This piece was written in March 2012 when there was a lot of muttering in Greenwich about the new building being constructed at the Pierhead just by the refurbished Cutty Sark; it wasn’t architecturally in keeping, people said, and the four restaurants that would occupy it were all chains. Green Village and Soteri’s are two local restaurants catering solely to the tourist trade – union jacks, posters in the window for fish and chips, you know the sort of place; Green Village is still there, despite always being empty, though Soteri’s has thankfully now gone.
When early inhabitants of Stratford and Walthamstow first paddled their goatskin coracles down the Lea and out into the deep and turbid waters of the Thames, what went through their minds, I wonder, as they warily eyed the squalid huddle of straw-topped huts on the muddy southern shore and saw emerge from within them several dozen squat, hairy trolls brandishing sticks and rocks and rocks-on-sticks? No doubt they simply shook their handsome heads and – after a bit more hunting and gathering in the upcoming Canning Town area – rowed back upstream to their Essex hearths to eat some steak and berries and count their blessings (counting having recently been invented by a short-tempered hunter from Leyton who kept losing track of what he’d gathered).
It seems a perfectly reasonable reaction and, over the generations, such attitudes tend to get encoded in the genes – which is why, when I was growing up in Leytonstone, most people were still of much the same mind about folk from across the water. “South of the river?” they’d murmur with eyebrows raised. “It’s all a bit Millwall over there, isn’t it?”
First impressions, to put it bluntly, are tenacious. Which is why people are currently making such a big hoo-ha about the slew of gaudy new restaurants under construction beside Greenwich’s rebuilt pier. Nando’s, Zizzi, Frankie & Benny’s… all these, protestors say, give visitors totally the wrong impression of our town: such eateries should be stuck between World of Leather and a 10-screen multiplex, not blocking the sightlines at a UNESCO World Heritage site. What’s more, they add, whipping their hobby horse into a blinkered frenzy, they’ll draw custom from local independent restaurants.
Well, possibly. But are these people seriously suggesting that a tourist’s first vision of Greenwich, when he or she steps unsteadily off the Thames Clipper, should be not Nando’s or Zizzi but a new waterfront outpost of Green Village or Ristorante Soteri, each containing a solitary sad-faced couple in beige slacks trying to choose between the chef’s special cottage pie or the margherita pizza with salad and chips?
Plus a stall selling tiny frosted cupcakes at £3.50 a pop?
I must admit, I’ve never actually been in a Nando’s. As a vegetarian, I’m not really their target demographic. Our Spanish chums may regard the chicken as a herb and the pig as a garnish but here in the UK, thankfully, vegetarianism still means not eating things that can look up at you with big sad eyes and whisper “why me?” But my carnivorous chums speak very highly of the peri-peri chicken, and apparently the staff are treated pretty decently, so… if I have to spend the rest of my life in a silky cape Fighting Evil (for those who’ve ever wondered about my day-job), I think I’ll give Nando’s a miss and reserve my superpowers for Michael Gove.
I’ve never eaten at a Zizzi either, but I’ve just looked at their menu on-line and it all seems perfectly acceptable, once you’ve remembered that buffalo mozzarella doesn’t actually contain any buffalos. To be honest, it’s probably exactly what you’d want if you’d just had a sixty-minute boat ride from Westminster Pier on which the only refreshments available were Carlsberg and Twix. Just like Pizza Express was exactly what we wanted when we ended up in Guildford the other week and needed somewhere decent but efficient that would let us get to the theatre by 7 p.m. (I’ve no idea if there were sit-ins and effigy burnings when Pizza Express opened opposite St Alfege’s in Greenwich, by the way – it was before my time. My suspicion is probably not, though, because people like Pizza Express. Pizza Hut, of course, wouldn’t have done at all; if Pizza Hut had moved in, irate locals would have been hurtling down Crooms Hill in 4x4s to chain themselves to the salad station before you could say “sorry, you want to stuff what in my crust?”)
Oh, obviously it would be lovely if the tourists all piled into our local restaurants and bars; but then it would be lovely if our local restaurants and bars offered something worth piling into. Peter de Wit’s café may well be a Greenwich institution, for instance, but advertising an all-day-breakfast in your window makes little sense if, at 2 p.m., the sign on your door says SHUT. Obviously the great thing about being independent is that you have a perfect right to be as bloody-minded as you want, and to pull down the blinds at the very point in the day at which people most want to eat, just as you have a perfect right to ban astronauts or people wearing wimples, but… it’s clearly not a business model that the big chains have been tempted to emulate.
Which is why they’re big chains and not an endless source of frustration and bewilderment.
But, equally, we all have a right to protest, so… please, dear endlessly miffed people of Greenwich, rage on, rage on. Though I still feel that objecting to the coming of Nando’s by sacrificing a chicken in the grounds of the National Maritime Museum (see photo) makes you look a bit, well, too much in touch with your pagan side.
But, then again, I am from across the water.