When I was 15, my family went on holiday to Kusadasi in Turkey. For me, the most exciting part of the trip was shopping for knock off "designer" labels on the market. A visit to the site of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, could fuck off as far as I was concerned, because I could buy a load of fake hoodies: Quicksilver, Adidas, Puma… and a Hard Rock Café Istanbul T-shirt.
I'd never been to a Hard Rock Cafe (which, at the time, I put down to my parents being "well tight" and "fucking annoying") but at home, I wore that T-shirt around my small Hampshire town for weeks until someone asked me what Istanbul was like, and I quickly went off it.
I'm no longer 15, I probably still have that T-shirt stuffed in a box in my parent's house, and the Hard Rock chain is in the middle of a bitter legal dispute between its owners and Robert Earl, who founded Planet Hollywood with a random selection of Expendables cast members. The Hard Rock Group owners (who rule 189 casinos, hotels, and cafes worldwide) are the Florida Seminole Native American Indian tribe. They purchased the chain in 2007 and are currently fighting Earl in court over the name.
Prompted by this weird legal battle, the new adverts for London's Hard Rock Cafe that have been popping up in tube stations in recent weeks, and noticing that the queues for Hard Rock Cafe were longer than the city's most hyped restaurants when I visited Lisbon, I decided it was finally time for me to visit.
The Hard Rock Cafe in London is on Piccadilly, perched on the side of a roundabout between Hyde Park Corner, Park Lane, and Victoria. It's unexpectedly small. Despite pushing past several excited Asian tourists clutching what is probably my month's rent's worth of M&M's from M&M's World and Hard Rock bags, it takes me ages to find the cafe—so much so that I get confused by a massive picture of Linkin Park and go into the store (with it's rock memorabilia "vault" tours) instead of the restaurant.
T-shirts in the shop cost a whopping £18.95 (probably around £18 more than my Turkish knock-off), but it's full of people actually buying things. Sheryl Crow plays on the TV. The staff smile enthusiastically. I get scared and leave.
It's packed—PACKED—inside, so much so that they can only fit me in at the bar, which is not the bar. It's a raised counter staring into the kitchen, where staff are asking questions like, "Cheddar's the more yellow one, right?" It's 6:40 PM on a Tuesday. There's a pink stretch limo parked outside. Everyone here is eating their evening meal.
The menu—where everything seems to be coated in BBQ sauce—has the scariest small print warning I've ever seen. "Consuming raw or undercooked hamburgers, meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish, or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness especially if you have certain medical conditions," it read. Um, OK.
There is nothing on the menu that I want to eat, because I'm a lactose intolerant adult. Most things are fried, and helpfully pictured—in case I don't know what a steak looks like—and cost on average, £17. I've been told the burgers are "actually really good" by Twitter, but I go for scampi, or "fried shrimp" as the menu puts it. Because you can't really get scampi wrong, can you?
The chips are oven chip-ish and hard, but the prawns are delicious, massive, and soft. My waiter—an excited New Yorker who is stunned to find out that I'm British, living in London, and have come to the Hard Rock Café by choice—winks at me when I order. I like it, until I feel a bit weird because he's 19 and paid to wink at me.
Something's got to be going right, though—every single plate is coming back from the tables empty apart from the occasional onion ring as big as a car tyre. The man next to me—an Australian tourist who only speaks to his wife once to offer her his used serviette ("do you want a go on that?")—eats every single one of his ribs, chips, and some of his wife's chips. Looking around, everyone is having the best time, apart from one man in a suit who looks like he's here on business and has taken out his hotel's receptionist. She has her hair in one of those buns the Peruvian drug smuggler girls wore and is texting to avoid eye contact with him.
People are visibly delighted by a gold Rod Stewart disc. Diners are pointing at an ugly shirt Paul McCartney might have possibly worn once. Mums are taking pictures of multi-coloured cocktails in souvenir glasses you can take home without nicking and all the waiting staff are singing along to Fall Out Boy. We all clap along and sing happy birthday to two people—a middle aged lady and an incredibly embarrassed 12-year-old boy—in twenty minutes.
The only person not having a wicked night out here is me.
But, halfway through my entirely beige dinner, I started to feel nostalgic. While I'd never been "up London" to the Hard Rock Café, as a teenager, some of my most weirdly-coloured piles of vomit started the night as massive TGI Friday cocktails. Age 16, I was taken to the TGI Friday in Guildford on a date, and was impressed with how "American" it was. I thought it was unbelievably cool.
Even now, I am nostalgic for a time where I thought romance was onion rings, bottomless Sprite, and getting fingered in a Vauxhall Corsa. For me, restaurants like this were my first experience of eating out, and probably the reason I still love eating out now.
There's no point coming here and picking the batter off my prawns, whining about the fact I can't eat dairy, wondering how many calories are in the pulled pork sandwich, and laughing at the massive Tequila Sunrises and sundaes with sparklers in. No one else is suspicious of the bright orange cheese and questioning why there's perfectly white, circular pieces of chicken in the mac 'n' cheese. This restaurant —sorry, café—is working perfectly for a massive group of people who aren't me.
Every single tourist who has posed on that zebra crossing on Abbey Road, families who've come to London for a treat, dads who want to buy their 15-year-old son a Corona ("just one, and don't tell your mum") and talk about when they went to see The Who live in 1965. Yes, you could probably get a better, cheaper burger elsewhere, but no one here is going to follow a cutesy online map directing them to an alleyway in Brixton to find a pop-up that serves three different burgers, that doesn't take reservations and only has six tables. They don't care. London needs places like that, yes, but also weird, nostalgic, novelty places like the Hard Rock.
As I leave, there's a queue of about 40 people—11-year-olds with matching backpacks, families, a woman in a burka, several confused Italian tourists, and two American girls taking selfies by the canopy. Everyone looks happy. I pass on the £18.95 T-shirt.