Hampshire, U.K.: Little Chef

The last time I ate at Little Chef, the U.K.’s largest chain of motorway fast-food outlets, the kitchen had a power outage, so they couldn’t make my omelet. “The microwave isn’t working,” the waiter said. That was three years ago, before the company’s new owners called in Heston Blumenthal to pep up the menus and showcase the often-painful evolution on a reality TV show. I decided I owed Little Chef another visit. Driving out to Popham, about an hour southwest of London, I found the recently revamped pilot branch looking more like a U.S. diner made over by Paul Smith—with witty details (a cloud mural on the ceiling) and a chic red-and-white color scheme—than the dowdy rest stop all Brits had come to know. More importantly, the menu now showed some respect for British fast-food: Braised ox cheeks were slow-cooked until tender in a sauce rich with red wine, pearl onions, and lots of bosky wild mushrooms—a stunner of a dish worthy of the best gastropubs. There was no more plastic cartons of UHT (“ultra-heat-treated”) milk; it now came properly warmed in a jug to accompany the coffee. And as for wine, it is now dispensed by the glass from Enomatic wine-preservation machines. I’m looking forward to a return trip, possibly to try Blumenthal’s take on those hoary clichés of British road food: scampi, chicken tikka masala, and banoffee pie. P.S. They’re not nuking the omelets anymore.

Little Chef A303 Popham Services, Micheldever, Winchester, SO21 3SP, Hampshire (01256-398490; littlechef.co.uk)



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