Lucy Fitzgerald looks back on the popularity of Nando’s, and interrogates its enduring appeal.
What with their predilection for profiting off inhumane worker labour conditions and propagating conversion therapy, I try not to get fond of multinational companies. Nando’s restaurant is no fast fashion behemoth or soulless tech giant, but it is still a homogenised chain nonetheless, and so hardly a local family business that needs urgent funding. Yet, my attachment to it has never wavered. In fact, the majority of the UK still get merry off its signature marinade today, even after the passing of its 2010s zeitgeist moment.
My first time dining in a Nando’s branch was in early summer 2013, a time of simpler pleasures when life felt more bearable. The economy and Harry Styles’ hairline were not in recession; the MCU and Harry Styles’ friendship with James Corden were still in their infancy; Harry Styles had not developed acting ambitions yet. The threat to civilization seemed mild. Politicians still had some shame and austerity was not yet its slut era. At this time I was on a trip to St. Andrews with my high school band (St. Andrews: not so much a physical town, as it is an ode to inertia; a collection of three pavements and a home for overpriced Oliver Bonas-adjacent boutiques that would never survive on the high street) that was defined by a new sense of excitement despite the quiet setting, between the independence brought by laissez-faire teacher supervision (they were clearly comfortable with the undemanding task of chaperoning well-behaved nerds) and the general energy of being 13 exploring the world through a fresh lens of possibility. I bounced into the eatery as golden hour descended, I was ready to have my world rocked, and rocked it was – Nando’s ushered me into a new chapter of my life.
“Isn’t it boring when I talk about my dreams?” Alex Turner sang in the The Dream Synopsis, speaking to the dullness that is being subjected to another’s unsolicited, wandering explanations of their unrelatable and abstract reveries. I think what causes a more pronounced irritation though, is describing the familiar. Who wants to know my Nandos’ order? Who wants to hear a rhyming off of a menu the vast majority of people know? Who cares? Alas, I only detail my Nando’s order now to spotlight the restaurant’s strongest features and we need some qualitative data in this ethnographic report, okay! I’ve been in a committed relationship with their medium-spiced, double chicken butterfly burger for nine years now, in spite of its impossible dimensions (the ratio of bread to chicken surface area is off – in the words of Adam Levine, that body of yours is absurd). The wings flank my wrists and my knuckles are involuntarily daubed in residual mayo juice. Though surplus wild herb sauce results in many napkin-Jackson Pollocks, and the Portuguese roll could do with some more girth, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Ultimately all is in order; it is a suitably succulent and immersive affair. Oh, and their sides of seasoned, starchy bullets (spicy rice) and peri-salted chips? Consider me the 2011 hit by The Saturdays the way I’m all fired up!
Now, back in the day a certain choking shadow of peer pressure haunted anyone that crossed Nando’s threshold. What is this grim reaper of social suicide you ask? Exposure of your low spice tolerance. It is a simple question – what spice do you take? – but it’s a loaded matter. To proclaim your propensity for Plain was to out yourself as a gimp. Medium was respectable ground, and naturally Hot and Extra Hot gifted inarguably cool distinction. I haven’t thought about it in a while but in our current Hot Ones economy I imagine such intimidation endures. I say, if forced to tango with peppers your tongue can’t keep in rhythm with, mediate the pain through the bottomless drink option (it’s a lawless land in there so I have always refilled my Fanta at least seven times). Let the diluted soda syrup on ice wash away your shame and revoke your arbitrarily assigned lodging in loserdom! It must be noted that the classic con to avoid being bumped off this couple extra quid was to ask for water when ordering, be given a small glass, and then just fill it with fizzy juice when working the unguarded machine (though I’m sure staff are wise to this by now).
