Mark C. O’Flaherty was one of the first in line when Wagamama opened in Bloomsbury in 1992. Thirty years later, it’s passed from radical to basic but, he believes, it’s all the better for it
Whenever I’m asked what my favourite restaurant is, I answer: “Well, it depends”. Because it does. I often cite Ciao Bella on Lambs Conduit Street. I go constantly, had my wedding supper there, and I always like to name drop that Marina O’Loughlin was the first person to recommend it to me. A few years ago, before it went vegan (and subsequently came under the spotlight for shady employment practices), it would have been Eleven Madison Park. Or Arzak. I might also tell you how I love Café Cecilia, to impress you with how I can get a table and you probably can’t. But actually, what I really mean is… Wagamama. Any and all Wagamamas.
Then there was the time I went to a Giraffe at 9am en route to Naples, coming off Ketamine
Actually, that’s not entirely true. While Wagamama is my default favourite chain restaurant (indeed, the only chain I will agree to dine at), my favourite one is a short walk past security at Heathrow T5. I will always ultimately head to the BA Galleries Lounge (where I notice the champagne has gone back from being on the counter to “on request” – that period of “please love us again” was short lived, wasn’t it British Airways?), but if I’m flying long haul, I’ll always arrive early and go to Wagamama.
When it all started, back in the epic queue that snaked up the stairs of the first branch on Streatham Street in the early 1990s, I was purely ramen, but for as long as I can remember now, I’ve been all about the chicken gyoza and matching yaki soba (a ‘100’ and a ‘41’ respectively, the cognoscenti order by number). I usually get a large Marlborough Sauv, and I like the new thing they do with yuzu and tonic water. But the best thing about an airport Wagamama is that they have Veuve Clicquot. The other branches only offer Prosecco, which I won’t touch unless I’m in Italy and it’s being chucked into a spritz (Campari not Aperol). The T5 Wagamama is my pre-flight ritual, and I always have a bottle of Veuve and a second order of gyoza.
My only other experiences of dining in airports have been dire – most notably a mushroom salad at somewhere that I’ve forgotten the name of in Gatwick, made with tinned mushrooms. Then there was the time I went to a Giraffe at 9am en route to Naples, coming off Ketamine. The saving grace of the latter experience: Someone called in a bomb scare just as we finished eating. We were all evacuated before anyone could slap down a bill. No, it wasn’t me, and yes, I still managed to get the flight.
My love of Wagamama is, I imagine, similar to what millions feel for McDonalds. No matter where you go, it’s the same. I remember fleeing a fancy ryokan in Kyoto one morning, after several days of mannered service and ritualised meal services, to go and sit in a Starbucks for twenty minutes. I loathe Starbucks, but I wanted to feel… grounded. Wagamama grounds me, but it’s with a genuine love. I remember landing in Wellington for some weird fashion event and spent a while Googling, delirious with jetlag, for good local cafés. I ended up at a Wagamama and it was like a warm hug. The fact that there are now no branches left in New Zealand (they pulled out in 2019) should be seen as a national tragedy.
I am acutely aware that when Wagamama was being conceived by restaurateur Alan Yau over 30 years ago, I was precisely the customer they had in mind. The graphics used were decidedly post-Neville Brody, the interior of the first Bloomsbury site (where I once witnessed a bewildered, enhanced Michael Clark being led out of the kitchen back to his bench) was by John Pawson, and the second site, in Soho, was by David Chipperfield. The ceramics were all gorgeous. There was nothing else like it. I did a fashion shoot at the Lexington Street Chipperfield space. Every surface and frosted glass corridor was sleek and lovely. The food was also brilliant – ramen was relatively new outside of Japan. While the noodles were still just essentially pasta in miso and poultry broth, it felt healthy rather than a Barilla binge (a shame they ditched the option for wholegrain buckwheat with the yaki soba a few years ago though). Have a ‘raw juice’ instead of wine and you’ve basically been on a spa retreat for the afternoon.
I love to eat at Wagamama alone, particularly in the one on Great Marlborough Street for some reason (although the phone service is patchy). When lockdown happened, it was the place I longed to get inside most. It represented normality. I remember when there was a loosening in Covid restrictions, and I mistakenly believed that the branch in Westfield in Stratford was fully open. I got there and it was takeaway and delivery only, which you just can’t do. I nearly wept. Wagamama doesn’t travel. You have to eat it at a communal bench, after the 25-year-old drama student with the pierced septum asks you if you’ve eaten at a Wagamama before, scrawls your dish numbers on your paper setting, and tells you that the food will come out at different times.
They have Fred West’s spade and one of Jimmy Savile’s tracksuits
When there’s a Wagamama nearby, I feel an enormous sense of security. I went to Littledean Jail a few years ago – essentially a museum of serial killer and other macabre memorabilia run by a fruit loop in the middle of nowhere in the west country. They have Fred West’s spade and one of Jimmy Savile’s tracksuits. Getting there involved a train to Gloucester, which arrived conveniently at lunchtime. “Let’s eat,” I said to the ghouls I’d travelled with, “there’s bound to be a Wagamama.” Walking through the centre of Gloucester, our hearts sank. This was a world of Wetherspoons as well as bodies beneath patios. There’d be no edamame here. But a quick search on my iPhone had my heart racing – developers had turned the old quays into a fancified retail district. We were just 10 minutes from chilli squid and ebi katsu.
There’s something about Wagamama that continues to feel in tune with my life, although I dislike the softening (or, rather, the increasingly industrial nature) of the interiors, which stray further and further from the original Minimalist aesthetic. But I understand it has to please more people, more of the time. The brand changed hands years ago and is now a sibling to the heinous Frankie & Benny’s and Garfunkel’s. Swings and roundabouts: They regularly partner with LGBTQ+ organisations, and recently donated a percentage of takings from seasonal dishes to Mermaids, the charity that works valiantly to support trans kids, and which is the subject of an ongoing smear campaign by J.K. Rowling’s ironically patriarchal-and-evangelical-far-right-supporting TERF army.
I love the rainbow flag benches and giant facades with the Progress Pride colours that pop up around Pride time. “Oooh, it’s a Wagadaddy!” said my friend Henry when we first encountered them. I love that they introduced gender-neutral bathrooms, even if only because it triggers the swivel-eyed British ‘gender criticals’ (remember, it’s only gender critical if it’s from the Gender Critical region, otherwise it’s just sparkling transphobia).
More than all this, I love all the teppanyaki lunches I’ve had with friends over the last 30 years, whichever branch they’ve been at. I used to meet up with my friend Philip Stephens – the founder and designer of Unconditional, who tragically left us in 2020 – and we were usually short on time, so he’d suggest: “shall we go to Wagamama, but do it in luxe style?” This usually meant two starters each, a main and pudding, and a bottle of wine rather than two glasses. You can cram a lot into an hour in Wagamama. I won’t ever get to have gyoza with Philip again, but I was so glad for all the afternoons that I did. C