I’d heard great things about Xian Impression next to the Arsenal ground. I’d dreamt of its famed biang biang noodles, slick with spiced oils and flecked with dry chilli flakes, which had received rave reviews from critics and Gooners alike.
So when one of those evenings rolled round that demanded I dial for sustenance, there was only one number on my mind – or rather, because it’s 2019, only one Deliveroo option to tap.
Fast forward 20 minutes and my noodles had arrived not with the promised ‘biang’ but with a soggy slap of disappointment.
Clammy, stiff and stuck together like a damp notebook, they confirmed a growing suspicion I have that while some meals can survive being whizzed through the streets on the sweaty back of a university student, some just… can’t. They should never have been put in the bag – or perhaps more pertinently, I should never have ordered them.
“Your instinct is to blame the chef when the food arrives – but the chef would never have intended it to be like that,” remarks The Telegraph’s food critic William Sitwell.
“You need to play to their strengths and the strengths of Deliveroo and choose a dish you know will travel. Just because there are clever digital technologies that can deliver stuff to your home doesn’t detract from the fact that most food is cooked and ready to be eaten at the pass.”
It’s why services those offering to deliver Michelin-starred fine dining to your front door have never really taken off, Sitwell continues. “Restaurants exist for a reason. Promising the food won’t be affected by travel because of Japanese bikes, great suspension, bespoke boxes – it’s a catastrophe.” Food that is designed to be eaten then and there in the restaurant will not taste better after 20 minutes on a bike.
“I believe that, no matter how quick it is, you’re not able to deliver truly fresh food,” agrees Kieran Waite, co-founder of Season & Taste Hospitality.
Though their field is not fine dining, the decision of this the Bristol-based restaurant group to eschew Deliveroo is largely based on the one thing their bikes will never deliver: “Experience and atmosphere. Our aim with all of our restaurants is to have a long-lasting concept in the community,” he continues, and their restaurants – two tapas bars and two margarita and mezcal-fuelled Mexican cantinas – are centred on atmosphere.
They also, you’ll note, depend on drink – and while the damage Deliveroo can do is not my subject here, the dent these delivery services can make on restaurant profit margins is not incidental. Deliveroo itself reports restaurants working with them see their revenue increase by up to 30 per cent – “but you get a significant proportion of people who might have come into the restaurant choosing to stay at home – so even if food sales might have increased , they are not getting the booze,” comments Jay Rayner, the Observer’s restaurant critic. “That is a major profit centre.”
But even those who eat out for a living admit to ordering in on the odd occasion. After all, “A late night writing reviews definitely requires ordering in from time to time,” observes Oliver Feldman, the senior editor of The Infatuation restaurant guide, “And seeing as we see more leftovers than most, we’ve come to know what sort of things keep best when they leave the restaurant.”
One food which he, Rayner and Sitwell all deem fit for delivery is curry – “Mainly,” Feldman points out, “Because of the sauce. It acts like Han Solo’s carbonite chamber: keeping everything perfect for you to warm up and bring back to life at home.”
“Anything braised, or in a marinade will be fine,” Rayner agrees. In fact, some dishes are even better the next day, as anyone who has had leftover casserole will appreciate.
“There are cuisines that are ideal not just to travel, but for being reheated a day later,” says Sitwell. That said, the list of foods you shouldn’t order “goes on and on, from canapés and tempura to pasta. It’s not hard to work out, but you do need to use common sense.”
Nor is always that straightforward. Take my biang biang noodles, for example. On the one hand you could argue that, having essentially ordered pasta, I deserved to be disappointed. With the other hand, I point you to pad thai. Pad thai travels well.
I’ve ordered it more times than I dare put to paper. So too does ramen, “If the noodles are delivered separately to the stock,” says Rayner, as his local Japanese restaurant Nanban in Brixton do. “If you were sent ramen ready-made, the noodles would be soggy, and it would be a disaster.”
Meanwhile, Feldman favours, “The cold skin noodles from Master Wei…because you don’t have to worry about them cooling down and because they won’t keep cooking as they travel” – so the argument against noodles is not exactly watertight.
Ditto deep fried food, says Rayner, which are largely “terrible in transit – but some places are aware of it and cut the corner off so the moisture doesn’t build up. Sometimes it is simply a matter of trial and error. I have had the hot wings from Mamalans in Brixton both in and to take away and both were magnificent.”
Which brings us to packaging – “The essential element of the delivery experience,” Deliveroo tells me, and yet simultaneously one of its most problematic aspects.
“My main gripe with Deliveroo is that they’ve yet to come up with a plastic pot collection system,” Rayner grumbles. There is a container reuse trial underway in Cambridgeshire, but it is yet to roll out.
Philip Inzani of Polo 24 in London maintains, “All of our Deliveroo packaging is made from recycled material. We have reduced plastic packaging to an absolute minimum: we do still have some but it’s reusable and we always encourage customers to do so.”
Yet they are the exception rather than the rule, says Clyde*, a Deliveroo driver in Newcastle who finds many restaurants even “wrap their plastic tubs in more clingfilm to prevent leakages.” If there is a reason not to dial for sustenance, it is that.
Besides, there’s a limit to what bespoke packaging can do for food that simply doesn’t travel well, says Clyde*. Boxing bao buns and burgers with lids that allow steam to escape helps of course, but, “It’s still going in a rucksack where the moisture will be trapped during the journey.”
Very little effort will be made on the part of any restaurant when it comes to presentation, either: “They know it’ll move about in the bag, so things are generally very thrown together.”
In November last year, Clyde* slipped on the ice and fell off his bike while transporting burgers and milkshakes from Five Guys. “Amazingly, the milkshake didn’t spill!” he laughs. Still, when ordering in treacherous weather conditions this winter, the possibility of your food literally falling off the back of a vehicle is something to bear in mind.
Those restaurants which are making Deliveroo work for them seem to share similar precepts: short, delivery-tailored menus, and a tight radius for delivery. “This allows us to serve our customers swiftly,” write Matteo and Salvatore Aloe, of Radio Alice pizza.
“We reduce the items available on our menu and control the radius and distance of the deliveries to ensure that our buns are not soggy,” chimes in Alex Peffly of London’s The Bun House.
As for us customers, the best conclusion I can draw is to play it curry-pizza-pad thai safe if you’re ordering in, and to leave the house if you’re feeling adventurous.
As Sitwell puts it, “Get your arse off the sofa and get out there. You’ll be investing in a local business and industry rather than encouraging margins to be squeezed, and it will be a far more fulfilling experience.”
PS. I have since been to X’ian Impression, in real life, and can confirm those quite legitimately legendary noodles are worth every second of the eight-minute walk from my flat.