Publicly, we all pretend to support local eateries; you know – the ones who use locally-sourced ingredients with fresh seasonal produce, good Scottish beef, artisan bread and wine from the owner’s Mediterranean vineyard. Mind you, publicly, Ryan Giggs is a family man and I don’t kill prostitutes. In private however, when we think the rest of the world aren’t watching, it’s a different story. When Friday rolls around, as it tends to do once a week, our thoughts inevitably turn to food, drink and Rebecca Black songs. On such occasions, a plan will often be formulated to go for a meal after work. What better opportunity to taste the goodness of Scotland’s natural larder whilst doing our bit to support the local dining scene?
But that’s not actually true, is it? In fact it’s a total skip-load of bollocks. Sure, we will venture out for a bite after work but it’s for one reason only – to line our stomachs prior to getting completely shit-faced and winding up sucking tits/groping dick on the Stereo dancefloor. The meal is merely a means to an end, a convenient excuse for grabbing a post-dinner pint that turns into a lost weekend of Sheen-esque proportions. Forget your rustic gastropubs and bijou brasseries – on Friday nights, there is only one eatery that provides the stepping stone to bigger and badder things – Pizza Express.
It’s clean and it’s predictable but it’s also consistently good. Basically, Pizza Express is sex with an ex. Assuming you have an ex in every British city, that is. Different locations, same reliably good shag. I eat you, you eat me, we piece till you come twice, I spaff on your chebs and then we share Dough Balls with Nutella for dessert. Hits the spot every time.
We can deny it all we like – we can even take out super injunctions in a belated attempt to conceal our shame – and yet there’s no escaping the fact that we consistently do it.
Sat at their contemporary table (their regular contemporary table) with its single gerbera in the single vase, couples eye each other awkwardly under the soft glow of the blue halogen lights. It’s not first date nerves; no, they know each other intimately all right, even if they did only meet an hour ago in the cheap hotel around the corner. The reason for their discomfiture swiftly becomes apparent when the waitress appears, notepad in hand.
‘Do…do you want to show her?’ stutters the female diner, glancing warily at her companion.
He scowls and pats his pockets. ‘My BlackBerry doesn’t display the email properly. Could you do the honours?’
Her eyes dart fleetingly heavenward and she delves into her handbag, rummaging for a moment before emerging, flustered, clutching a crumpled piece of paper. She peers up at the waitress from beneath her ruffled fringe. ‘We’ve got a…’
‘A voucher. Yeah that’s fine,’ smiles the waitress, prising it from the woman’s perspiring palm.
The man furtively scans the room and, relieved to discover that his fellow diners haven’t witnessed this grubby transaction, clears his throat. ‘Ahem. So, are we ready to order then? Darling?’
Yeah, you can laugh, but you’re just as bad – we all are because we all do it. We traipse there in twos, like ark-boarding mammals, before clustering around those circular tables with their singular blooms. For it is forbidden of course to enter Pizza Express and request a table for one – this is a couples restaurant, where couples go to do couply things in a reserved British fashion, before politely requesting a discount in a similarly-reserved British fashion. We don’t go there in search of the unexpected – we go there because we demand a quick fix of absolute certainty. ‘Fusion cooking? Haggis pakora? F*** off – just give me my dough balls and cannelloni and leave me alone will you!’ It’s like popping past your dealer’s to grab a 20 sack and instead of producing your usual sticky-licky, he waps out an arsehole-shaped piece of Afghan black. In spite of his insistent pleas for you to try this ‘banging shit’ however, you demur, opining that you’d rather stick with what you know. When he resignedly lobs your bag of the usual across the table, you grab at it and make a sharp exit before the stench of his dreads becomes too overpowering. Job done, you can afford to nip home for a quick splifter of the old familiar before heading for your scheduled date – usual time, usual place, usual Pollo Ad Astra pizza.
We expect our date to meet us at eight o’clock sharp, a quick aperitif in an adjacent cocktail bar and then on to Pizza Express for dinner and civilised chat about Libya, Syria and other countries ending in -a that we care deeply about, but not deeply enough to actually visit. Upon being escorted to our table, it commences: the surreptitious process of glancing at smart phones that are hidden in handbags, doing our utmost not to seem like the cheapskates that we collectively are. It is not texts that we are sending but rather data we are receiving in the form of e-vouchers, that intangible currency that enables us to enjoy our Pizza Express for half price, the same price that we always pay for it, the same price that everyone always pays for it. All around us, the rustle of handbags and swish of touch screens denotes our fellow diners covertly performing the same ritual, all except for the ignorant couple in the corner who have no idea how the de facto Pizza Express club operates. They pay full price every time so that the rest of us can feel smug about the savings we’ve made.
