Today I thought I'd go and check out the new Westfield shopping centre which has miraculously appeared not far from my house.
I've gotta admit, they've done a good job with it. It's sparkling and brand new, like a shiny castle guarded by multilingual attendants who march around bearing shiny little name badges with flags on to show off how many languages they are proficient in. Anyone would think they're about to hold the Olympic Games here or something. From the outside at least, it seems like the work they put into Westfield Stratford has paid off.
But that's all over once you step inside and realise that it is just in fact, and not surprisingly, another mall - another glossy, homogenised parade of franchises thrown together under one roof. Another place for people to gather and spend their money while being fed messages by the devil of advertising - a temple to the god of consumerism, with psalms like "Buy this!!" "Dress this way!!" "Don't think for yourselves, we can do that for you!!"
In short, another example of the generic, soulless experience which worryingly, is fast becoming the face of shopping everywhere. If you awoke from a coma while standing at the heart of Westfield's central atrium and turned 360°, you wouldn't have a clue where you were other than that you were in a mall somewhere. You could be in any city in any developed country on the planet. But sadly, this scene is now commonplace. Alas, this is the new market square.
Not to say there aren't some similarities with a market square - of course, money is spent. Admittedly a whole lot more money, but it's the same principle, just on a bigger and much grander scale. And as with any place where large numbers of people gather, you get the age-old problem of having a lot of hungry people in one place. Westfield has solved this problem the same way that many other malls have done before - by sticking a selection of the UK's biggest and most well-known restaurants and fast food chains under one roof. After all, if you build it, they will come.
The food court. The Antithesis to everything that is good about food. My nemesis. And Westfield has not one, but three. So I thought I'd take a walk around and see for myself the different options that a hungry shopper might choose to satisfy his or her hunger, in the hope that I might be pleasantly surprised.
Surprise surprise, this was one of the first ones I came across.
Now, Subway is kind of a double-edged sword. Yes, it's a chain. But as a consumer you do have a lot more control over what goes into your end product. And it's gotta be healthier than McDonalds or Burger King, right?? Well, we won't go into that. And a lot of their menus contain a heading entitled "Local Favourites", which has got to be good, right?? Well, we will go into that. I'll always remember something I once read on a Subway pamphlet, along the lines of "If you order one of our sandwiches in Jamaica, then fly to New Zealand and order exactly the same sandwich, you won't be able to taste the difference". Clearly nobody has told them that this isn't a good thing. What's wrong with using what's fresh and what's local?? Anyway... moving on, we have...
"Olive Oil and Oregano". What, do they only serve two ingredients??
And again. Do they only serve sticky rice and nothing else?? Doesn't sound very appetising. What's up with the names in this place??
Of course, the colonel has set up shop...
...as well as the clown.
Mr Ramsden's flying the flag for British enterprise...
... and there's a Spudulike. Sort of a throwback to the '80s which seems to be enjoying a bit of a revival.
Then there's the first of two Caribbean food places, "Caribbean Scene". Or rather "Caribbean Scene Quick". Wait, have they added the word "Quick" to denote that it's supposed to be a fast food place?? That wouldn't go down too well in the slow, laid back pace of the Caribbean.
That covers the first area, which is the most informal of the three and the only one to feature a central dining area with generic tables, obviously designed so that people can get a quick bite to eat then get back to spending their money. The second area is the Great Eastern Market, which is in the area outside Waitrose.
Waitrose obviously decided that one huge green neon sign wasn't enough, and put a second one up. Cunningly, they put it right above the sign that said "Great Eastern Market", so that it looked like they sponsored or were in some way responsible for, the Great Eastern Market. However, the Westfield bigwigs were having none of this, and to avoid any confusion over whose Great Eastern Market it is they put up a smaller sign to the left that simply read "and". And the rest was history. Well, that's probably what happened, anyway.
The Great Eastern Market is a small area built around the escalator outside Waitrose, and looks as if it was designed with an Arabian souk kind of feel in mind. By somebody who has probably never been to an Arabian souk. It's full of places whose menus and literature are full of culinary buzz words such as "artisanal".
Karaway is a prime example.
Opposite is a small moorish tapas bar, Elcantara. I've got to admit this did look intriguing.
Then there's Royal - an Indian sweet shop. Not the kind on your average corner. This one specialises in high-end Indian desserts and they are rather nice if you can stomach the price.
When I saw the sign for "Tap East", I immediately thought of an Eastern-style tapas bar.
However, this was not the case. On further inspection I learned that it is in fact a microbrewery - and rather a cute one as you'll see below. I'm mildly annoyed that in the whole of Westfield this is the one place which most closely resembles a pub, yet they seem ashamed to call it that and so it got labelled with the tag of "microbrewery". The "Stratford City" part was also put there to annoy me. Stratford is not and never will be a city.
Next up, how about a quick nosh??
Then there's "Zack's Authentic Lebanese Deli". Not sure that "Zack" is an authentically Lebanese name.
Not to be outdone, the Italians set up a deli right next door. They called theirs "Arancini", which does at least sound Italian, although what was on offer looked very average for such an upmarket price.
