Reliable restaurant delivers on the right side of tracks

With nothing much on at the Fairfield Halls, BELLA BARTOCK took her reviewing skills to another form of theatre, and a night out in Coulsdon’s newest restaurant

You know what you’re getting with PizzaExpress. The bright interior, the 1960s-style geometric patterns on the tiles (don’t stare at them too long, you risk hypnotising yourself), keen waiting staff, and a reliable menu of Italian-based food which has served the business well for half a century.

You know what you;re getting at PizzaExpress

You know what you’re getting at PizzaExpress

Which is why the new branch of the restaurant chain, right by the railway bridge and Coulsdon Town station at the top-end of the high street, is surely guaranteed success. It only raises the question: what took them so long?

“We’re the new Hoxton,” one local said. I think she meant that as a “good” thing.

George Street, Wallington, Purley, Sutton and South Croydon have all had their little corners of Soho delivered from a pizza oven for some time, and it hasn’t taken long for PizzaExpress Coulsdon to take hold. On the midweek evening we arrived, the place was buzzing, with good-sized family and work groups filling the centre of the new restaurant and young couples able to enjoy the relative privacy of the tall-backed banquettes in the far corner. Had they all read Inside Croydon and brought their 30 per cent off vouchers?

The restaurant chain has a good reputation for its sympathetic approach to embedding its restaurants into existing buildings – Sutton won awards – though in Coulsdon it occupies a prime corner plot, apparently purpose-built, under a towering new development of flats.

Coulsdon's new PizzaExpress: welcoming and accomplished

Coulsdon’s new PizzaExpress: welcoming and accomplished

Just don’t expect to drive there and be able to find a place to park – as we passed the now closed Lion Green car park, I spotted more Porsches and Range Rovers parked with two wheels on the pavement in Coulsdon than you’d expect to encounter on a match day outside Stamford Bridge. Definitely a case if you’re planning a visit for letting the train take the strain, or utilising the cab firm just across the road.

The menu can be relied upon, though, with all the familiar offerings, and at present with a special 65 section as homage to the first PizzaExpress opening in Wardour Street 50 years ago.

Moreish dough balls and olives, and a simple test of the kitchen, fried calamari, to start. In the wrong hands, squid can so easily be rendered rubbery and tasteless. No such mistakes here, served in breadcrumbs and with Caesar dressing.

It almost seems like an act of sacrilege to visit a PizzaExpress and order anything that isn’t from the pizza section, though the penne with bolognese sauce – it doesn’t have to be spaghetti – was excellent.

It doesn't have to be pizza at PizzaExpress

It doesn’t have to be pizza at PizzaExpress

But if you stick to the tried-and-trusted, you won’t be disappointed: none of the spongy, deep-pan travesties here, but crisp based pizzas with pretty much any combination of toppings you can dream of, and more than enough to eat. For the record, we plumped for a La Reine and a Nicoise, a take on the tuna salad which was smothered in slightly too much rocket and probably had a spoonful too many capers for my taste.

A word about the service. Too many restaurants cut back on waiting staff as an economy, a false one, while PizzaExpress’s reputation has long been based on the excellence and attentiveness of their own “All Blacks”, so it was reassuring to see Coulsdon with so many front-of-house staff. Young, enthusiastic and friendly is all good.

But a bit of experience and training might help, too. When taking the cork from a bottle, it really isn’t a good idea to take the process out of sight of the table and then not offer the party the opportunity to taste the wine (fortunately, the Chianti was not corked).

I am far from a fan of the over-attentive repeat visits to the table from waiters, asking you if everything is in order usually when you have your mouth full with food, but a 20-minute hiatus between finishing the main course and someone coming to the table to offer desserts (a New York cheesecake, shared, since you ask) or coffees might serve to temper the customers’ enjoyment, especially if they depend on the last train of the night.

Because with the traffic in Coulsdon the way it is at present, you really wouldn’t expect anyone to drive to the PizzaExpress there.

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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