A long time ago, when Edinburgh Uncovered pretended to be a serious review blog, you could have expected to receive pertinent information that would enable you to reach an informed decision as to an establishment’s merits. That was then – about six weeks ago to be precise – and this is now. These days, like a closet homosexual who has finally come to terms with his uber-gayness, it feels liberating to be able to tell the world ‘I love boobs! And Joseph Fritzl jokes! And laughing at my own smug asides! I don’t give a damn about imparting useful information – it just feels liberating not to be crafting slick vomit-inducing copy for clients. (Note to any clients who are reading this: I don’t mean you – I love working for you with all my heart. I was on about all the other clients.)
In reviewing Pizza Express for this blog, I am not only casting my verdict on their North Bridge establishment, but I am judging Pizza Express restaurants the length and breadth of the country. It’s a measure of how universal the EU blog is. Now readers in Southport can decide whether their local PE’s worth checking out on the basis of a restaurant review 500 miles away. If the verdict is favourable, the Pizza Express empire will continue to go from strength to strength. If it’s bad, the whole chain could crumple like a calzone. That is the power of Edinburgh Uncovered, or at least so my alter-ego Bob likes to think. I am Caesar in the amphitheater, the raising or lowering of my thumb determining whether the gladiator lives or dies. No doubt there are many who would like to see Pizza Express suffer a slow and agonising death. The chain has become so ubiquitous in recent years that it is in danger of becoming the anarchist’s soft target of choice. With Tesco branches now reproducing faster than you can pan in their windows, it’s only a matter of time before crudely spray-painted “A”s start appearing on a Pizza Express near you.
With its clean, contemporary decor, bathed in the warm glow of soft pastel down-lighting, Pizza Express North Bridge is an attractive restaurant, but then you know that already. I could tell you how good the food is, but again you know that already. That’s the thing about Pizza Express; long before that voucher has landed in your inbox around midday, you’ve already decided what you’re going to have and you already know how it’s going to taste – exactly the same as it tasted last time, and the same as it will taste the next time. Reassuring as such consistency is, it can all become a bit predictable. It’s almost as if you’ve already tasted and excreted the food before you’ve eaten it. Oh for the unpredictability that comes from going to an unknown restaurant and having your steak burnt by the chef, your conversation spoilt by screaming toddlers and yet the worst dining experience of your life redeemed by blagging the hot waiter’s number. Of course you’re gonna have the dough balls to start followed by the Romana pizza; that’s just how it works.
Why do we keep going back to the same chains to eat the same meals, just as we keep queueing up to pay over the odds for the same Starbucks latte every morning? I guess we do so because it’s just what we do; in a world laced with uncertainties, it’s nice to be able to count on something to consistently hit the spot. Pizza Express is warm and familiar; it’s like a wank with a battered porno that we’ve been using ever since Uncle Reggie gave it to us as a 12th birthday present which, in hindsight, was probably a bit dodgy.
Competent as PE’s main courses are, it is their dough balls that provoke the strongest reaction from the chain’s army of devoted regulars. Any company that can take a waste product (pizza base offcuts) and turn it into a coveted dish that premenstrual women will double-park just to taste deserve credit. When it comes to marketing, Pizza Express are the dark lords. As well as successfully passing off dough balls as a gourmet treat, they have achieved the impossible in perennially having a half-price sale without ever appearing downmarket or tacky. DFS would kill for such marketing nous.
On the occasion of my visit, the slick Pizza Express dining experience was marred by a butter-fingered waiter who seemed intent on returning every plate to the kitchen with the aid of a dustpan and brush. I could only assume that he learned his handling skills from the obstetrician who delivered him into the world. In spite of his abject failure, it was reassuring, amidst such relentless efficiency, to experience the human touch that brings any business to life. Worst Waiter of the Year, I salute you, for there is more character in each of your slippery fingers than there is in the entire Pizza Express chain.
Postscript: The dough balls are rather tasty though, aren’t they?
Try: Who are you kidding? It’s Pizza Express; you’ve tried it twice this week already.
Avoid: Go on, just for a week, avoid PE. I dare you.
Typical prices: With voucher, pretty reasonable. Without voucher? Don’t be silly. Anyone who goes there without a voucher is a Loo-zer.Pizza Express Coming soon to a leafy suburb near you
Also at: 23 North Bridge
Tel: 0131 557 6411