Last weekend my wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary. Over the last ten years our celebrations have often incorporated travelling into Central London with the children and having lunch at a branch of Wagamama, the rice and noodle restaurant. Ten years ago, when the children were aged 3 and 1, dining at Wagamama was usually more relaxed than at many of the alternatives. Despite the noise and general bustle at most of the branches, or maybe because of it, the children sat calmly and ate without fuss.
Back then Wagamama produced a takeaway menu which also listed the location of every branch in the UK, with 20 or more in the London area. I have a copy of it somewhere, in a drawer or a jacket pocket, or in a box of receipts and tickets. For many years I made a note, on that menu, of which restaurants we had been to, and when. It might not be updated for a year or more at a time. The information could have been slightly out, but it would have been accurate to within a month or two. From memory I can recall that we ate at the branch in Richmond, Surrey in May 2008. The Scottish actor John Hannah was at a nearby table, which was a treat for my wife. In November 2010 (Westfield Shopping Centre, Shepherds Bush) we were next to the author Hanif Kureishi and in the autumn of 2013 (Angel Islington) we spotted singer Jimmy Somerville on the other side of the room. If it’s good enough for them, and all that.
The world of “casual dining” is in a bit of trouble here in the UK. Chains like Carluccio’s, Byron and parts of Jamie Oliver’s empire are in the news regularly with reports of financial difficulties and closures. We do not contribute much to the profits of most of these chains, but we continue to support Wagamama. Mentally I am still crossing off locations from that 10-year-old list although many new branches have opened in the intervening years. The only places I can think of that none of us have visited, from that original closed list, are Kingston-upon-Thames and Canary Wharf. We did attempt to eat at the latter back in 2016, before a show at the O2 (the “Strictly Come Dancing” Live Tour), but we couldn’t find it. (The O2 North Greenwich branch was closed for refurbishment that week, otherwise we’d have eaten there.)
Last Saturday we decided to have lunch at a Wagamama that the rest of us had been to but my wife hadn’t, the one at Tower Hill. One Saturday in September 2013 I had taken both children up to the City to gather information about the Great Fire of London, for my daughter’s school project. We climbed the Monument, we took photos of the street-sign for Pudding Lane, we went to the church from which Samuel Pepys watched London burn. We ate at the nearest Wagamama. Last Saturday we left home later than planned, so we took the car rather than the tube. We adjusted our planned venue too, heading towards the branch in the basement of Harvey Nicholl’s. (I had also eaten there with the children back in 2013, after our visit to the Hollywood Costumes exhibition at the V&A.) We were parked up near the Brompton Oratory within 20 minutes. I thought that parking in that part of town was free from 1.30pm on a Saturday. It certainly used to be. Having got to the edge of Knightsbridge so quickly I decided we should move on to the West End, a further 10 minutes’ drive away. Using well-tried shortcuts like Beauchamp Place and Belgrave Square, to avoid the traffic around Harrods, we were soon driving along Piccadilly, past Green Park, which is where we hit traffic. We crawled for a few minutes to get past Green Park station and then I turned left, to the formerly quiet roads of Mayfair, east of Berkeley Square. That used to be a preferred parking spot 15-20 years ago, free after 1.30pm on a Saturday and after 6.30pm on a weekday. It was always the ideal place to park when heading to an evening show anywhere near Piccadilly Circus, a few minutes’ walk away. It still might be, but we learnt that, just like the streets around South Kensington and Knightsbridge, parking charges now apply up to 6.30pm on a Saturday, and a large number of bays are unavailable due to building works.
Unable to park in those streets around Berkeley Square I headed north, to Marylebone, where my daughter and I used to park on our Marylebone Mornings, before we discovered parkruns. Again, I was sure that parking used to be free after 1.30pm in that part of town, but it isn’t now. You pay for parking by phone and I was about to do so when we discovered that the Wagamama in Wigmore Street, our new destination, was closed. We moved on, heading east to park nearer a new branch, definitely not on that original list; it’s described as Carnaby Street, but it’s located on Great Marlborough Street, near the London Palladium. I parked on Wells Street, north and east of Oxford Circus, yet another parking zone, our fourth in the space of about half an hour. 15 years ago this was definitely free after 1.30pm, but it appears that the rules have changed everywhere: if you want to park in central London on a Saturday afternoon you have to pay. I paid by phone (£4.90 per hour), observing that if we had a diesel car it would cost 50% more (£7.35 per hour, with an additional surcharge for vehicles registered before 2012).
We finally sat down to eat before 3pm. The place was heaving. Lists often play on my mind and they are frequently triggered by venues, as I have noted here, writing about Shakespeare’s Globe and the Shepherds Bush Empire. My mental lists of visits to Wagamama are usually restricted to the last year or two, to the branches we have eaten at most recently, the ones we hadn’t been to before: Wimbledon (autumn 2016), the O2 North Greenwich (February 2017, before the “Strictly Come Dancing” Live Show), Putney (March 2017), Finchley (February 2018) and Dean Street Soho (March 2018, as mentioned in this piece). Sometimes I try to recall which places outside of London we have been to: Cambridge (April 2017, and again last month), York (late 2012), Edinburgh (late 2015), Dublin (many times, most recently in July 2015), Leeds (after a game at Elland Road in 2011). And, typing these words, I recall where we were exactly six years ago: in the branch on Fleet Street, heading home after a day at the Paralympics.
Our wedding anniversary trip to town confirmed two things. First, you can no longer park for free on a Saturday afternoon anywhere in Central London. Secondly, while numerous “casual dining” restaurant chains are in trouble, Wagamama seems to be doing fine. Now, where on earth is that takeaway menu with its list of branches, circa 2008?