Here we go. It’s EATCardiff reviewing a chain. Undoubtedly these next 1000 words are going to be full of sarcastic, negative similes in a series of misery-coated paragraphs where the reader angrily wants a refund on the 10 minutes they’ve wasted reading something they already knew. For starters (see what we did there?), we assume you’re here because you too enjoy shaking sticks in anger at the world for being rubbish; and secondly, we might not write so predictably, after all.
Hands up those who likes a good restaurant chain story?
Oh. No one. So why create one, then? For those who are a little interested in history, Frankie & Benny’s has as much history as modern day Australia. Zero. To quote Leonard Nimoy in his guest appearance on The Simpsons, way back in 1996, “It’s all lies; but they’re entertaining lies…”, and that’s what F&B has laid its foundations on.
The restaurant biz, for us at least, contains important elements of trust. Trust is the primary reason why regulars become regular; they know what they’re getting and they know it’ll be good. However, take the F&B story, where all people portrayed upon the walls of its identikit branches are likely stock images of generic ‘Italian family people’ that help paint the picture, and it quickly gets hazy. You see, neither Frankie nor Benny exist. They are merely the products of the imagination of The Restaurant Group plc’s
Fantasy Marketing Department, the masterminds behind the Garfunkel’s, Chiquito and Brunning & Price brands (we admit to being surprised by the latter); putting all elements of trust firmly on the Roulette table.
The story goes that Frankie moved to New York about the same time King Kong did, where instead of stealing women, Frankie opened a restaurant as the sketchily-named ‘Frankie N Benny’ until a power-hungry bloke called ‘Benny’ turned up and it became known as ‘Frankie AND Benny’s’.
Bloody awful story, eh? Worst of all, you’d be hard-pressed to find an F&B in New York at all!
Nevertheless, the food premise is pasta, pizza and grill. In order to accommodate this, a suspiciously large menu awaits you (well, it’s all frozen, out-of-the-box stuff, isn’t it?) that could easily be aligned with TGIF. There’s plenty to choose from, including 87 burger variations and 343 (count ’em) pasta and pizza dishes.
As far as environments go, it’s easy on the eye and familiarity is certain as every F&B we’ve encountered has exactly the same layout, suggesting the chain either isn’t interested in originality or thinks its customer base are a bunch of idiots. We’d say both counts are true, there.
This is hardly our first visit to an F&B, but the fact that it was a friendly, efficient and tasty affair, meant it was our first good visit.
After muddling through the exhaustive menu as our patient server stood by us, up-selling garlic dough balls to keep her entertained as we made a decision, we decided on pasta, strafing from the burger section in fear of making it both too easy for the chefs and too predictable a review. Meatballs on spaghetti it was, then! Or rather, the snappily-named ‘F&B Meatballs on Spaghetti’, and a Penne Arrabbiata.
What really is disappointing with F&B is the bar. It contains about as much imagination as the Conservative’s election manifesto. It’s all the usual suspects (Carling, Stella, blah blah) when they could stock a premium draught lager to match its menu’s premium prices. Birra Morretti (yeah, yeah, Heineken now own it, but you understand our sentiment) strikes us as an obvious choice. It’s popular and a guaranteed seller. Instead, the omnipresent Peroni is the most Italian you’ll find, and that’s in bottles. If such wild imagination can go into the B&S – sorry – F&B story, then surely the resources are there to stock something more interesting than the tried, tested and tired products?
But hey, why bother taking a risk in this utterly unambitious yet solid business?
Moaning aside, this visit was actually not bad at all. The food arrived within the acceptable 20 minute slot, looked appetising and was suitably tasty. Our server offered us Parmesan cheese, of which we obliged, and wished us a happy meal.
The meatballs looked good, as did the veggie salad. As far as presentation goes, there was enough there to satisfy the eyes and keep the taste buds occupied. The dish wasn’t overwhelming with flavour, but was inoffensive and ‘more-ish’, for want of a better word. The five large meatballs were well-seasoned, packed with finely-diced peppers among a healthy bedding of pasta. Great for those with an appetite, hats off! The Arrabbiata was actually more impressive. As suckers for olives, the pitted green balls of delight were great, but the pasta itself was spiced enough to dance around your tongue as a disco ball emerged in the mouth with each bite.
We expected to give this visit a huge bashing, but even the array of desserts were tempting, with plenty on offer despite resisting.
Fabricated history and pop-up construction aside, the only real complaints is the pricing structure. It’s fair to say that F&B pleases its bottom line through its side dishes. £3.65 for ‘House Fries’?! That’s outrageous. A pint of Stella will call for a re-mortgage, too. Confusingly then, most main meals are around the £11 mark, apart from the more ‘special’ dishes. Its prices are inconsistent, and as pedantic as that sounds, we’re happy to point that out. With mash at £3.55, it feels as if the potato famine is well and truly back on.
What is good to see is that there is a gluten-free menu, which ought to be mandatory these days; in addition to a kids’ menu, which ought to not be so mandatory so we can get a bit of peace and quiet. Finally, there are other ways to keep the share prices at The Restaurant Group plc high at F&B, what with a breakfast menu, lunch menu, and a mysterious and static ‘specials’ menu. There’s also an opportunity to learn Italian in the bogs if you take your time, and birthday guests can be ‘treated’ to a cringe-worthy rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ as publicly as possible, should you wish to sacrifice some dignity.
“Mamma mia!”, as Frankie never said.
Don’t take our word for it:
That’s your lot. No respectable self-professed ‘food critic’ writes about these sorts of venues, surely?