Wimpy is the name of the character from Popeye who was usually found devouring hamburgers. He was a bit of a loner and never said much, but you could tell he had a lot on his mind. Mainly, he thought about where his next hamburger was coming from. When he did talk, it was usually in a quiet mumble. At the end of a few episodes, they added a plot twist where he would get the girl that was being fought over. If memory serves me correctly, he wasn't a character that was exclusive to Popeye cartoons, but it's been a while. The last thing I heard about him was that he was found dead in his bed, clutching a hamburger. The doctors said it was a heart attack. All that fast food finally caught up with him I guess.

"The better choice"

The burger bar that proves that there is still an appetite for table service and big juicy benders.

Mention the name Wimpy and most people's thoughts turn to hamburgers. For Americans, this connection would be made by way of the cartoon character J. Wellington Wimpy, the burger-fixated deadbeat of Popeye fame who would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today. If you happen to be British, then you're most likely thinking of the chain of fast food restaurants named in his honour, which were a common sight across the length and breadth of the country during the latter half of the 20th century.

The Wimpy restaurant chain was actually founded by Eddie Gold in 1930s Chicago. The brand was licensed by food conglomerate Joseph Lyons & Co. in the 1950s in a bid to bring the efficient, increasingly popular "fast food" concept to Britain. Over the next two decades the franchise flourished, and by the 1970s there were over 1,000 Wimpy restaurants including offshoots in 23 countries across Europe, Africa, South America and the Middle East. (Cue montage of cigar-chomping Lew Grade types ordering fleets of sharp-suited Wimpy ambassadors to the corners of the globe.)

During this era Wimpy were the biggest player in the British fast food market, their massive expansion made possible (as is so often the case in British industry) through unchallenged monopoly power. Things suddenly became more difficult in 1974 when McDonalds, then seen as a glamourous and exotic American brand, opened its first restaurants in the UK.

Between 1977 and 1990, Wimpy changed hands four times, with each successive owner taking the company in different directions: first trying to compete head-on with McDonalds, then having most of its larger and better-located branches converted into Burger Kings, before finally trying to differentiate itself, increasingly unconvincingly, as a more upmarket alternative to the giant fast food chains. During the 1990s, when the chain could still afford television advertising, it was marketed on the strengths of the food being freshly cooked and served on "real plates with real cutlery" in contrast to McDonalds' polystyrene cartons.

Strangely, even though the brand has been devalued and its consumer offerings have become ever less competitive, Wimpy International (now an independent concern) still manages to operate over 270 franchise restaurants in Great Britain, presumably buoyed to some extent by the fact that it still owns many of its original restaurant locations and has multi-site deals with RoadChef motorway service stations and Megabowl bowling alleys. The Wimpy website reveals that most of the stand-alone Wimpy restaurants are concentrated in the South and East of England.

Our visit to Wimpy, Watney Market, London, December 4th 2006

We had passed the darkened Wimpy restaurant numerous times late at night on the way to and from Shadwell tube and DLR stations, and had vowed to one day return during opening hours to have breakfast there. Finally an opportunity presented itself, and so this morning we warily entered the narrow door into a dining experience unlike anything else in the modern world, if indeed we were still in the modern world. Certainly the decor within made no overt reference to being in the 21st century.

The pristine vinyl seats and formica tabletops, wood-panelled walls, smoked-glass mirrors and lacquered promotional posters seemed to be infused with an indefinable shabbiness. It's not that the place looked dirty or poorly maintained in any way, it was just that even at its peak operational efficiency it was still struggling to pull off the reassuring corporate uniformity that was the hallmark of its rivals. Put it this way: If McDonalds were running a promotion to win Sony consumer electronics (which they currently are), you wouldn't be surprised to find Wimpy doing the same, but with Amstrad.

The place was largely empty with the exception of a few pensioners who appeared to have settled in for the day to read tabloid newspapers, drink tea from kitschy orange cups and ruminate. Oddly, the counter area was open, bissected by a passageway that ran directly from the restaurant floor to the back rooms. The battery of stainless steel machinery and adolescent attendants usually seen in fast food kitchens was absent. In their place was a Chef with an Al-from-Happy-Days paper hat (you could tell by looking at him that all his life decisions had been geared towards wearing that hat) and a spatula. A pile of plastic-wrapped burger buns was propped against the back wall. A large mechanical digital clock overlooked the counter, adding to the pre-decimalisation vibe.

Once we had managed to make some sense of the extremely extensive menu (a .pdf version of which can be viewed here), we ordered two International Grills. Once they were satisfied that a bona fide transaction was taking place, our server allowed us to have one set of cutlery (dirty), one dishevelled napkin, one sachet of Wimpy ketchup, one sachet of Wimpy vinegar and one (unbranded) drinking straw each. You'll notice that the menu actually includes the ketchup as being part of specific dishes, and that the hot dog is served with ketchup AND mustard, "the only way possible", like they're doing you a big favour.

The International Grill is the largest dish on the breakfast menu, and conveniently features two of Wimpy's trademark food items, namely a beefburger and a Bender sausage (as well as egg, bacon, chips and fresh salad). The beefburger was surprisingly good. It had obviously been freshly cooked and had a much more natural flavour and texture (as well as a lot more salt and fat, I'd hazard a guess) than anything McDonalds or Burger King would pass off as a burger. The Bender sausage, so called because of the grooves cut in one side causing it to expand and bend into a plate-fitting parabola when cooked, was your typical cheapo hot dog frank, slightly rubbery with a bright pink interior.

Due to being thoroughly stuffed, we politely declined the sweet menu and so were unable to sample the Brown Derby, Wimpy's famous dessert which consists of a doughnut with ice cream on top.

Once we had got over the fact that Wimpy restaurants still exist and sniggered at their fusty working methods, the meal was actually pretty good, albeit rather expensive. My dining companion actually went so far as comparing the experience favourably pound for pound to the Gaucho Grill (a top-class steak restaurant), but such statements could be attributed to beef delirium.


Bonus fact: A late-1960s era Wimpy Bar is featured in the early scenes of the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore/Stanley Donen movie Bedazzled, which illustrates the significant differences between Wimpy's traditional operation and the heavily automated fast food restaurants of today.

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