"Mac-Dooonald's, Mac-Dooonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken anna Pizza Hut! Mac-Dooonald's, Mac-Dooonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken anna Pizza Hut!" Were Iona and Peter Opie revising their landmark study The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959), this affecting little ditty would undoubtedly make an appearance. True, I'm not certain that it's still current but it was when my older moiety of children was at primary school.
What is it with Pizza Hut? Like the poor, it seems always to have been with us - I recall a Pizza Hut in Hampstead when I was of school age, which had chalet-style woodwork and alpine murals that looked as if they had been painted using that time-honoured method of dipping a young bull in Artex, then allowing it to run amok. However, in recent years, Pizza Hut seems to have sunk into the great, cheesy substratum of British fast food, with little brand salience.
This hardly seems fair for a pizza outlet with a noble history stretching back as far as . . . well, as far as the Opies' The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, beginning as it did in an actual hut, in Wichita, Kansas, in the late 1950s. There are now more than 11,000 Pizza Huts worldwide, enough to constitute a Pizza Town, 700 of which are in the British Isles and yet, apart from the ad campaign following England's 1996 defeat by Germany in the European Championships, which featured the unsuccessful penalty shooter Gareth Southgate with his head in a paper bag, Pizza Hut has loomed low in our cultural consciousness.
On a spanking hot evening in central London, there was nothing too appealing about the entrance to this culinary Mordor: dark-red decor of interlinked rings, dark-red carpets, a faint whiff of what might have been urine and a musty slot of a dining area. The original Pizza Huts were known as "red roofs", because of their wide gables that angled up to a boxy top but, as a waitress directed us to go down to the basement, it transpired that this was a sort of Pizza Tardis - and an air-conditioned one, to boot!
Down here in the bowels of the earth, there were at least a hundred more covers, some in a sort of mezzanine, ranged around a central arena, off of which lurked a salad bar and an "ice cream factory". Seated and provided with a menu by an attentive if frenzied waiter, we took a look around at this brave new world of tourists and the obese. The mother-and-daughter combo at the table next to ours, tucking into a large Meat Feast pizza that came in its own skillet, probably weighed in excess of 150 kilos and they were soon matched on our other side by a father and son of approximately the same weight - even though the boy was only ten or so. I began to suspect that the ubiquitous decorative scheme of interlinked rings was some sort of allusion to gastric bands.
Yes, yes, it's a snob thing, isn't it? I mean, we're all middle class now, so we all go to Pizza Express - the Hut is only for foreigners and the lumpy proletariat. Pizza Hut pizzas feature pineapple, ferchrissakes! And entire chicken breasts! You dob up a couple of shitters and get unlimited fizzy drinks! I nearly had an apoplexy, on the basis that such an old-school restaurant demanded an equally anachronistic stroke. My 13-year-old, who often appears to have the same delirious sense of entitlement as the Prime Minister, looked about him in frank disbelief. The one thing he was looking forward to was the Cheesy Bites, a grotesque circlet of cheese-stuffed dough balls that rims the pizza base - but this was only available with the large pizza and he relapsed into sullen torpor.
Rocket from the crypt
I, on the other hand, was rather warming to the chilly environs of the Pizza Tardis. I cruised the salad bar and partook of a weird dressing that looked like the decocted jism of honey bees - and tasted like it, too. I ordered a regular Veggie Supreme and flirtatiously requested extra mushrooms and rocket. When the pizza arrived, combusting-jet-fuel hot, it was devoid of rocket but when I pointed this out to the waiter, he happily toddled over with a big bowl of leaves and flumped them on. I managed half of this - a regular pizza - before giving up. As we rolled back up the stairs, I reflected this: it didn't matter how déclassé the Hut was; we had been served by a perfect gentleman - Shehzad is his name, although his colleagues describe him as "the bald Asian man" - and that's surely a sign of real nobility.