I felt strangely sullied coming out of a Pret-A-Manger recently. It was around eight in the evening, just after a Tuesday Krav Maga session, and I had gone in because I was exhausted and hungry, but still with the fading conviction that I was going to keep relatively clean for January. I was just fine before entering so the feeling had nothing to do with perspiration.
I had also been sticking to a morning skincare regimen (wash, shave, moisturize et al), so it could not have been because of accumulated grime either. I read somewhere that if you persist with an activity for three weeks it eventually becomes a habit, so I decided to put the theory to the test. I even bought groceries from the M&S Foodhall down the street, mostly fresh-looking produce that would look good on any fitness guru’s Instagram. But by Tuesday I’d already eaten most of it, and I didn’t feel particularly up to walking in looking like a hooded delinquent who sniffs out ‘reduced’ labels. So I did what many in London tend do, at least as those of the middle class, and entered a Pret.
Now I must admit I have entered one of these sandwich shops before. I’ve walked frequently into the one just beside the Earl’s Court station, had a look at the pristine shelves, scoffed at the prices and the number of calories in their salads, and walked out the open doors without buying anything. However, the food always did look rather good. Colorfully constituted, neatly packed meal boxes alongside fresh-looking croissants and bacon-cheese turnovers. Everyone inside always seemed very trendy: business persons, university students and commuters, a few of whom looked like the type to enjoy slipping ‘Pret’ into conversation because it made them sound sophisticated. It was herd-like, a mainstream watering hole for those who think themselves too good for the Greggs across the road. It wasn’t my scene.
Despite this I entered the eatery on this occasion with every intention to eat. It seemed the only viable option with most other places closed or too inconvenient to get to. I walked in and turned straight to the sandwiches, looked them over, and then moved on to scan the salads and the soups. There wasn’t much of a choice since it was the end of the day: a few chicken and avocado salads, a cray fish and avocado salad, a falafel and avocado salad, a couple of wraps with avocado in, and a soup with…okay, no avocado, just plain tomato beside some deflated pastries. The calories on the chicken salad seemed reasonably low (about kcal 215) with ideal macros, so I decided to go for that and think nothing of it.
But after paying and saying my thanks, and walking out into the evening breeze, I suddenly felt a smacking of the uncanny. I paused abruptly in front of a homeless person who paints the same painting of two women sitting under a tree, over and over, a man I pass every day, and tried to figure out what was wrong. There was nothing unusual happening, nor had I forgotten something, or left anything on the tube, so what was it?
I looked for a moment at the painting, the umpteenth iteration, consistent though subtly changed, and then back at the unadulterated Pret, a piece of unerodable plastic despoiling an ocean. What was different? Had something changed? And as the beeping of the crossing signal began to ring, my mind suddenly burst into glass shattering enlightenment.
It was déjà vu. I had stopped in the same spot the day before to observe the same man with the same paintings. I’d also purchased a Pret salad, but one of beetroot and sweet potato with a Dijon mayonnaise dressing. I was just as tired and desperate for a meal and thought I’d pop into Pret for the same aforementioned reasons. I’d completely forgotten…or was it an instance of repression?
In any case, by some glitch in the system I’d broken free from the infinite loop, fallen off the hamster wheel and realised my position within the London enclosure. For all I knew, I was stuck in a pod, duly integrated into Pret’s very own sandwich-y matrix, achieving self-awareness with Neo-like serendipity. God knows how many times I’ve gone in since arriving in the city. These chains are so beguilingly convenient and endlessly proliferated that I may have been hypnotized by the inconspicuous siren enchantments of coffee-shop soundtracks. I was definitely in some paradigm alright; but so was everyone else.
In the hurried humdrum of big city life, the traditional chippy go-tos, kebab shops, local sandwich bars and corner cafes that once presented perfect avenues for people to grab a quick bite to eat, have now been pushed aside by hot food/cold food, hot drink/cold drink, good for you but not quite, clean spaced, wood finished, and swift dealing eateries that are almost literally on every street in London’s Zones 1 and 2.
Beyond the Prets, the Costas, and the Starbucks’, we’ve also got the Wasabis and the Itsus that are just as, if not more, prominent food stops within the urban sprawl. Though they are limited by their Pan-Asian menus, Asian cuisine is wide and fecund enough for these to be just as popular with the same sort of demographic. They fulfill the need for speed but also charm us with their healthy visages and fashionable upmarket cost.
Sure their yoghurts have more sugar in than a can of pop, and their ginger beer only has ginger flavouring in, but it’s all very pretty and well packaged, and a lot of cool people eat here. I mean at least you’re not eating a Big Mac every lunch, or grabbing a Chinese takeaway for dinner every other day, right? If you were to cook at home, there is no way you would ever make ingredients this healthy taste so good. You don’t want to be that guy chowing down on a lunchbox from Chopstixx or footlong from Subway when you can look all hipster, legs crossed over, reading a book at a table by the window, smell of coffee wafting in the air: #healthylifestyle #cleanliving #goodeats #london #pret.
I suppose I just find it a shame that in a city like this one, a cultural melting pot of elephantine proportions, that there is so much real estate occupied by these mundane commercial behemoths. For someone who relishes the vibrant, the exciting and the new, having to turn every corner to see a Pret or a Wasabi makes me feel rather claustrophobic. I’m sure there are plenty of people that wouldn’t mind eating the same old katsu curry with pre-cooked, plastic covered breaded chicken breast, or those generic duck hoisin wraps you see everywhere these days, but I do detest this infestation of homogeneity.
Rather than fighting the power exacerbated by the ridiculous costs of central London, the purveyors of the real, good stuff are push to the nooks and crannies, to pop-up markets and other allotted portions of the city that have to be discovered. Perhaps it is for the best. If it weren’t for being able to lose your way in the interminable streets of foodie haven Soho, or to take a tube down to Shoreditch or up to Camden for the opportunity to chance upon niche food stalls, qwerky restaurants and bars, I’d have gone insane.
Despite being awakened by the homeless painter, and feeling that initial sense of entrapment, I am comforted by the adventure that lies in the backstreets and rear channels of magnificent London. There is just too much you miss out on sticking to the mundane Pret and Wasabi. It is an outrage. You must realise sooner than later that convenience is a small price to pay when you consider how much better your money could be spent elsewhere: fresh concepts and ideas, food and drink that need your business. Go somewhere new for a change and I promise you’ll be happy you did. There is no better place for it in the world.