Little Chef Popham

Somehow we ended up at Little Chef Popham for breakfast.

It wasn’t really planned. Off we went  in an unfamiliar rental car in the teeming rain. We were attempting to cross London in peak hour with a malfunctioning GPS. Two hours later we pulled up at a service station for petrol and wine gums with our marriage still intact (which is a good thing,  considering the circumstances. It’s worth saying that nowhere in a ceremony with the white dress did I vow to be a good navigator).

Across from the petrol pumps is a sign that rings some bells. ‘Little Chef Popham’.

So it should. Last year the BBC screened a program chronicling how Little Chef, a classic UK roadside restaurant enlisted the culinary wizardry of Heston Blumenthal to reinvigorate both their menu and thier brand. The test site, was Popham.

It seems that Little Chefs are as ubiquitous as rolling green hills and luke warm pints throughout the English countryside. The first Little Chef opened in Reading in 1958. From 11 seats they’ve grown to become one of the UK’s dining stalwarts with 162 roadside restaurants. They’re known for big breakfasts and convenience, not quality and consideration.

Throughout the series Heston came off smelling like a sensible and enlightened rose. The ex-CEO of Little Chef came off looking like a manipulative sap.

Yet we know that staying civil in stressful situations is hungry work. So, in we go for a second breakfast.

On a morning as grey as a school uniform, the inside sparkles in patriotic hues. There’s a long gleaming red bench, which shows track marks from zealous wiping down. There are blue and white tiles and red overhead lights dangling jauntily. There’s a perky row of bar stools and generously proportioned banquettes hugging the windows. There’s an open kitchen with blackboards promising today’s Vegetarian Special; ‘peppered mushroom suet pudding’. Vegetarian it isn’t, but special it sounds. I guess one out of two isn’t bad.

The staff come from the well scripted American school of friendliness. We’re met at the front, next to a sign that promises free wifi by a chipper fellow with ‘Supervisor’ emblazoned on the back of his uniformed shirt. We’re given our choice of seats. We’re offered coffee and asked if we’re having a good morning.

Two lattes arrive promptly and are as fluffy as the clouds depicted against a sky blue ceiling. The Hungry One sums his up; “It’s passable- though it’s far too foamy and the flavour is pretty meek”.

Meek is not a word that would apply to the rest of his breakfast.

While there are plenty of more delicate offerings available from granola and yogurt, to pastries, kippers, and porridge, The Hungry One can’t go past the classic Olympic breakfast. This is man food, with two eggs, two pork sausages, two rashers of Wiltshire bacon, a roasted mushroom, a ramekin of piping hot Heinz baked beans, a slice of white bloomer toast and a puck of Ramsay of Carluke blood pudding. All this, served all day for £7.25.

While the eggs suffer a little from a lack of texture (googy and soft all over), the pork products are sound, with the sausages and pudding proudly bringing a hearty mix of herbs and spices to the table. There are some nice touches there- the mushrooms are brushed with thyme infused oil while cooking and the ramekin prevents the stick and slop of the beans leaching out across the plate. It’s not your average greasy spoon.

For me it’s one of the dishes that Heston toiled on; the smoked salmon scrambled eggs. By employing a waterbath he’s been able to produce a consistently soft texture. Similarly the benefit of the gentle temperatures means the salmon folded through the eggs doesn’t over heat and become too salty, leaving it and the eggs the opportunity to gently loll about the plate.

Large pepper and salt shakers on the table help even up the seasoning. The only thing missing is the option of a darker bread- white bloomer toast is engaged again here, and it’s insipid fluffiness lets the dish down.

The bill arrives with another cheerful check that everything has been ok (the third since we arrived) and some wrapped jelly bellys to leave you with a sweet taste.

The service has been prompt and efficient. That, combined with the attention to detail,  sense of whimsy, and focus on the produce’s provenance are the hallmarks of Heston.

If you’re  itching for a dose of Heston and like us can’t get a booking at Dinner (his new venture at the Mandarin Oriental) and can’t justify Fat Duck, then this isn’t really a substitute. It’s a simple motorway diner, with a cheerful attitude that has made grand efforts to clean up its act.

But, if you’re powering down the A303 and in need of a feed, it’s not a bad place to pop in.

The Heston influenced menu is available at Little Chefs at Popham (A303), York (A64) and Kettering West (A14).

Little Chef Popham
Micheldever, Hampshire, SO21 3SP
Tel: 01256 398 490

  1. Oooh, I caught a couple of episodes of that show! How exciting to see you went there 🙂 Love the sound of the salmon and eggs, and am happy they had pepper on the table for you. I adore pepper, and almost nowhere in Canberra lets you put it on yourself. Makes me cranky! 😛

  2. That TV show was excellent, big chef managed to helped little chef considering they work in different worlds. Wrapped jelly beans is a first – little chef is also innovating, not quite cutting edge yet.

  3. Interesting review!

    Glad to see that standards seem to have been maintained there since the well-publicised revamp.

    But you have to wonder – is it really so difficult to make scrambled eggs without resorting to whizzbang gadgetry?

  4. I'd been contemplating braving the Fat Duck's booking process for the boy's upcoming big birthday. Maybe this is a good back up plan 😉

  5. I liked the big chef little chef series actually. And definitely will love to check out Fat
    Duck one day…. it will be a dream come through

Leave a comment


{ 5 Trackbacks }