1 Castle Terrace
When you think of positive living in Edinburgh, it’s not green tea and brown rice that spring to mind. Rather, it’s brown bags and green junkies. Scotland’s tried its hardest to shake off the heroin tag Irvine Welsh unwittingly nailed to it in the mid nineties, though to this day Scottish battle rappers get it tight from their English counterparts thanks to the jagged legacy of Trainspotting.
15 years since Ewan McGregor memorably pegged it down Princes Street with security on his heels, Edinburghians still groan when the phrase positive living is bandied about by visitors. They’re over Trainspotting; they’ve chosen life and now they want to put all that heroin crap behind them. The HIV jokes have been heard a thousand times before – that shit got bored around the time of dial-up. Nowadays, Fringe comedians have gravitated to other national embarrassments, like the trams and, well, the trams to name but two. So why, in 2011, has Wagamama decided to afflict Edinburgh’s bemused population with an AIDS joke that’s a decade too late?
‘Positive Living’ reads the slogan engraved onto the window of Edinburgh’s Wagamama restaurant. It’s a brazen move in a city once so blighted by HIV, and yet none of the clientele seem bothered by this jibe – the noodle bar is rammed and there’s not a bum cheek of space on the long wooden benches.
This seems a little strange.
It’s late at night, for one thing, in the middle of a nondescript week in early November. There are other oriental joints along this road – noodle bars that are cheaper and just as tasty. But Izzi is empty and Wagamama is full.
There was once a time when churches were places of God and banks were impregnable places of money. These days, the banks have all been converted into Starbucks and the churches into pubs. As a consequence, we now put our savings into pubs and worship in Starbucks, an arrangement which suits our secular society just fine. A former bank on the corner of Lothian Road and Castle Terrace has bucked that trend however. Instead of converting into yet another coffee shop chain, it’s elected to become – wait for it – a noodle bar chain. How refreshingly original.
Walking through the frosted glass doors of Wagamama is like witnessing a post-apocalyptic clash of cultures. Two sides of Edinburgh set against one another: from the George Street side of the city, the rahs and the wankers pile in to touch chopsticks in the trendiest new chain in town. From the Meadows – from Nicholson Street and Tollcross – the vegans, hippies and students amble in. Wagamama is the shared church where they come to worship and enjoy a culinary amnesty. Wagamama is neither too cheap nor too expensive. Their menu is diverse but not overwhelming. The ordering system is easy. They have a balance of vegetarian and carnivorous options. Wagamama is so middle of the road, it’s doing the splits on the white line. It’s so deep in the Goldilocks zone, it’s eating baby bear’s porridge. Everyone goes to Wagamama because it’s the only place that everyone can agree on.
For those who’ve never heard of Wagamama (the finger-smelling hobbit who stots about Tollcross being the only candidate who springs to mind), it’s basically the Pizza Express of the noodle world, but without those annoying emails that ping into your inbox every five minutes. Wagamama, thankfully, know better than that, or is it simply that I’ve yet to sign up for their Bacn?
The food in Wagamama is predictably good, but in a different way to that of Pizza Express, of which Edinburgh Uncovered opined ‘it’s predictable but it’s also consistently good. Basically, Pizza Express is sex with an ex.’
If Wagamama could be likened to a sexual experience, it would be like getting a perfunctory handjob from a bored Polish hooker: it’s clean, it’s clinical and it’s fleetingly satisfying in a completely soulless way.
It’s moreish too. Once you’ve tasted that Chicken Ramen and Gyoza, you know you’ll be back next week. And the week after that. And for your birthday and Christmas nights out. That shit’s addictive. It’s like a drug. Eating Wagamama is like jagging smack. It’s Positive Living.
Why are so many Edinburgh establishments accompanied by such awful slogans? Le Monde with its olfactory-twitching ‘Inhale life’. Wagamama with its vein-twitching ‘Positive Living’. What next: a children’s violin workshop to spring up with the strapline ‘Kiddy Fiddlers Welcome’?
Had Wagamama tried to introduce its brand of positive living a decade ago, they’d have gotten their windows panned in for their impudence. These days, Edinburgh would appear to have gotten over its HIV stigma, to the extent where it’s apparently now acceptable to launch a restaurant that mocks AIDS victims. They were an angry bunch in the 80s, weren’t they? That’s why all their fashionable diseases were written in capital letters. Try using such language today on the web and you’d get reproached for shouting. If AIDS were to be discovered now, it would probably be branded as iAds and come complete with its own iHv Awareness app. With AIDS now a distant memory (unless you’ve currently got AIDS, in which case it’s a permanent reminder), it would appear it’s now safe for Wagamama to set up shop. It’s telling, though, that even Aberdeen got its own Wagamama before Edinburgh, so terrified were they of their Positive Living slogan giving passing Edinburghians flashbacks to Renton’s head disappearing into a shitty toilet bowl.
