What can you tell from the name of a shop?
You come to expect hairdressers called Hair Today Gone Tomorrow, or Ryan Hair where the basic cut is £1 but with added fees for sharp scissors and banal holiday banter. And trendier names like Hairdotnet, or Short n Curly’s – probably one to avoid. But you do wonder if they’re run by Sun editors – or that geezer from Huddersfield on the Malaga transfer who tinkers with what you say, has to have the last word, and always sits next to you.
In my home town of Ledbury only Hairwaves has taken the Sun route, the rest offering customers more flattering self-imagery with names like Topaz or Elegance. And only one takeaway has taken this tack. Open a year, The Town Fryer is the newest of four fish and chip shops, a sign of the profit in this line of business and, I suppose, Britain’s bloated eating habits. Luckily the owners realised that nobody understood why the handbell (apparently cast in a Motherwell steelworks in 1924 and affectionately known as Old Schoolie™) was rung outside the shop every evening, and quickly got rid of the man employed to desecrate the evening air with cries of ‘Oyez! Oyez!’
Another chippie, which also does kebabs, calls itself Quality. Whilst they turn out a cheap and generous wrap of cod and chips, and kebabs are, well kebabs (or KFC in disguise – Kebabs For Cholesterol™), the name is pretentious. I once chose a Cheshire hotel called Quality, but after being taunted all evening by Dulux Burnt Crust™ walls and waking up with spring-like circles across my torso I vowed not to fall for that name again. Next to Quality is a Balti takeaway with the equally audacious name of Paradise. Paradise it isn’t – that accolade can only go to the amazing Sitara contemporary Indian restaurant, outside which marshalls in high-viz jackets are deployed every night to steer airport-like queues desperate for at least a takeaway if they can’t get a seat. Paradise, Quality? It’s as if the rivalry in that street is in name alone. Next there’ll be a Cambodian takeaway called Utopia™ or a Nirvana™ selling Burmese. Or a hairdresser called Halcyon Hair™.
The best chippie is Y-Pass, sensibly displaying a Hammerite Pimply Glitz™ board at the entrance to an alley down which no-one would otherwise venture. It’s also marketed as ‘The One Down the Alley’, sported on staff tee-shirts, a cunning logo only they can lay claim to and far easier to give directions to than say:
‘The one next to the other place with the pretentious name, you know opposite the man who always complains about people blocking his drive, just along from that house that hasn’t sold in three years where someone was murdered in 1963, you know near the old ambulance station at the back of the sewage works’.
But the name Y-Pass not only reflects its hidden nature; if you do go past you’ll miss out on fish cooked in the lightest of scrummy batters, chunky chips perfectly cooked in a crispy coating, and a superb collection of colourful cruets along the back wall. A raised counter almost hides the teenage assistant, though not as high as the serving shelf in a Pitlochry chippie called The Plaice to Be, where, as I sat reading the house Sun, food was being delivered at the top of giant fryers along which a tattooed forehead moved to and fro like a glove puppet, offering only a small target after closing time.
At the risk of sounding picky about the Y-Pass assistants, who are only doing what they’re trained to do, I baulk at one of today’s customer service traits – being asked if I want anything else. I can understand that it’s about secondary sales, and if it were executed in the old-fashioned way by a white-aproned gentleman with a Brylcreem comb-back spooning loose leaf tea into a waxed bag from a small lacquered drawer behind the counter and wrapping it with a twist of red ribbon I’d love being asked, ‘Will there be anything else for you today, sir?’ But not in a fish and chip shop where I’ve just placed a precise order for small cod and medium chips and am handing over the money. Then it’s just an irritating question.
Greggs are past masters. On my last visit, as I approached a customer assistant I was thinking,
‘No, no, please don’t say it!’
But too late. So advanced is the secondary sales training of Greggs staff that before I could speak she called out,
‘No, please not that,’ I said. ‘Please may I have a Fatty Melt™?’
‘Anything else?’ she asked.
‘No, really – just a Fatty Melt™.’
‘Anything else?’ she said, staring blankly over my shoulder.
‘Okay, can I have one Anything Else™ please?’ I said, naively thinking this might fox her into giving me a Fatty Melt™. But instead it got worse as an assistant at the ovens spotted the bull’s-eye on my forehead and joined in.
‘Anything else?’ she called. ‘Anything else?’
‘Anything else?’ said the first assistant.
‘Anything else?’ called a third lady from behind the cake counter.
To this intimidating echo I left the shop, foodless, wondering how they survived in these harsh economic times. But escape wasn’t simple. As I made off along the High Street I turned to see a gaggle of hair-netted Greggs assistants exiting the shop in my direction, the original three in the vanguard, then another trio who’d presumably been buttering bread out the back, followed by a fresh hatching of fully fifteen, intonating their mantra in the same menacing voice as the gas-masked schoolchildren in Doctor Who chanting : ‘Where’s my mummy? I want my mummy.’
