generic celebrities and all-you-can-graze salad bar, Garfunkel’s speaks to the condition of the tourist family, weighed down with fractious children. The first Garfunkel’s opened in 1979; by the time I reviewed the chain in 1995 there were a few branches in London and southern England and, 20 years later, there are only a few more – with an outlier in Edinburgh.

Still, in the glorious year of our twin saviours, Elizabeth and Olympia, it seemed worthwhile to go back. After all, the majority of visitors to our shores are unlikely to give a flying fuck about the Fat Duck: Garfunkel’s and its ilk are where the forking action is. So I dragged the 14-year-old from what he terms his “man cave” and hauled him into town. In the 1990s, I’d had a vision of Garfunkel the man as a wannabe southern Californian dude with a Magnum PI ’tache in a cheesecloth shirt and bell bottoms, frolicking by a poolside with a bevy of pneumatic lovelies, but my teenager went one up. “Garfunkel,” he said, scanning the menu, “sounds either like a grinning, gap-toothed child molester or a performing monkey.”

Then – with some trepidation – he kicked off the meal by ordering a Coke float, while riffing about a mate of his who will “eat anything: like, he’s eaten almost all animals there are, except for reptiles. In Thailand, he ate some, like, scorpions – but he said they put him off bugs for ever.” Sadly, there are no bugs of any sort on the Garfunkel’s menu, which is weighted towards old-fashioned Brit and chips, with lots of meaty feasts. A charming young man from Szczecin took our order. My son went for the London Tower Burger, a £13.95 masonry pile comprising two beefburgers, dill pickle, Monterey Jack cheese, crispy bacon and onion rings. He seemed to feel this was the epitome of gastronomic adventure: “I didn’t use to like onion rings,” he said, “but now I love them.”

Still, I couldn’t talk: after receiving assurance that Garfunkel’s chicken was free-range (presumably it hangs out at the poolside with Mr G), I selected a quarter of fowl from the rotisserie, which came – bizarrely – with a Caesar salad and pasta. Because of my fashionable wheat intolerance (a legacy of all that focaccia during the Blair regime), I swapped the pasta for chips. All around us sat balding, middle-aged men in shorts accompanied by harassed wives and children tethered to helium balloons. I was pleased to see that the Garfunkel’s salad bar was still at the epicentre of the establishment, although its echt 1990s matte-black livery had been changed for what looked like a variation on the theme of giant Aga stove. Weird.

Big mouth strikes again

Weirder still was the decorative scheme, which consists of pen-and-ink-style drawings of jumbled London landmarks, juxtaposed with ludicrously inappropriate flower-power slogans: “Tune in, turn on, drop out”, “Make love, not war” – you get the miserable picture. The Tower Burger, another landmark, loomed into sight and the Boy Wonder mused as to how he was going to fit it into his mouth. This I found a bit rich, because in the family he is known preeminently for having a huge (albeit fetching) gob. When he was about two, his mother and I caught him standing sucking on a doorknob. The entire knob was inside his mouth.

True to type, he demolished the Tower; and I made quick work of my chicken, which must have been very free-ranging indeed, because it was a skinny little thing. Not content with his Tower, my companion then had a great mound of pancakes with maple syrup and ice cream – while I had ice cream and an espresso. The bill, I thought, was, especially for a vaguely 1960sthemed restaurant, pretty uncool: £56, including tip. Still, if you’re a tourist, you pays your money and takes your lack of choice.