I recently left a Nando's thinking, "This is the best restaurant in the world."
As I walked out of the door, a woman on the street outside said exactly the same thing to the wobbling, stumpy toddler at her side. "Look honey," she cooed, pointing to the ubiquitous heart-shaped chicken logo. "It's the best restaurant in the world." Naturally, I took this as a sign. Serendipity, synchronicity—everything about this moment outside the Covent Garden Nando's felt like one of those rare instances in which the world locks into place.
For all the
foodies out there, thinking about Nando's in this way is probably sacrilege. There is a long-held assumption that any dispensary of mass-marketed and quickly served food is not worth the time of those humans who consider themselves to have developed palates. Of these maligned chain establishments, there are distinct categories: The McDonald's and the KFCs—fast food joints with menus displayed on illuminated screens and drinks served in disposable paper cups. The PizzaExpresses and the Zizzis—home to terrible first dates and two-for-one starters. And then the tourist spots, ranging from Ye Olde pubs with mock plastic beams to the infamous Angus Steakhouse in Leicester Square, where no true city-dweller has ever been.
Nando's stands alone, operating in its own consummate world of unrivalled quality and convenience.
Nando's, however, is different. And this is because Nando's stands alone, operating in its own consummate world of unrivalled quality and convenience. That's the first thing to remember, really: the food. The platters of wings, the soft pita breads, the resplendent butterfly chicken with your choice of a coleslaw, corn-on-the-cob, or creamy mash side. From the offset, this is where Nando's excels—putting identical and universally enjoyable plates on the table, day in and day out.
Those who have spent any time working in a kitchen—be it scrubbing raspberry bouillette from dampened plates or melting ounces of butter into a thickening Béchamel sauce—will know of its high pressure atmosphere. When normal people are leaving work, the service staff's day begins. Tickets endlessly roll through the pass, plates are shoved back in return, and tempers start to flare. The job requires an endless dance with precision. Unless they're on the way to earning a Michelin star, kitchen-workers, for the most part, aren't paid to be artistic—they're getting their giro every month in return for making the same dish thousands of times in exactly the same way, which is something Nando's does very well.
Think about it: how often does Nando's get an order wrong? It's probable that the ratio is far less than any of their high street competitors. Unlike, say, PizzaExpress, where the dough balls can be undercooked or the pizza lightly blackened, Nando's comes through time and time again. Picture the meal. The fluffy, well-cooked chips lightly dusted with own brand salt; the wet chicken, slathered in the customer's choice of sauce; the unlimited fountain refills, ready to be guzzled to stomach-threatening ecstasy—it's the stuff of dreams, a consistent and well-thought-out fantasy made real and edible and ready in ten minutes.
Consistency, however, is only one component of a larger picture. Created in 1987, Nando's is the product of two South Africans who, upon eating a chicken doused in peri-peri sauce (a liquidised speciality of neighbouring country Mozambique), decided to have a go at the game themselves. The first restaurant opened in Johannesburg, then another, and then another. Some of these early iterations were no different in service to McDonald's. In Zimbabwe, there's a Nando's where you walk to the counter to order and receive your chips in a little paper basket, your drink in a cup with a straw, and your pita comes in a branded wrap. When it started in England however, the company brought something new: a restaurant experience with the convenience of fast food.
What was life like before Nando's? A lot of time wasted waiting, probably. The restaurant's second stroke of brilliance is its system, which was then unique and so good it has since been copied by the likes of DF Mexico and to a lessening degree, Five Guys. It's a beautiful beast of convenience—the process is like an unobstructed zipline: you order, you return, you eat, a good time is had, you leave—because the cheque has already been picked up and there's no need to wait. It's perfection.
Then there are the restaurants themselves; great works of art with winding staircases and a multitude of sauce and drink and napkin stations. Others compact yet also familiar with their brush-stroked artwork and nuevo Latino music. Creating a good, world-renowned franchise is hard—that's why there are so few of them. And the ones that do exist mostly fall into that initial fast food category, with their packaged cartons of Heinz sauce and brightly lit tables. Nando's is more than this, a higher quality, but also brilliantly one and the same as it provides a relatively affordable meal, easy to order, and casual enough to eat often.
What was life like before Nando's? A lot of time wasted waiting, probably.
Whether it's slurping down freshly caught oysters in a historic French fishing town or enjoying wet, gravy soaked poutine in Montreal, good food experiences are directly intertwined with the culture of a place; its tone, smell, and atmosphere. In a decade or so, Nando's has become weirdly symbolic of Britain's multi-cultural identity—liked by everyone from Stormzy to David Beckham. For better or worse, we have the phrase "cheeky Nando's"—a favourite of university students but also a masterstroke in how to confuse any American, which is worth Brownie points in any life.
I'm aware that it could be seen as basic to describe Nando's as the world's greatest restaurant. It's not one of Heston Blumenthal's novel concoctions at his three Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck. It's not a quenelles de brochet and a glass of white wine at La Grenouille. It's possibly not even on par with some of Britain's most popular street food stands. Yet each time I eat here, I'm reminded that good food doesn't always need to be something that can sit in the columns of Grace Dent and Jay Rayner. It can be cheap, fast, and reliable. I'm also aware Nando's has been around so long writing about it seems redundant. But like I said, it was a moment of synchronicity. Call that bullshit. All I know is I love eating at this place. Pass me a Coke refill (and give me that motherfucking Black Card).