Few things can compete with delayed trains for inciting rage, but the overpriced, second-rate grub on offer while you wait is certainly up there. Thankfully, London’s mainline rail hubs have been upping their game of late, as Ben Norum discovers
We all remember the dark days: an interminable wait for an endlessly delayed train, with only bottom-of-the-barrel sustenance options for company. Macky D’s or a dried-out sandwich from a dubious corner shop named Xpress (without an ‘e’)? Hmm, just a Snickers then please.
But how times change. Railway stations might have spent years ruled exclusively by patchy fast food options, but it seems that they are finally pulling their culinary socks up – and, in some places, quite seriously so.
Nowadays, if you arrive early for your train at the newly-refurbished King’s Cross station, you’ll be met with plenty more options than M&S – which not so long ago was about as good as it got. Now you can enjoy a Lebanese wrap or a mezze plate at Yalla Yalla, grab a burrito from Benito’s Hat, tuck into a freshly made salad or soup from Leon, or have anything from breakfast to a burger at Giraffe.
Next door, St Pancras is a step further ahead, with Searcys Champagne Bar, posh ice-cream place Gelato Mio and Sourced Market’s daily farmer’s market. A farmer’s market…at a railway station! In the adjoining Renaissance Hotel, you’ve even got Marcus Wareing’s The Gilbert Scott and The Booking Office Bar.
Down at Waterloo, a whole new mezzanine level has been built to accommodate offerings including Italian deli Carluccio’s and popular bistro-style restaurant Benugo. Even high-end wine importers Corney & Barrow are getting in on the act, adding to their profile of City bars.
There’s now a Champagne bar in Paddington Station, and a new food hall will follow once the Crossrail refurb is over. London Bridge is undergoing a similar overhaul and will boast the highest of high-end bars when it gets a direct link to the top of The Shard next year. Station food is well and truly on the up.
Much of this trend is being driven by small London chains who are taking their first tentative steps into stations. And, indeed, they’re being actively encouraged to. David Biggs, director of property at Network Rail, explains the transformations of King’s Cross and Waterloo as “part of our wider retail strategy to create destination stations for both rail passengers and non-travelling customers, providing a sustainable source of income which can be re-invested directly into the railway”.
Introducing good food onto their concourses is a much more palatable way to raise funds than increasing fares. And, by all accounts, it seems to be a winning formula all round. Food and drink outlets within stations are pretty much unique in having consistently increased their revenue over the past year, completely bucking the ongoing gloominess of the high street.
Perhaps it’s a natural progression from the increase in quality food we’ve seen in shopping centres such as the Westfields or One New Change at St Paul’s, where both Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay have restaurants.
Either way, it’s nice that at least one part of our railway experience is showing solid signs of improvement.