Thankfully for Wagamama, it’s 2012, aka the era of Who Gives a F**k. Tasteless taglines? It’s cool – no one cares. AIDS jokes? Go ahead – do your worst. So long as the proletariat can be seen slurping Ramen in the coolest new joint in town, it’s all good. Next month it’ll be time to pick up scandalously cheap bargains in Primark on Princes Street without sparing a thought for the provenance of their cut-price garments. This month, it’s all about filling our bellies with Wagamama and overlooking its shameful slight on Edinburgh’s HIV sufferers. And why shouldn’t we eat and be merry in Wagamama? It’s positive eating after all – positive eating that leads to positive living, lest we forget.
If you desire the same fixed price satisfaction every time, you’ll love the tasty tastefulness of Wagamama. If you live for the unexpected however – if you’d rather your chefs figged you with the ginger than sprinkled it on your Yaki Udon – don’t go to Wagamama. In fact don’t go anywhere – stay at home and do that shit yourself, weirdo.
I love Wagamama and yet I hate it. I feel like the pornstar who’s just learned that the dirtie he’s throat-fu**ing on set is his long-lost daughter. Talk about mixed emotions. I love Wagamama for its food but I hate it for its gimmicks and clever marketing. The noodle chain are as bad as Pizza Express with their dough balls – sorry, Dough Balls™ – flaunting pizza offcuts as gourmet treats. When you actually take a moment to consider Wagamama’s supposed USPs, you come to realise that they are in fact the complete opposite – their purported strengths are really Useless Selling Points.
Here are five reasons why everything that you think’s good about Wagamama is actually shit:
The seating ‘plan’. Isn’t it rustic and charming that you get to sit on unpretentious bench seats at shared tables like proper Japanese who respect their elders and would rather commit harakiri than live in a world that forbids whalefanticide? No – it’s not! They usher you into bench seats like convicted felons getting dragged into county court. You’re squeezed in so tight that if the customer at the far end imbibes another edamame bean, you’re in danger of getting shunted off the edge. The waiters seat diners like they’re playing Tetris, jamming them in any which way so long as all the spaces get filled.
There’s nothing traditional or authentic about Wagamama’s seating plan: it’s just a cynical device to shoe-horn in as many people as possible. It allows them to maximise revenue and saves the staff’s blushes if they end up double booking a table. Even if there’s no room left on the bench, they’ll somehow find room on the bench; there’s always more room on the bench – you just cram ‘em in like passengers on the Sonderzuge to Treblinka.
Aside from the inconvenience of rubbing shoulders with fellow diners, the seating arrangement in Wagamama has another major flaw: the odds of going to the bathroom and returning to the wrong seat – bench; whatever – are substantial. Get it wrong and you risk eating the wrong dinner. Get it really wrong and you risk putting your arm around the wrong date. If you’re one of the lucky few, you could end up going home with a partner who’s way out of your league; more often than not however, you’ll end up walking away with her ugly sister.
‘Dishes are cooked to order so may arrive at separate times’. That’s funny because I’ve never been to a restaurant where they’ve had trouble scheduling the arrival of my courses because I had the temerity to ask that my food be cooked freshly. I don’t recall going to an Italian restaurant and having to wade through Tiramisu before I could enjoy my Antipasti. No, this is just laziness. Given how accomplished Wagamama’s food is, there’s no disputing the chefs’ talents. So why do these capable cooks seem to have so much trouble controlling the sequence in which they send out plates? Try telling your kids that they’ll have to watch daddy eat his noodles because the chef hasn’t cooked their Mini Chicken Katsu yet. It hurts to have to see your young ‘uns sitting hawk-eyed, watching your plate for so much as a morsel to be spilt, before clamouring for the tit-bit like cockroaches in a mastectomy clinic. Bringing dishes out in an arbitrary order is wrong. In fact it’s one of the worst crimes a chain restaurant can commit. It’s almost as bad as Nando’s charging customers upfront for their food, but that’s a rant for another time. (Next week, to be precise.)
They soil your place mat while you eat. You’re sitting there enjoying your meal when a waitress comes over to ask if you’d like another drink. You politely say no and suddenly she leans forward and scribbles on the edge of your table mat. What’s that all about? How did a simple ‘No’ turn into ‘Please invade my personal space and strike up a game of bingo on my place mat’? Then, just as you’re getting over the trauma of having your privacy invaded, another one comes over and asks if you’re enjoying your meal. You open your mouth to complain about the graffiti and before you can speak, she’s gone and exacerbated it by wapping out her pen and defacing your place mat some more! They’re like nurses, hovering by your bedside and ticking off charts to denote the last time you passed a solid stool. What exactly do they scrawl on your table mat anyway? No one knows. Like every other Briton under the age of 25, Wagamama’s staff have spent too many years texting fervently on Nokias, BlackBerries and iPhones. They can’t recall how to wield a pen; no one can; hence their childish attempts at scrawling their tag on your place mat.
