Dress Down Friday

I Love Nandos

I’d never been to a Nandos, until Brett took me.

We had just been to a talk on gays in the Middle East, with a very buff looking Mr Gay Universe, who was a lawyer from Tel Aviv, and an American SWP woman with an anglo saxon surname, representing the perspective of Palestinian Trotksyites on the issue.

An hour and a half of that, and we were ready for food.

What can I say. Nandos serve absolutely delicious chicken, pepped up with a scrummy hot pepper sauce. There’s also spicy rice, sweet potato, salads, and even decent food for those with a phobia of meat. Brett had the mushroom and halloumi cheese burger.

The whole menu is here. It may be a chain-restaurant’s take on the cuisine of Mozambique, but it isn’t that far removed from dishes I have been served in Portugal. Perhaps Paul Fauvet can let me know.

Nandos started life as a small restaurant called Chickenland in Johannesburg. Now it exists in twenty five different countries. It is nice to think that the Qataris and Fijians have a chance to taste southern African food.

So I am really looking forward to the opening of the brand new Nando’s, Church Street, Stoke Newington.

Now, the next bit of this post will make me sound a little, well, Spiked-Online-ish.

Back in the day that Stoke Newington was home to the Angry Brigade and members of the Baader Meinhoff gang on the run, rather than the singularly unimpressive jihadis who now operate out of N16, there was a jazz bar called the Vortex. Now, I hate jazz as much as Johnny, but I don’t begrudge a little atonal happiness to those who feel differently. It was OK. They did a passable full English breakfast, served on a rickety table. There was a second hand bookshop on the ground floor, which also sold wrapping paper. I went there, three or four times a year, perhaps.

The Vortex is owned by a man called Richard Midda. Mr Midda decided that he was going to redevelop the Vortex. The jazz club moved to another site. The Vortex was immediately squatted by some rather nice punks, including somebody who used to be in the anarchist group, Crass. They called their squat a Community Centre and had a gig in it. I met them. They were very entertaining people.

The rumour began to circulate that the Vortex was to be turned into… a Starbucks. Richard Midda assured local residents that this was not so. I was slightly disappointed. After all, Christmas isn’t Christmas until you’ve had a Starbucks Gingerbread-and-Coffee flavoured hot milk drink.

Mr Midda became very unpopular locally: not only with punks, but also with jolly looking ladies with round spectacles who write for the Guardian. Here is one of them:

I am suitably outraged and immediately sign their petition against the encroachment of international capitalism to our little enclave. Why on earth would we want a Tesco or a Starbucks on a street which already has several extremely congenial independent coffee bars and some perfectly good Turkish-owned grocery shops?

I, for one, vow never to darken the doors of any Starbucks which might dare to encroach on our neighbourhood. And as for Tesco, that hideous red and blue logo just wouldn’t work here. We are a Waitrose neighbourhood – if we are to be invaded by supermarkets we’d rather have them in a tasteful shade of green.

Angela Phillips is right to mock herself. Others took themselves more seriously.

Anyhow, Richard Midda wasn’t lying. The Vortex didn’t become a Starbucks. It turned into a Nandos.

Some Stoke Newington residents were beside themselves with fury. They have established a Boycott Nandos website, on which – like some 19th century temperance campaigner – you can “Sign the Pledge” never to eat at the restaurant.

(A short digression – I once boycotted a restaurant. I vowed not to buy a meal from McDonalds, in protest against their prolonged and absurd legal bullying of some zany anarchists, who wanted to argue that McDonalds was bad because it encouraged people to eat cows. This boycott lasted the duration of the trial. It only extended to buying McDonalds, though: not eating them. Fortunately, my wife could be relied upon to purchase a Big Mac for me, from time to time, without my having to actually pay for them myself. My conscience was spared.)

The original argument against Nandos, is that Church Street is a folksy sort of place, filled with little shops selling nick knacks, and dinky little restaurants. A chain store would spoil that, so the argument goes. Well, actually, there are loads of chains in N16 already. There’s an Oddbins, for a start. And then there’s Whole Foods, the US supermarket company which took over Fresh and Wild.

Now, I don’t have any visceral objection to chains at all, or indeed to branded goods. The whole purpose of brands, after all, is to give customers an assurance of what they’ll get: because a chain with brands has a product which has to be consistently good, or else the reputation of everything that they produce suffers. The first registered trademark was for Bass Beer: a drink so delicious that prior to the introduction of a law protecting brands, shameless attempts by rival brewers were made to pass off their inferior product as Bass. So, I know with Nandos that I have a half decent chance of not being poisoned, or disappointed by my meal.

Not that I have anything against little local shops either, mind you. I do most of my food shopping, not at Whole Foods- who once sold me a fabulously expensive “organic” chicken which was past its prime to the point of rankness – but in Kurdish or Turkish run groceries, where the veg in particular is fantastic, and where you can get huge bunches of fresh herbs for pennies. I had my lute restrung at the local violin makers. The locally run wine shop is actually better than Oddbins, so I tend to go there, even though Oddbins is a little closer. It was at the Kebab shop at the top of Church Street that I first sampled a fantastic dish called “Rams Reproductive Organ”. And Il Bacio produces pizzas so good, that I never buy one from anywhere else.

In fact, one of our little local restaurants – Rasa – became a national chain. If you’ve ever eaten there, you’ll know why it succeeded.

So, why has Nandos become so hated? Why do so many people want to boycott it, but haven’t risen with burning torches to chase Whole Foods out of town? Johnny Void knows:

Now the plight of Hackney’s middle classes is hard to get too upset over, the latte slurpers took over that part of Stoke Newington a long time ago and even the Angry Brigade couldn’t save it now.

But it does offer a timely warning to the ciabatta munching chinless ones. The final stage of gentrification is that the big corporations move in and that lovely little deli becomes a Tescos and the simply wonderful Thai restaurant turns into Pizza Express.

That’s capitalism folks.

He’s right. Nandos is likely to succeed because it is popular. It may not be popular with “latte slurpers” – who frankly don’t know what they’re missing out on – but it is popular with most of the ordinary, not-so-rich people who live in Hackney. When you go to a Nandos, you’ll see families from all cultural backgrounds eating together. It is a particularly good place for teenagers: and there’s no other similar venue for them in the street. Many of the restaurants are Halal. One, in South Africa, is Kosher. In fact, the last time I went, I saw a little kid, with his dad who was African, wearing tsitsit and a yarmulke munching away on a chicken leg. He was a student at the Jewish-themed primary school, Simon Marks.

In fact, all sorts of people eat at Nandos. Rich, poor, gourmets, snackers. And I’ll be one of them.

I reckon that the horror that Nandos represents to the “latte sippers”, is that it will attract people like us to Church Street.

UPDATE

Ben Locker is thinking the same thing.

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