Tucked right around the corner is Westfield's best kept secret - Umai, a Japanese eatery and supermarket. As I could quite easily eat nothing but Japanese food, I was in my element here. Finally there was a reason to keep me coming back - I now have a Japanese supermarket just twenty minutes from my house.
The last place I saw was Arabella. They do nuts and dates and stuff.
Just upstairs from the Great Eastern Market there was this place handing out free samples. After trying one I ran back and immediately grabbed a handful. Mr Pretzel's might just do the nicest cinnamon donuts around.
Then I found myself in the largest of the three "food courts", if you could call them that. You could certainly call this one it, as there was a sign to that effect.
Of course, I was intrigued just to find out how many different world cuisines were represented in the "World Food Court". I must say I was pleasantly surprised.
1 - Japanese. Yo! Sushi does a lot of business on the back of the ‘novelty factor', the whole conveyor belt thing. To be fair though, I've eaten there many a time and the food is not that bad. Of course, it can't hold a candle to properly prepared sushi, but as a representative for Japanese cuisine I'm so glad they went with this and not Wagamama's.
2 - Mexican. Again, another restaurant which has succumbed to the trend of naming itself after a key ingredient in its cuisine. That's like KFC calling itself "Mutant Birds" or my local Chinese takeaway calling itself "Saliva". I've gotta admit this one isn't bad, but then I'm a sucker for all things Mexican, especially Salma Hayek's knockers.
3 - American. Chicago Rib Shack, to be precise.
Apparently, they also do burgers and wings. Though, given the name I was surprised to find out that they do ribs as well.
4 - Thai. And I was delighted to see that it was this place - Rosa's - that they had chosen to represent Thai cuisine. They have their flagship branch in Spitalfields where I have eaten on two occasions and been highly impressed, firstly I was introduced to it by Rob and Maew last year, and I took The Girlfriend there in September. Both times were pretty good experiences.
This whole "World Food Court" seems to have an emphasis on "street food". That is, they are going for a street food feel. They must have been - "Street Food" is mentioned in at least three of the neon signs.
5 - Indian
6 - Vietnamese
7 - Chinese
Street food for me is small, independent retailers doing what they do best or what they have done for years, if not generations. Street food is one of my favourite kinds of food (being a fat guy, I am allowed to have more than one). But it does involve something of a venture into the unknown - walking around a market, trying new things, sampling not only the foods but the smells, the colours and the sounds. It's why I always go to the local market whenever I first arrive in a new place, it allows you to really get a feel of the heart and soul of the place. It seemed like the Westfield planners wanted to capture that feel, but if they were shooting for authenticity, they missed. Something wasn't quite right about it.
8 - Lebanese. "Comptoir Libanais", a.k.a. the home of the giant scary face.
9 - Italian. Well, pizza anyway. Technically more of an American thing but that's another debate.
Banger Bros - Sausages. I can't really count this as a seperate cuisine. "Banger Bros" sounds quite British but then again calling them "dogs" is an American practice for a quintessentially German ingredient. So a bit of a weird one.
10 - Caribbean. And again, overpriced Caribbean. Actually this one seemed even less authentic than the one in the first food court - I think it had something to do with the logo. It kind of gave the impression that Levi Roots wasn't too far away. In fact I hurried on in case he popped out from behind the fake palm trees.
11 - British. Fish & chips, Or "Chip & Fish", as they like to call it. That makes it sound like you get loads of individual fishes but only one chip.
And finally, not really a cuisine but they had a healthier eating option, a place lovingly entitled "Tossed". I'm not eating their salad dressing.
So that covers all of the food courts. Upstairs there is a Gourmet Burger Kitchen, TGI's and a few others, and there are a few more restaurants outside including, I'm told, a Brazilian barbecue. It was a bit too cold to venture out there, though. With all of these, plus the various kiosks dotted around which serve ice cream, coffee, donuts, etc, you are actually spoiled for choice. Which brand will you go for today??
And if it all goes horribly wrong, there's always Greggs.
Good old Greggs, home of the Chicken Tikka sandwich with thousand island sauce. I love how this branch has been given a good old polish which your average high street branch is often lacking.
Overall, the food options at Westfield may be vastly numbered, but they are there out of necessity and nothing else. It seems like when the various chains heard Westfield was being built, they all wanted a piece of the action. And sadly in a world where money is king, Westfield's big cheeses had the opportunity to do something really innovative with the food scene, instead they passed it up to the highest bidder. Their attempt at recreating a street food scene using corporate outlets was laughable, a plastic chopstick through the heart of the small business. What's even more annoying is that they only needed to hop on the tube up to Camden Town to see how it should be done. If you're a gourmand with a sense of adventure such as myself, you should definitely look further afield than Westfield.
On the other hand, if you like wearing labels and fitting in with the crowd, and hate trying new things or *heaven forbid* actually thinking for yourself and coming up with your own ideas, go to Westfield. You'll love it. But please stop calling it "Stratford City", I beg you.