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A restaurant that caters for adult children like me? You’re having a giraffe

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

Numbers of giraffes (Girrafa camelopardalis) in the African wild have more or less halved over the past decade, while the numbers of Giraffes (Restaurant pseudoglobalis) in the urban areas of Britain have more than doubled. I wonder if there may be some axiom at work here and that the inverse correlation is a fixed law. It would follow that anyone could start any old chain of crap restaurants, calling them – for example – Platypus; and so long as the namesake species was rapidly exterminated, success would be guaranteed. I realise this is a troubling business plan – but we live in troubling times.

Who’s necks?

I first became aware of Giraffe, the restaurant, in the early 2000s. But I don’t recall chowing down in one until 2008, when, tucked up in some lofty nook of the newly opened Heathrow Terminal 5, we indulged our hideous picky-eater children in buttock-soft burgers and stiff little fries, knowing full well that they’d refuse the free airline food waiting for them beyond the departure gate. It could’ve been the pre-flight tension or it could’ve been the terminal itself but the only memory I have of that meal are the giraffe-shaped swizzle sticks the youngest insisted on clutching in his sweaty palms all the way to New York.

Four years on, and with 43 Giraffes now wavering across our stony-hearted Serengeti, all the way from Aberdeen to Portsmouth, the time seemed right to give it another go. All critics should beware of prejudice: the irritating fungal complaint that makes the most painterly surface appear . . . flaky. This being noted, surely a man can be forgiven for approaching a chain restaurant in a crappy mood – especially one that announces on its website that “It’s about exploring the wonderful foods from around the globe and opening our ears to music from around the world. Giraffes are so tall they see a different view of the world.” Curiously, the two locations the Giraffe people pick as their diners’ imaginative loci are: “‘anywhere from Sydney to Israel – somewhere sunny and full of smiles”.

Hmm – when I was last there, Sydney was a pretty tough town, and as for Israel, don’t get me started. Still, I wasn’t eating the Giraffe website. I and my now 11-year-old were being shown to a grim little circular table hard beside a big concrete pillar, while all around us roiled an international migrant workforce serving food to tourists. I could see there were lots of better tables that were vacant, so I snagged a servitor and complained. She plonked us back down on vinyl poufs in the reception area, cleared one of these better tables and then reseated us.
Was I mollified? Was I fuck. I scanned the menu: chicken potstickers, oregano halloumi skewers, falafel “deluxe” burger – blah, blah, blah . . . world, world, world. The waitress reappeared and took our drinks order. When she came back with apple juice for the young master and the ten-millionth sparkling mineral water of my effervescent life, she took our food order. Mine was simple: grilled salmon, mashed potato, a green salad. I couldn’t have the cherry tomato, fire-roasted corn and jalapeño salsa for reasons of gastric rather than psychic intolerance. As for the boy, he gave his burger order complete with a series of negative stipulations: no tomato, no mayonnaise and no lettuce – just bun, cheese, meat. I’m used to this bollocks, so paid it no mind until the patty appeared and he lifted its top lid and began to moan plaintively because there was something healthy in there.

Hated mayo

Next, I did the bad thing. Was it because of the swizzle sticks – or because I am congenitally illhumoured, or perhaps I simply wanted to challenge the fundamental taboos that surround eating in our benighted culture? I don’t know – and I don’t care. I picked up the offending burger and squeezed it in my fist until the hated mayonnaise squirted from between my clenched knuckles and spattered across the tabletop; then I dropped the macerated lump back on his plate, rose and went to the bathroom to wash. When I came back, expecting uproar, I found nothing but smiley calm: the waitress had cleared everything up and told me she was bringing a new burger without the offending gloop. Chastened, I ate my salmon, mash and salad – hardly world food but exactly the sort of thing I eat at home, and just as tasty.

Worse was to come, because they didn’t even charge me for my intemperance – and how god-dam smiley is that? By the time we left I was beginning to think that this really was a family-oriented establishment, so perfectly did they cater to adult children.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.