At some point in the early 21st century, Nando’s took over Britain. No one really knows how it happened. The first restaurant opened here as long ago as 1992, in Ealing Common, but it was another 18 years before a bemused Guardian journalist found herself interviewing Chipmunk and Tulisa about how it had become “the urban youth food of choice.”
There are more branches of Nando’s in Britain than in any other country. During the 2011 riots, a Facebook group appeared, begging looters to leave the restaurants alone. British people – especially young British people – just love a cheeky Nando’s. It’s now the restaurant of Ed Sheeran, Example, and Tinchy Stryder. Only the other month, of course, Americans were finding this all rather confusing.
But why is it so beloved? If I was going to work out why, it was going to take more than a quick trip to my local branch. I needed to go deep: no breakfast (or a very light one), then lunch and dinner there, every day, for five days.
I began in Berners Street, in central London. I walked in, and the waiter asked me if I’d ever been to Nando’s before.
I had, as had my dining partner, Siraj. In his youth, loads of Muslim families went to his local branch as it sold halal chicken – it was quite the thing, he said. And so I spent most of my first meal watching in horror as Siraj showed off habits he’d developed as a child, like mixing Coke and Fanta and wild herb sauce with ketchup.
It had been my plan to work through the spice table, so I began with lemon and herb rather than my usual hot chicken, in a burger, which came to £8.95 with a couple of sides. The lemon and herb was a mistake, but easily rectified by tipping a load of hot sauce on it. The rest of the meal passed without incident.
I washed my hands in the sink, in the restaurant, like a boss, because you can do that in Nando’s, and went back to the office.
For the rest of the afternoon, I felt terrific. I was full of energy and zest for life. I was...unBritish. Colleagues even remarked on how I’d stopped being relentlessly negative about absolutely everything.
By the evening I was dying for more, and I went to what’s arguably the chain’s spiritual home – Westfield Shepherd’s Bush – for round two. I walked in, and the waitress asked if I’d ever been to Nando’s before. Why, indeed I had, madam.
This was a swift one with the lads. I sat down at 6.40pm, and we’d eaten it in time to make the cinema at 7pm. I was well up for it, and frankly, I went fucking crazy. I had a double chicken pitta, peas, and chips – which came to £10.75 – and one of us bought the wing roulette so I had a bunch of them too (by this point I’d ingested so much peri-peri that I didn’t have a clue as to which were hot and which weren’t, but whatever).
One of the guys I was with, weirdly, hadn’t ever been to Nando’s before. It was fascinating to get feedback from a virgin. He described the chicken as “succulent”, with a “pleasantly surprising heat”, was mildly outraged by the fact that he had to pick up his own cutlery and plates, and on the whole found it a positive experience, though didn’t really get why everyone loves it so much, which made absolutely no sense to me.
That said, the next morning, I experienced what can only be described as a chicken crash. I felt like absolute crap. In turns out that in large quantities, peri-peri does many strange things to the bowels. They were all happening at once. I was simultaneously bloated and hungry. I visited the toilet four times in the morning and each time had a bowel movement that, frankly, felt like passing a shotgun blast of lava.
I didn’t feel much better by lunchtime. I walked in and the waitress asked me if I’d ever been to Nando’s before. I grunted. After 10 minutes’ deliberation, I opted for the quinoa salad. Then I realised how rubbish my bants had become already, so I asked for a bit of chicken on top. It cost £9.50. I’ll be honest: The quinoa salad is definitely nice if you like that sort of thing. But I don’t.
And, it turns out, salad can actually be really filling. Who knew? I spent the next three hours back at my desk alternately belching and farting, but I don’t think anyone noticed. If they did, I was past caring. I am a wonderful colleague.
The evening came, and I still didn’t feel good. I walked into the restaurant and the waiter asked me if I’d ever been to Nando’s before. I fixed him with a steely eye. It was time to turn this ship around. I looked at the new additions to the menu, and something stood out. The churrasco thigh burger.
I ordered it extra hot, with mash and coleslaw (costing £10.45), drank gallons of Diet Coke, and within 15 minutes it felt like the last 10 hours had been a bad dream. Here it was. The alpha and omega. My perfect Nando's meal. I felt alive. Invigorated. Refreshed. I slept like a baby, and that was good news, because I had a 4am start.
In the early hours of the morning, I jumped on a bus to Gatwick Airport. Why, you ask? Because it’s got the one branch in the UK that serves a Nando’s breakfast. I arrived and met the charming Nando’s lady and restaurant manager, the angels who were going to get me through security and to the restaurant of my dreams.