The place mat desecration doesn’t just end there, either. The moment you stand up to leave the restaurant, the staff swiftly move in to crumple your paper place mat and lob it in the bin along with your chopsticks. When you think about it, Wagamama is just another disposable fast food joint; it’s a McDonald’s or a Burger King. It’s not even as good as Wimpy, where you get proper knives and forks; nor is it as good as TGI Friday’s, where the staff will form balloons into animal shapes. The closest you’ll get to that in Wagamama is when they make a horse’s arse out of your place mat.
For the avoidance of any doubt, I don’t like the staff fiddling with my place mat in Wagamama – it’s invasive and it’s unnecessary. It’s like going to collect a repeat prescription from the doctors and being forced to give a semen sample while you’re there. In the crowded waiting room. With your parents in attendance. And a live YouTube broadcast. And stuff.
‘Isn’t it clever how they can transmit your order electronically to the kitchen?’ Who cares? The kitchen’s, like, three feet away. You don’t see people getting excited at their laptop being able to transmit wirelessly to their printer on the opposite side of the lounge, do you? If they really wanted to be cool, they’d invent an app so that you could order dinner from your bench without even needing to summon the waitress. A completely pointless embellishment, but one we’d all fall for, just as we fall for all of Wagamama’s other pointless USPs.
‘Sure, the meals aren’t that cheap, but the green tea is on the house’. Of course it’s complimentary – the last time I checked the stock markets, green tea was selling for less than Royal Wedding souvenirs. It costs pennies to make an Olympic-sized swimming pool’s worth of the stuff. They can afford to give away green tea in the same way that Chinese takeaways give away prawn crackers with every order over 20p. That’s how it works; they reel you in with promises of complimentary green tea before filling your stomach with noodles and draining your wallet of spondoolies. Sure, technically it’s your fault for being a greedy bastard, but in today’s unaccountable, sloping shoulders society, it’s far more expedient to blame Wagamama for your positive living and negative bank balance.
In fairness to Wagamama, it’s technically not an expensive restaurant – nothing on the menu costs more than £12. When you break down the cost of the raw ingredients however, and compare that with the profit they make on each dish, you realise that Wagamama is the biggest moneymaking venture this side of passing Gogaine off as ‘banging charlie’ at £60 a pop. Think about the core ingredients that go into your Wagamama: noodles, rice, miso paste and boiling water. The green tea – that’s damn pricey, admittedly, but otherwise, it’s all cheap as chopsticks. In Asia, this stuff is sold as peasants’ food at roadsides and market stalls for 5p a bowl. Wagamama, with their Pizza Express-like marketing nous, take the very same dishes and sell them to the middle classes at 1000% mark-up. Smart Wagamama, stupid us.
If you’re wondering why Pizza Express and Wagamama keep cropping up in this review incidentally, it’s because they’re essentially the same thing – one is a synonym of the other. Ostensibly, they offer completely different cuisine from two completely different continents, and yet the duo are becoming inextricably linked as the marketing machinations they use to entice punters become ever more incestuous and intertwined.
As we creep towards an era of culinary convergence, it won’t be long before the Wagamamas and Pizza Expresses of the world will serve up the same cuisine in the same identikit establishments. If you want to know what chain restaurant food will taste like in ten years’ time, all you have to do is perform this simple experiment:
Kidnap three customers from Pizza Express, Nando’s and Wagamama respectively. Chain them together to form the human centipede. Sew the mouth of one onto the anus of the other, and position a bucket at the end of the human chain. Sit back and wait for nature to take its course. When the first one shits, it will induce a chain reaction of chain restaurant food, passing from the anus of one to the mouth and stomach of the middle one and finally through the digestive tracts of the last victim. Collect the homogenous, glutinous mess that drips out the anus of the last one and taste it off your fingers. It’s a little bit Wagamama, it’s a little bit Nando’s, it’s a little bit shitty. It’s the food of the future.
This might sound like a dystopian vision, but sadly it’s the way our chain restaurants are going. In spite of all the doom and gloom however, there’s still a glimmer of hope. If we’re lucky, Wagamama might yet resist the overtures of Pizza Express, and instead creep into the raw embrace of Yo! Sushi. What’s so good about the prospect of this Asian union? The simple fact that the day the Yo! Sushi and Wagamama chains join forces and merge into one, they will form a single, unstoppable entity that shall henceforth be known as……….