HARRY RAMSDEN’S, CARDIFF BAY
What with the contemporary Doctor Who series being filmed in Cardiff, it would be entirely fair to say that if the doc himself ever misplaced his TARDIS, he could find his replacement in Harry Ramsden’s at Cardiff Bay – if he wanted to return to the 1990s, that is.
For the fans of fact, Harry Ramsden’s is the longest-running restaurant chain in the United Kingdom, having begun in 1928, the same year Mickey and Minnie Mouse made their famous début in ‘Plane Crazy’. Equally as exciting (to some), Harry Ramsden, as the romantic story tells, opened his first offering of the traditional fish and chip dish the to British public in the confines of a wooden hut in West Yorkshire. A Guinness World Record and four sales of the in-demand business later, Harry Ramsden’s became synonymous with the classic British diet.
At present, the restaurant industry demands businesses to move with the times, to offer ‘contemporary twists’ and surprise the customer at every step in order to for repeat visits and reputations to grow, yet it’s apparent that Harry’s game is far more rigid. Unfortunately, it’s lost itself in pigeon-holing its offer to fish and chips. It does those two items in various forms, with six, count them, sans fish offers; none of which were appealing or anything we haven’t seen before.
That’s not to say that originality is crucial to the restaurant experience, because knowing what to expect is fine as long as there’s a reasonable amount of personality as a side order.
Yet personality must have been off when we arrived. It was a bright, sunny Friday afternoon, with a sprinkling of takeaway-ists enjoying the rare British sunshine in the bustling atmosphere the Bay provides. We, however, took the clown’s choice and opted to sit the stuffy, ageing restaurant. It was so two decades ago we might as well have been greeted by a giant mullet that blasted you with gunge if you happened to sit at the ‘wrong’ table – it was unbelievably stuck in 1996, and the number of diners, or lack of, proved that life outside these doors had moved on, where Harry’s fishing boat had anchored itself somewhere at the beginning of its history.
The visual experience is something to behold, with the omnipresence of tack from floor-to-ceiling available in abundance for sore eyes. From an empty bar, to ‘go on, treat yourself’ point-of-sale materials to ragged ‘HR’ branded carpet, cheap chandeliers and, to cap it off, lights affixed to mirrors, it was clear before we were spoken to that Harry Ramsden’s is in dire need of a facelift and an injection of life.
After a small uttering of a ‘hello’, we were guided to a table and served within an acceptable time frame, yet the apprehensive waitress still apologised for the delay! Unless Harry Ramsden’s set themselves on offering a strict time limit, there was really nothing to be sorry about. Perhaps it was in advance for the over-priced food to come.
On observing the menu, it wasn’t going to be anything other than fish, so we chose a medium haddock ‘Traditional’ and the cod version of ‘Harry’s Challenge’, both dishes which consist of battered fish and, er, chips with either peas, mushy peas or beans. Both arranged with tartare sauce and a wedge of lemon. It doesn’t get much more standard than that, but we should admit that the whole point of the visit was because we wanted average-to-poor fish and chips at inflated prices.
It was a sad sight on arrival. You get double the amount for half the cash at chip shops, and there was nothing that would rest your conscience to suggest that you were justifying in investing in this visit. It’s hard to be anything but cynical, but we might as well have gone to the takeaway section of HR’s, ordered it for half the price, brought our own plates into the restaurant and plonked it on the table ourselves. The same quantity of love and affection that the staff have for their workplace was reflected in the food, which was zero.
The chips were lukewarm, and the fish was as unenthusiastic as the entire experience. There was nothing special about it, and ‘Harry’s Challenge’ was completed with ease, with the only struggle being the relentless average flavour that wasn’t promised on the front of the menu. It proclaims to offer ‘the best fish & chips in the world’, which only made it more demoralising and disappointing. We associate Harry Ramsden’s with success, excitement and great food, but that was a long time ago and the formula has died. It was disheartening to see that what was once a venue full of happy, vibrant memories had sunk somewhere unfortunate like the Bristol Channel. We really wanted it to be good, but it simply wasn’t, and there’s no defence for it.
To test the morale of our waitress, we asked if she’d been busy what with the weather taking a turn for the better, to which she responded with, ‘I don’t know.’ We left £1.50 tip for sympathy’s sake and left her in 1994.
At least she can look forward to Crystal Maze after work.