Having always really enjoyed previous trips to Nando’s with friends during my university days (which ended a mere three years ago), I looked to the Portuguese-themed chain with confidence on a recent business trip to London. I wanted a light, late lunch that would be fun, reliable and satisfying, and I was pretty sure that Nando’s would fit the bill (even though, indeed, I had not set foot inside the joint since leaving uni and subsequently moving abroad immediately afterwards, to a country where they don’t have Nando’s).

In my three-year absence from the place as a diner, I can safely say that there’s still a lot to like. Even though the ‘create-your-own’ approach can seem a little bewildering to new visitors, the ability to customise your meal is always going to be appealing, allowing you to choose not only your chicken’s serving style (burger, wrap, wings…) but also the level of spiciness desired, from plain through to extra hot. It combines table service with self-service (you have to go up to the bar to order your meals, and serve your own soft drinks and cutlery, but your meal is brought to your table along with alcoholic beverages), there is loads of choice for vegetarians as well as for carnivores, and there are also what appear to be genuine Portuguese desserts on the menu (although on this occasion I did not sample any).

Service was also friendly and fairly swift (although there was nobody to meet and greet me at the door, even though the service was resumed later), and the chicken burger tasted nice (even if the mango & lime sauce I’d ordered seemed conspicuous by its absence), as did my side order of sweetcorn.

So what was wrong? Perhaps my taste/standards have just changed in the past three years, but I found a few things.

Number one: this is clearly a student hangout and place for families – i.e., it is young and sociable. In fact, if you are with any other person (even if, as I was three years ago on my last visit to Nando’s, that person happens to be your grandmother), it is a darn sight better than being on your own. The main aspect of the Nando’s experience, in my view, is social.

Following on from that, criticism number two is the self-service aspect. It’s hardly Nando’s fault that I was alone for my last visit there, but the self-service thing is a lot less fun without someone to watch your bag while you are away from your table getting your soft drinks and cutlery.

Point the third: all Nando’s says about its chicken on its website is that it is “farmed in the UK and delivered FRESH (never frozen) to our restaurants”. It’s all well and good that the chicken is not shipped in frozen from China in dinky vacuum packs, but I think consumers want to know more about the chicken than that (or at least I do): is it organic? Is it free range? How is it fed? etc. I would really personally like to know that the chicken I am eating was at least a happy chicken before it met the chopping block. Many other restaurants are increasingly aware that consumers want to know about the origins of their food; Nando’s is in danger of falling behind in this respect, so needs to be more precise.

And finally, the food was just ‘OK’. I didn’t complain about the lack of mango and lime sauce flavouring at the time as I was tired and hungry and just wanted to eat, so maybe that accounts for the lack of zing. But it seemed to me to be blander and more mediocre than I had remembered Nando’s food being. Or perhaps the idea is that you are so busy socialising while you are there that you don’t actually notice the quality of the food?

Don’t get me wrong – as I said, Nando’s still has plenty going for it. It has plenty of healthy yet authentic choices on its menu alongside the more indulgent stuff, and has a whole section on its website about eating well. I would also be happy to purchase their affordable but delicious peri-peri sauces from their online shop (were it not currently closed, boo hiss) and to cook from their recipe selection (which thankfully is available on their website).

However, even though the jury is still out on the quality of the food served at Nando’s, I may be forced to concede that my Nando’s days might just be over.

http://www.nandos.co.uk

locations: various, around Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, India, Malaysia, Mauritius, Pakistan, Singapore, the UK, the US, and Zimbabwe.

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