High-quality food chains such as Giraffe, Leon and Yo! Sushi are becoming increasingly common on our station concourses. Is the quality of our grab-'n'-go at long last on the up?
Rejoice, rail users. Maybe. The news that the restaurant chain Giraffe is about to open its first Kiosk at London King's Cross station may not set your pulse racing. What is significant, however, is that the Tesco-owned chain is now targeting travel hubs in its expansion plans. It is merely the latest in a series of indicators that the quality of food and drink at British train stations may, finally, be on the up.
Traditionally, train stations, firmly in the (death) grip of Burger King, Upper Crust, Pumpkin, Ritazza et al, have been places where you paid over the odds (have you seen how much WH Smith charges for Diet Coke?) for, at best, deeply average food. You only eat there if you are in a big hurry, disorganised, hungry or desperate to avoid the only fate worse than a Boots sandwich - eating on the train itself. In retail, it is known as a "distress purchase".
At King's Cross, as well as Giraffe's Stop restaurant and, from next month, its Kiosk outlet, you can grab 'n' go at Leon. Paddington now has a Barburrito, with possibly more to come at other stations, while posh St Pancras is home, to Yo! Sushi, a Peyton & Byrne, Sourced Market, and the Searcy's Grand restaurant among others. We could argue all day about relative merits of those individual businesses, but, judged purely on quality, they represent a massive step-up from the insipid lattes, crumbling muffins and expensive, half-empty panini that still constitute the typical station refuelling experience for most of Britain.
Meanwhile, the campaign for real ale on the railways has gathered a powerful head of steam. York-based craft beer specialist Pivovar now runs four station bars at York (it serves excellent pork pies, too); Sheffield (beautiful building, one half of which is a brewpub); Euston; and its latest addition, Harrogate. Heading home from Euston is now a pleasure. Instead of forlornly stalking the concourse, irritated that your train isn't ready for boarding, you can plot-up in the Euston Tap and linger over a pint of something marvellous from Magic Rock or Thornbridge and then (five minutes before departure) grab a bottle for the train. What could be more civilised than that?
Over at King's Cross, the Parcel Yard pub is getting good notices (interestingly, Fuller's also run the only tube station pub at Kew, the Tap On the Line). Elsewhere in the last few years, a number of good, beer-focused bars have opened at stations - the Jubilee Refreshment Rooms in Sowerby Bridge; the Steamhouse in Urmston - adding to that pre-existing network of anomalous, great station pubs that have clung on down the years, such as Manningtree Station Buffet, the Phoenix at Denmark Hill or those on-platform pubs that, famously, form a station-to-station pub crawl across the Pennines.
If, after years of inertia, the landlords - Network Rail or the train-operating companies who lease its stations - are realising that it could be doing a lot more to make stations desirable places to be, this is extending beyond the immediate platform, too. Be it the Stewed! kiosk at the entrance to Reading Station (it also has a pitch at Clapham Junction), or the phenomenal Hart's Bakery in one of the arches under Bristol Temple Meads, good independents are, slowly, beginning to establish themselves within the wider complexes that station's occupy.
For now, such progress is sporadic. Indeed, you might argue that, rather than one-off deals with small players, Network Rail could improve the experience overnight, by going into a nationwide partnership with M&S, to get its Simply Food concessions into every station. But after years of paying over the odds for sub-standard sandwiches, surely any outbreak of good food and drink on the rail network is cause for celebration?
Where else will we find special station pubs, cafes and takeaways, that it is worth missing your connection for? And which of the big chains would like to see driven off the station concourse, forever?
Photo: Giraffe in King's Cross ... soon to be joined by a kiosk.