A key article of faith I maintain about a Nando’s meal is its genuine nourishment. Not too heavy on the tummy, a gourmand’s food coma is safely averted and I exit not feeling sluggish, but actively replenished and energised. Let me betray my intellect for a sec – I simply do not believe burgers are that unhealthy! You’re telling me the sweetest little cherubs of mother nature’s garden, tomatoes, are a problem? That fluffy green lettuce spread like a flamenco percion fan, dancing against protein-filled meat, poses a threat to my wellbeing? That a subtle chargrill, is extreme carcinogenic burning? That bookend-carbohydrate-buns don’t engender the most crucial sensation of all: joy? If this balanced bite shortens my life, so be it – I warn only delight!
Despite the restaurant’s 1987 establishment in Johannesburg, in terms of Nando’s place in culture it’s sort of recognized as a UK delicacy (after all, what’s more British than claiming assets from other countries as definitively their own?) Seizing the zeitgeist, Nando’s sustained real IT girl status through the 2010s, spiking in absolute cultural ubiquity around 2015. The buzz was inescapable and its appeal encompassed three core things: young people socialising, fashion and music.
Nando’s quickly became a hub for young people, a magnet for teens on “mate dates” and couples in their 20s. On the weekends, throughout this 2010s period, Snapchat stories were a photo catalogue of Nando’s menus with handle tags noting one’s company, and aerial shots of plates, angled to see the bird’s full glaze. It became a trendy place to go and a worthwhile way to hang out, a socially credited excursion that conferred security upon those without exciting plans – hey, I might not be high and scaling a fence but I’m having a great time up the Fort enjoying a silly little halloumi stick. Notably, Nando’s have always known how to cater to this core youth demographic: on exam results day, a free ¼ Chicken or Starter is up for grabs if you present your results notification to the cashier (of course indiscriminately of grade; you’ve heard of D’s get degrees, well, P’s get peri peri).
A long inactive Twitter account will contextualise the phrase “Cheeky Nando’s” for the unfamiliar, but first of all we must address the word cheeky and unpack how profoundly upsetting it is. ‘Cringe-worthy’ is not a strong enough descriptor for it. It’s so unironic, perhaps the very apex of comphet humour. It’s attributed to: class clown schoolboys; thirsty middle aged mums describing Robbie Williams; Prince Harry when he so much as sips a pint; and toddlers who display an iota of personality and are in turn animalised as monkeys. Describing something as cheeky is about as transgressive as conservative humour can get. In such a context, cheeky is a disarming handshake, cheeky is a bit of indulgence and a momentary abandoning of formalities. Cheeky is a promise of briefly colouring outside the lines, of innuendo, of rule testing, of humouring the devil on one shoulder even though you know you’re going to follow the advice of the angel on the other. It speaks to a state of totally diluted intensity: there’s no real rudeness, nastiness or harm at play, no commitment to radical disorder, only a teased foray into fun. It’s all low-stakes playfulness – it’s just cheeky!
For a decade Nando’s were fluent in this love language that affirmed the humanity of so many British lads. It was irresistible to them due to its precursory function: it was the warm-up rendezvous before a sesh. It was more than a meal, it was a Saturdays Are For The Boys, tribalist mission statement: the bros are going to have a good, cheeky time. And this attitude had attendant attire, a very specific fashion that might mean nothing to anyone who wasn’t between the ages of 13 and 22 in 2015. Invariably the look, modelled by straight boys, involved a distressing perm, Optimus Prime-looking Nike Huaraches, an arresting OBEY T-shirt and tight grey trackies (leggings). Retrospectively, I dare call it camp.
