I'm Ruby Tandoh and I'm a food writer who loves fast food. In this column, I'll review Britain's best-loved junk food chains, revelling in the joys of a 99p Chicken Mayo and giving my professional take on pressing issues like whether McDonald's or Burger King does the best shake and exactly how hot the Nando's spice scale goes.
What is it: Wimpy
Where is it: Largely in Essex – widely acknowledged as the home of good taste
Best innuendo on the menu: Bender in a Bun
Who hates it: Will Self
Why should you go there: Will Self hates it. Plus decadent desserts for less than £3.
Not all restaurants need to be cool. Some carry a prestige with their name that precludes the need for hype. They quietly get on with the job of being great, like steak at Hawksmoor or breakfast at the Wolseley. They know the market they feed and the niche that they dominate, and in this sprawling, saturated food world, that's no small feat. I want to see how it's done. I want to know what it takes to turn a restaurant into a gastronomical institution. I want to go the Wimpy at the top of Southend High Street.
I'm barely through the door before a waiter hurries over to ask if I've had a good morning, and so ingrained are my antisocial impulses that I nearly turn on my heels and walk straight out again. I was expecting, even hoping, that this would be just another faceless fast food experience, where I'd leave full of belly and devastated of spirit, just the way I like it. But Wimpy's not that kind of restaurant, and it doesn't cater to that modern anonymity fetish. From my comfy corner table, I steal a glance at the last of the lunch hour crowd: a couple with a newborn eat burgers along the rear wall; an old man sips a tea; a woman chats contentedly to herself over a toastie. Wimpy has roots deep here in my native Essex – it's home to over 20 percent of its franchises nationwide – and despite its parent company pulling the strings from all the way in South Africa, this feels like a thoroughly local joint. Something strange stirs in my soul: I feel happy.
High on the good vibes and the cheery service, I order a feast. First up is Wimpy's signature dish, as integral to our national identity as Tracy Emin's bed, as iconic as a Banksy on a urinal cake: the Bender in a Bun with Cheese. I'm instantly smitten. There comes a time in our lives where we face up to the truth of who we are and what we stand for – when good taste goes out the window and we're finally brave enough to stand on a bar stool and shout, "I am rude, and gross, and imperfect but I am here and I will not apologise for it." This is what the Bender in a Bun tastes like. It's a frankfurter coiled into a soft bun with plenty of onion, ketchup and cheese, and it's good. Imagine being christened with that name and still having the strength of character (although not flavour, to be completely honest) to be an icon of our times. Be inspired!
Next is the Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Having grown up with the meat-adjacent savouriness of McDonald's burgers, to chow down on this Wimpy burger and be greeted by the flavour of actual cow sends me reeling – it's a little grey but flavourful, well-seasoned and nicely cooked. The bun is real bread too, even with a little flour still clinging to its dusty bottom, and a speckling of wholegrain through the crumb. It's broader and flatter than I'd like, though, particularly given the size of the burger within. I have better luck with the Lemon and Pepper Quorn burger, whose white bread bun is somehow sturdier and breadier. The Quorn patty itself is crispy, fried, salty, and meaty (although I can't be sure where the 'lemon and pepper' went), and the salad is fresh and crunchy. It's a joy to be able to order something vegetarian other than a beanburger (although there's one of those on the menu, too) at a fast food joint, and judging by company's website, being the first chain to introduce Quorn products is something they're rightly proud of, too.
Belly bulging but appetite untroubled, I move on to dessert. The Eton Mess is huge: heavy glass sundae bowl heaped with cloud-like curls, twists and swirls of ice cream, rippled with a shock of bright red berry sauce and fruit. It's so deliciously, decadently baroque, it makes my teeth ache. It is, of course, over-sweet, and maybe there could be a little more sharpness from the berries to balance that saccharine tilt, but I'm happy with it for £2.85. The Syrup Sponge Pudding is a similarly joyous affair: the same soft serve, bright white, vanilla-spiked ice cream, but this time nestled around a hot sponge cake, sodden in sweet syrup. Also on the specials menu was a Sticky Toffee Pudding – a little less sweet and more rounded in its toffee edge. These desserts are about theatre, not subtlety. I love them.
There are of course some things that let me down. I partnered my main course with a full-bodied glass of the house chocolate milkshake, but was disappointed to find that, as smooth and creamy as it was, it delivered but the faintest whisper of cocoa – nothing like the rich, chocolatey clout I'd anticipated. The onion rings left me wanting, too, lacking any discernible onion and encased in a surfeit of soggy, under-seasoned batter. But these things happen. The truth is that in spite of some nice plates and an insistence on the good old-fashioned virtue of cutlery, this is still fast food. Wimpy suffers for its good intentions: in a polyester carton, fumbling with a ketchup sachet and balancing a drink in the crook of our arm, we'll forgive any culinary sin. When the same food is presented to us with Wimpy's level of care, though, good food – hot-off-the-grill food, huge sundaes and thick shakes and sizzling salt-encrusted fries – ends up somehow less-than, if we're not careful to manage our expectations.
By the time I'm done with my Wimpy meal I'm sweating, exhausted – but happy. This is an experience I wasn't sure still existed: somewhere to park your bum while you eat your burger, somewhere you can come in with a gaggle of friends and all cluster around a single Brown Derby (that's a warm doughnut topped with ice cream and chocolate sauce) and sit for hours discussing your crushes. It straddles an American-style cheeriness with a thoroughly British commitment to the greasy spoon culture: there are real bottles of ketchup here, emblazoned with the Union Jack no less; the fries here are still called chips. In what other fast food chain can you wash down a halo of fried frankfurter in a bun with a good cuppa? I love it.
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