If you're thinking of opening a restaurant, probably the number one priority is not to poison anybody in the process. The (Food Standards Authority) FSA is a government body charged with enforcing that restaurateurs mustn't subject their punters to days on a hospital drip with food poisoning. If any eatery falls short of this minimum requirement through terrible hygiene, it takes action to close them down. The agency provides a UK-wide scoring list of nearly every eatery in the country. Scanning the list for the places you like to eat at when you’re drunk can be something of an eye-opener, and an appetite dampener.
Like every city, Liverpool is not immune to crappy restaurants serving food made in unsanitary conditions. February 2013 saw Liverpool's Buffet Star Chinese close after a raft of horror stories. Reports told of rat faeces in the food storage areas and raw eggs and defrosting meat placed side-by-side with cooked produce. Pictures of cooking areas showed that despite the famous saying, what you don’t know actually can hurt you, with grease and rat shit everywhere – it was grim. About a year ago, Shangri-La, a well-established dim sum dive, had its doors bolted for good owing to an infestation of German cockroaches back in October 2012. For those of you keeping score, yes, there were rat faeces there as well.
Hovering precariously above the point where the FSA forcibly shut them down are the places have been given an unappetising “zero” rating for hygiene. According to the agency these, “are likely to have a history of serious problems,” but they're still free to serve you food. Despite the horror stories, checking restaurant hygiene ratings isn’t common practice. Not one person I asked had ever thought to access this public and easy-to-understand information. But just how much risk are you putting yourself up for by eating at a badly rated place? Furthermore, is poor hygiene an indication that the food won't taste good, or are the issues separate? I decided to put my stomach on the line and find out with a gastronomic tour of Liverpool’s zero rated eating establishments.
“How can a newsagent get a zero rating?” is a question I’ve asked myself a lot over the past week, but PRM, situated right by Liverpool’s Lime Street station, has managed it. It’s popular with students owing to its free-to-use cash machine right by their digs, and it’s a loom-bands, baked beans and fags type of operation inside.
A quick root around led me to a cabinet housing baguettes. They looked pretty limp. I did my pilgrimage two days ago and the used by dates suggested that if I came back in today days time, the same ones might still be there, presumably with slightly browner lettuce. Other than that, nothing seemed untoward here. The floors were clean and had that typical newsagents smell.
The place got its zero rating on 17th January 2014, nine months ago, but PRM looked no different from any other newsagent. Perhaps next time the inspectors will mark it better. That said, for a place to score zero when they mostly deal in sealed and delivered goods was a worry.
I went for the turkey salad option and hoped it would be safe. An inquiry made to the FSA revealed that there is no template for dealing with a zero rating. It all depends on the problems and how the local authority deals with them, so as I took my first bite, I didn't know what I was getting into, adding a frisson of unpredictability. Was I eating something full of parasites that were going to eat my insides? I just didn't know.
On my first mouthful, dry meat mixed with soggy tomato and warm mayonnaise. The bread put up some resistance. I managed to finish it if not enjoy it. I nearly gagged, but no more than I would with any corner shop baguette. I didn’t go blind or hallucinate or anything. It seemed that I had survived for now.
Then I continued to my second stop on the tour – The Olive Tree. It sounds like a cosy Italian place, right?
In fact, it was a bog standard kebab shop with a glistening kebab tower that made me wonder how many cow's arseholes were nestling in the pile in front of me.
Given what seemed like a Sophie’s Choice of food, I opted for the Olive Tree Special Burger – a beef burger with doner meat ladled over it. Off-colour tomatoes, plastic cheese and dry lettuce topped the burger off. After my first bite I thought about asking my host if I could have a straw, such was the amount of grease running down my chin and back into the polystyrene tray.
Much like PRM, apparently lackadaisical standards of cleanliness were matched by the food. The doner meat was lukewarm and rubbery. The salad didn’t add much to the overall taste, because it tasted of absolutely nothing. The burger itself was sloppy and fell to pieces pretty quickly.
Unlike the newsagent, at The Olive Tree, the food was prepared right in front of my eyes. The food was greasy, and I would have enjoyed it much more after a few pints, but it wasn't especially bad and I couldn’t see anything particularly unusual about its preparation. Nobody was sneezing over the grill or anything, even if could have done with a scrub. I didn’t collapse in cold sweats when I had finished. Maybe the place had improved since its last inspection, maybe the FSA is a bit overzealous. I tried not to think about what was lurking out of sight of the customer.
It was a good start for Bombay Spice, my final stop. Outside and in it looked and smelled nice enough, like a pretty normal Indian takeaway. It had a decent seating area, leather sofas front of house, the same carpet and wallpaper all these places seem to share and friendly and accommodating staff. The hygiene/quality correlation hypothesis that I had developed at the other two places had taken a knock. I was feeling quite confident.
Unable to stomach a full meal at this point, I stuck with two classic starters – the mixed kebab and a chicken chat. Appearances can be deceiving and what Bombay Spice served up was the worst food of the night. The mixed kebab came first, with an onion bhaji big enough to be used as a child’s hat. Each bite saw grease swilling round my teeth like mouthwash. The lamb kofta was tough, watery and bland. One patron watched me eat and raised his eyebrows as he waited for his own food.
The chicken chat looked like an angry paper bag full of vomit and didn’t taste great either. The pastry had the consistency of a fried bath towel, while the chicken and potato filling was hard to figure out. A lot of sugar had been dumped in there, perhaps to mask the taste, or maybe as a failed experiment. It was awful – the first and only dish I didn’t finish. But again, I didn't feel ill and had survived what I had thought would be a culinary Russian roulette.
Returning to Lime Street I had a few moments of introspection as the impact of high-fat, poorly conceived food went to work on my insides.
I didn’t suffer from food poisoning, but the food I had eaten did me no favours. That said, I had eaten three fatty meals so I would probably feel that way wherever I had gone. In fact, possibly the most concerning thing about these places was how normal they seemed. There was a vague correlation between the zero ratings and the quality of the food, in the sense that you’re unlikely to get a zero rating at somewhere vying for a Michelin Star. But basically these were three slightly below par establishments that I could have come across on any night out or rush to eat before catching a train. And that is surely food for thought.