Back in the mid-1980s, when the fledgling Gannet was an impecunious student in search of a cool and reasonably cheap slice of Americana in the throbbing metropolis, the Hard Rock Café, the rock-themed chilli ’n’ burgers joint near Hyde Park Corner, was the hottest ticket in town. Except that there weren’t any tickets. You had to queue for ages, then wait again at the bar, before you eventually made it as far as the dining room. The management seemed to keep the queue at the same length whether the restaurant was busy or not, which always felt like a bit of a swizz if you’d been waiting in the rain for an hour.
I was reminded of this while standing in line for a table at Pitt Cue Co, a minuscule barbecue shack near Carnaby Street. They have the pit, you queue. In the food-frenzied world of tweeters and bloggers (many of whom seemed to be lined up in front of me, digits a-twitching), Pitt Cue has attracted even more than the usual hyperbole; the restaurant started life as a food truck under Hungerford Bridge – the perfect pedigree for a hip London restaurant these days. A grumpy queuer and decidedly Twitter-phobic, I was determined to dislike it.
To be fair, the queue was a result not of management policy, but of the place being stuffed with punters, as became apparent on my descent to the cramped dining room. My food arrived in a tin tray; rather disappointingly, it was excellent. Meaty St Louis ribs needed the gentlest of tugs with the teeth to lift the smoke-scented pork from the bones; “burnt end mash” – a toothsome chunk of brisket with just the right amount of “bark” (char), perched atop a little pile of potato – was melting and soothing; the pickles were perfect, and there was no trace of the cloying stickiness that often bedevils barbecue.
A cursory inspection of everybody else’s tin trays – something for which one hardly needs a telescope at Pitt Cue – revealed similarly appetising fare. They make a damned fine bourbon sour, too, although the Pickle Back – a shot of bourbon matched with a shot of pickle juice – is only for the brave.
The Hard Rock Café is no longer London’s funkiest place for a rib or a burger, although the music still rocks and you can’t book for fewer than 20 people. The laurels for ribs definitely belong to Pitt Cue, while the best burgers are to be found at Meat Liquor. Or so everyone tells me: I tried to go, honestly, but it was a frosty day at the end of January, and there was a hungry, huddled-up line of cool – distinctly chilly, actually – young diners stretching halfway down the street. I am, it’s sad to say, getting far too old to join a right-on queue.