Monday October 22, 2018
It is the 13th October 1958, and strange developments are taking place in the town of Reading. Is it a Teddy Boy riot in Cemetery Junction or perhaps an appearance by Alma Cogan at the town hall? In fact, the event is the opening of an 11-seat US-style diner known as “The Little Chef”. Roadside dining would never again be the same.
I have previously written about this famous chain of eateries but its 60th anniversary has prompted a flood of memories. Anyone who grew up in the 1970s and early 1980s will be too young to recall the original prefabricated buildings - one advantage was that they were able assembled and ready for business within literally hours – but you might also have a pretty limited idea what precisely constituted “fine dining”.
Visiting a Little Chef was akin to dining at a Wimpy Bar; experiencing a very British interpretation of American popular culture. Our main photograph was taken at the Bishop’s Waltham branch, with the owner of that Bedford Astra Van breaking his/her journey on the B2177 to Winchester in order to sample the Jubilee Pancakes.
A further common element between the Little Chef and Wimpy (“The Home of The Hamburger”) was consistency; if you were travelling along an unfamiliar A-road, the “Fat Charlie” logo denoted a comfortingly familiar menu.
By 1973 Little Chefs were encountered across the country, usually on the old trunk road network and often alongside service stations. The organisation’s policy was to have two seats per parking space but no scope for large commercial vehicles; the brand was aimed at the drivers of Ford Cortina GXLs rather than Foden S36s.
Indeed, Little Chefs often took the place of the traditional transport café, a development that was not welcomed by many within the road haulage industry. Many of the older establishments were essential for re-fuelling, food, overnight accommodation or, in the pre-mobile ‘phone era, for message taking.
However, other diners might offer a menu comprising botulism and chips, and it is sometimes easy to be nostalgic about the Great British Transport Café if you do not recall how awful some of them were. ‘neo-Dickensian doss-houses’ complained Egon Ronay's 1977 Lucas Guide to Transport Cafés and Accommodation and this BBC report from 1976 infers the many and various horrors that might be encountered by the traveller - https://www.facebook.com/BBCArchive/videos/269712183564393/?q=BBC%20archive%20transport%2.
The heyday of Little Chef was perhaps 30 to 40 years ago, and now they seem an already distant memory, one to be bracketed alongside records by Tenpole Tudor. For an impression of life at the LC, I urge everyone to read this fascinating article by Laura Bradley. Her descriptions of ‘The toast lady who came in at 10 am every day and wanted two slices of brown toast, no butter’ is a reminder of how loyal patrons were to the chain, all eager to sample the culinary delights of the laminated bill of fare.
And, of course, how every customer would be ‘welcomed with the standard greeting: “Hello, welcome to Little Chef. Table for two/three/four? Smoking or non-smoking?”. It is all sadly missed, even if I never, ever, experienced a meal such as this one…
WITH THANKS TO – Alan Simpson