The proliferation of Nando’s appeal during this period was supplemented by popular British stars making their trips known: in 2011 Example and Ed Sheeran performed an endearingly wholesome paean-to-the-chicken freestyle, in which they exalted their exclusive Black Card ownership, and in 2014 Ed Sheeran and JME’s series of causal lunches were documented on YouTube. Equally, Lethal Bizzle’s namecheck of the restaurant on his 2015 track Fester Skank raised its profile: “You might see me in a Lambo’ / Camo snapback, Rambo / Five hundred horses, Django / Two two chicken, Nando”. And even Canadian Drake, understanding Nando’s inextricable grip on the UK, and ever covetous with his perpetual praise and co-signing of anything popular, captioned a 2017 Instagram photo celebrating his Brit Award win with “Winner winner Nando’s chicken dinner”. I can’t even claim second-hand embarrassment here, he was in total alignment with the national spirit! So, to dine at Nando’s was to dine with the stars (accordingly though, it’s never actually been inexpensive: you’re talking at least £15 for a full meal’s worth of scran, so considerably cheaper fast food options are obviously out there – I’m just saying you could do better).
Furthermore, between the deep, vivid colouring of its inviting decor and its tables populated with beaming visages, the distinct warmth of Nando’s atmosphere, in both temperature and mood, cannot be understated. Compared to the harsh white lighting and clinical gleam of a McDonalds or KFC, the vibe at Nando’s is more: vibrant hotel in a balmy holiday spot, less operating theatre or cold backroom interrogation lamp. Where these other establishments might rinse Dance Monkey-esque ear-assaults to death through tinny toilet tannoys (the type of songs that, if in a fragile state, could send you over the edge), trips to piss at Nando’s are soundtracked by lively, dance-inducing marimba beats that practically lift you from sink back to side plate. The typical, spacious interior of a Nando’s branch features: high ceilings; red, tangerine orange and green tapestries bordered by yellow-hued bulbs; sweeping curved booths that almost envelop you in a hug; and striking portraits on the walls – I patiently await the day they get the Architectural Digest tour treatment.
However, the success of a Nando’s visit is really dependent on such ambience and proximity to flame grills. Relocate the food from this environment and problems start to emerge. I was in denial for a while but can now admit their takeaways really leave something to be desired – they are ice cold. The meat: rubbery. The fries: soggy. The cardboard packaging: damp with condensation (I recall a TikTok exposé from an employee that revealed what was formerly kitchen confidential: their prep centres on reheating-shortcuts and their chips are the store-bought McCain brand. A war crime in the eyes of someone like Carmy from The Bear, I’m sure). You are presented with a simulacrum of the sauced-up sustenance you know they are capable of, ersatz provisions that are so pitiful, they leave you with a depressing aftertaste in your very soul. So, don’t subject yourself to that; no one deserves another come down on a Sunday when they are still trying to get over their first. My first sit-in meal back at Nando’s, after multiple Covid-19 lockdowns spent bent to the will of said disappointing carry-outs, felt like the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
In 2022, you could go several days without seeing or hearing a reference to Nando’s, a stark difference from circumstances five to ten years ago, as the eatery has become fully integrated into our collective consciousness. Having done its masterclass in marketing for a decade, it has graduated from the cheeky and secured its cultural tenure. And that is not to say its popularity has decreased, it is still perpetually busy: trust me, long waits to be seated prevail, it’s just grown out of its starlet phase (think Jennifer Lawrence circa intense Hunger Games fame versus now, still in demand but not constantly featured on every media channel). Significantly, Nando’s have largely avoided scandal, been committed to sustainable practices and inadvertently become a multicultural changemaker in a landscape of bland British food, prompting other places of casual cuisine to spice up their life. Nando’s has ultimately lived beyond the gimmick.
Being the primary place I have eaten out at since 2013, it still hits the same way: a low-risk, high-reward, convenient ritual that evokes only gratifying memories of tasty grub shared over laughs. Eating an Nando’s remains an unchanged comfort that doesn’t get old, like a band playing their original no.1 hit at the end of every set, despite a large volume of more recent material. It is a trusted pleasure and a soothing fixture in routine. Sure, there are a host of new places where I could, and probably should, expand my palate, but since my relationship with Nando’s is so bound up in adolescent nostalgia, I am happy to hold it at the age it became famous.