‘Anything else? Anything else? Anything else? …’
As they shuffled towards me, my only way out was jumping on the passing 476, although I did look back from the rear seat of the bus all the way to Hereford.
Shortly after coming to Ledbury I tried Tang’s Fish and Chips and Chinese Takeaway at the far end of town. Expecting, as the name promised, a piquant portion of arguably Britain’s favourite dish, I faced a fillet of fish resembling the spongy brown-paper parcel holding an impossible tie or knitted gloves sent by my Auntie Kate every Christmas until I was thirty five, and chips like elvers – hard to hang on to. First impressions count. With good Chinese takeaways nearby or an excellent pizza from the earnestly named Pizza House I’ve never been tempted back. And why pass Y-Pass?
The name Golden Gate evokes images of the grand gateway to a Chinese city, belying its true position on the corner of the car park and opposite the old rope factory. The service is friendly and the food tasty and reliable with an added assurance on the menu that:
“All food sold on this premises do not contain any genetically modified products or genetically modified ingredients, as pledged from our suppliers.”
Well that’s all right then.
But for me the best Chinese takeaway in town is Wing On. The food is plentiful and cheap but its character intrigues me more. Family run by mother, son and teenage daughter, each has a prescribed role. The willowy Miss Wing On’s job is to lean on the back wall scrolling her mobile and trying to get you to look at her so that she can glare at you for looking at her.The only practical help I’ve seen her offer was years ago in school uniform slapping Polycell High-Drip™ putty glazing on the outside windows.
Mrs Wing On is the powerhouse. Whilst her English only stretches to the menu headings, her attitude is precise and helpful. The kitchen is her domain but she controls the cash and keeps a maternal eye on the counter. Short and bustling, she exudes feminine wile and sharp business acumen.
During advertisement breaks on the large Panannoyic™ TV at the end of the counter, the twenty-something Mr Wing On takes the orders. As you approach the counter and make eye contact you’re met with a glazed stare something between a frightened rabbit and a bloke waiting for you to say anything or nothing that justifies the first punch in a fight.
‘What you want?’ he says, sharply. ‘You want order?’
Both questions suggest that Mr Wing On is either in self denial about his role or fails to understand it. As you read out each dish, adding the numbers for confirmation, he snaps ‘Yesses’ in the manner of a frustrated Basil Fawlty, as if he already knew what you were having and wondered why you were telling him again.
‘That all?’ he says finally, in a tone that suggests you’ve under-ordered but which is marginally more palatable than ‘Anything else?’ He then whisks the order into the kitchen before retiring to his television.
Twenty minutes is ample time to wallow in the ambience and free entertainment. Two overgrown Christmas cactuses, tired with age and flowerless for years, fill the bay window. These botanical delights are viewed from one of four ill-assorted 1960s straight-backed chairs, the kind you find at a car boot sale, placed either side of a Flaminghel™ gas fire you wouldn’t dare light. If you plugged into one of the power points on the bare walls, say as a writer using the creative atmosphere to type up a piece about isolation cells, you’d be advised to wear proper wellies and latex gloves.
The recently redecorated paintwork in Wilko Slush White™ thinly masks the Homebase Oily Mist™ of the previous fifteen years, and the putty to the inside windows is from the same Polycell High-Drip™ batch as outside. Behind the counter, two long, narrow wall shelves are stocked with secondary sales products. On the top shelf is a single bottle of Amoy light soy sauce and two of Yeo’s hot chilli, on the bottom one four cans of Coke, spread evenly.
Once back to his TV Mr Wing On is more relaxed. Gentle conversation breaks out as we watch Ice Truckers together.
‘You do that?’ he asks as a brawny American pitches his thirty ton truck round impossible bends on the edge of a precipice that gives me vertigo watching.
‘No, would you?’ I say.
‘No’ he replies with a glint that tells me we could become good mates if the food would only take a little longer.
Between such abrupt exchanges I browse the house Daily Mirror, turning the frail, brown sheets with care to prevent the five week old paper from disintegrating like the crumpled pages discovered behind beams in a Victorian parlour conversion. With the upshot of Cheryl and Ashley Cole’s secret meetings a month earlier now clear, letting customers compare it with the Mirror’s predictions at the time is a coup putting Wing On way ahead of the takeaway pack.
I normally go for the spicy Singapore Chow Mein or the House Special Curry, and I’ve never been disappointed. A visit always ends on a happy note. While Mr Wing On channel-hops between Bridezillas and Come Dine With Me, and Miss Wing On mutters profanities from the kitchen corridor, the smiling Mrs Wing On personally delivers the bag and itemises its contents before sending you off salivating.
Whether ‘Wing On’ is of culinary significance in its chicken and duck dishes like say ‘bone in’ for haddock or ‘rindless’ for bacon I’m not sure, though in number 127: Chinese Surprise (Wing On)™ it seems likely. But they’ve wisely seen fit to use their name to mouth watering effect in the slogan that fronts the menu – Bring on a Wing On™.
Paul Costello © September 2012