But disaster struck. I’d forgotten my passport. The Nando’s angels were unphased; they paid for the goods and smuggled them back to me through the departure gates. I ate them all in a nearby Caffè Nero without any of their staff noticing. Given I risked causing a diplomatic incident – either between the border agencies and Nando's or Nando's and Caffè Nero, I'm going to say this is about as cheeky as an airport breakfast gets.
Anyway, here are the headlines: The Nando's benedict (£8.40) is a) what it sounds like (eggs benedict, but with chicken), and b) actually kind of works, but I think you have to order it with hot chicken, otherwise it could feel a bit gloopy. The chicken and herb omelette (£6.95), which shouldn’t be that inspiring, is actually a thing of beauty.
Finally, the corny browns (basically hash browns but with corn) are utterly incredible and should be placed on the menus of every Nando’s immediately. I left feeling as good as you can when you’ve got up at 4 am to eat chicken with eggs and hollandaise sauce.
At lunchtime, I knew it was time to play it safe and take another break from the chicken. I walked into the restaurant and the waiter asked me if I’d ever been to Nando’s before. I laughed in his face.
I was so used to the refreshing warmth of peri-peri that I was ready to swig it from the bottle. The only way I could inject any excitement into the taste was by making a palette with every single sauce on a spare plate and randomly dipping my chips into it like a gibbering impressionist painter.
The truth was that I was beginning to lose my mind.
When I closed my eyes, all I could hear was the clink of cascading ice. The rasping bark of South American music. The crackle of chicken skin. The yuppies networking. The – hang on.
I’d been told of a classic veggie “hack” – ordering a beanie wrap (£8.65) and putting halloumi in it. (I’d heard a bunch of these from people all week: things like mixing peri-tamer off the kids’ menu and hot sauce, ordering half chicken and garlic bread and making your own garlic sandwich, making a kind of pizza with pitta, halloumi, and sauce, and so on).
This was solid. In fact I’d go so far as to say it was an enjoyable vegetarian meal, and you’ll basically never hear me say that.
In the evening, it was time to go somewhere special. Southwark Nando’s. I walked in, and the waiter asked if I’d ever been to Nando’s before. “Not...not like this,” I replied.
You see, I’ve not commented on the decor and architecture much, because you sort of know what you’re getting with Nando’s, don’t you? South African art on the walls, South American music in the background, lots of wood panels and grey slate surfaces – that sort of thing.
But this was special. It’s in a high-ceilinged spot under the railway arches, and in the middle, you find what I swiftly dubbed the Nando’s nests of love. This was my church. This was where I’d heal my hurt. It’s the kind of place you’d take a date. In fact, it’s the kind of place you’d take your partner on their birthday (erm, as it happens, I did actually do this during the week. I promise you she was cool with it).
I got back on the chicken wagon. Because now only chicken made me feel happy. I knew too much chicken made me sad, but not as much as no chicken.
In case their lawyers are reading, I’m not saying Nando’s chicken in large quantities is as addictive as cocaine or nicotine. I’m just saying that if you look at the low points during the week, they pretty much only came when I didn’t eat it. I basically experienced what appeared to be withdrawal symptoms.
And here’s the thing. I finished my quest on day five. And I was kind of glad it was over, but I felt OK. On day six, I went away for the weekend with my partner. We were in town, looking for a nice local restaurant for dinner.
We ended up in Nando’s. Again.
So what did I learn?
By this point I had some clear thoughts on why everyone loves Nando’s. Above all, I had a simple answer:
Nando’s is popular because it’s anything you want it to be.
You hear the jokes about lads, banter, and all the rest of it, but over the course of the week I ate in chains all over London and in two provincial towns, and at no point did I ever feel I had a handle on what a typical customer looks like. There were people on dates. There were groups of teens. There were workers taking their lunch breaks. All human life is here. Also:
– The food is good. The chicken’s not organic, but nor is it battery-farmed. It’s cooked in front of you, pretty much, in double-quick time, and likewise, hot, in a pitta, doused in ketchup, it’s anything you want it to be. I even ate the livers. They were fine. As is all the other stuff. Want a steak sandwich? Why not. Even the coffee’s not bad. If you order two meals a day from Nando's and don't go crazy with fino sides and all the rest of it you'll spend about £100, which isn't too bad, though it's pretty hard to do.
– The staff are friendly! And generally pretty happy! I swear, none of them had any idea I was doing this for a piece. Whatever employment strategies they’re using, this is basically unheard of in British catering. I took time to talk to them where possible. Yes, they like their job. Yes, they like the food. Especially the free food. No, they can’t help you get a black card. Even if you do have to order yourself, you should tip them.
– I lost three pounds. I have no idea how that happened. Though I did spend an evening and morning shitting myself inside out due to an overdose of peri-peri, and I think that might have helped. But the point is, it’s not too bad for you, and that’s part of the appeal.
– Here are the selfies...