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12:14pm on Saturday, 29th November, 2014:
A couple of months ago, Colchester saw the opening of a Chiquito restaurant over by Sainsbury's. Out-of-town restaurants are a rarity in Colchester, because the council has a long-held obsession with ensuring that the town centre is not dead in the evenings (it's why we don't have a multiplex cinema). Chiquito may be a chain of 68 restaurants that has been established for 25 years, but Colcestrians who wanted to sample their UK take on Tex-Mex fare in the past would have had to go to Braintree. Now, we have our own.
Unfortunately, the curiosity of Colchester and district residents is unrelenting. The place is packed. We've tried to book a table there every Friday evening since it opened and it's proven impossible. It's booked solid Friday to Sunday. There's also the problem of parking: the restaurant is next to Frankie & Benny's (which is owned by the same company) and shares its problem of having a car park with too few spaces to accommodate the cars of a full restaurant, or even a 75%-full restaurant. When we've shown up speculatively three or four times, we've never been able to park, let alone find out if there's a free table.
All this changed yesterday. I looked on the web site, found that it was the exact date of Chiquito's 25th anniversary, and downloaded a voucher for a free cocktail/mocktail. I agreed with my wife that we'd try get a table there, but if not we'd go get fish and chips from the chippie in nearby Eight Ash Green. Even as we arrived, my wife was musing on whether to have cod or maybe go for chicken instead, but then something miraculous happened: someone in the car park left! I took their spot and we got inside.
Needless to say we were told there was a 30-minute wait for a table. Not wanting to wait, we said we'd go and get chips instead. Not wanting to lose our custom, the woman-in-red on the till said she'd try get us a table in 5 minutes instead. Not wanting to miss a free mocktail, we agreed and waited at the bar. True to the woman-in-red's word, we had a table shortly afterwards and had our first experience of garlic bread made with flour tortilla.
There were three strange things about our visit, beyond the one of actually having got a table in the first place.
Strange thing number 1: the music. The sound system was playing pop songs with Mexican themes (such as Dance the Night Away by the Mavericks), but the bass was coming from one side of the restaurant and the melody was coming from the other. The bass was so strong and thumping that it sounded as if it were a separate piece of music, but it wasn't.
Strange thing number 2: all the staff were British. Next door, at Frankie & Benny's, half of them are from Eastern Europe. The staff were also unusually efficient and attentive, so much so that I began to suspect that they were part of an elite squad who go into newly-opened restaurants to get them running properly from the get-go, before gradually swapping in newly-trained locals from Warsaw to pick up the reins.
Strange thing number 3: there was a party of 16 in from a care home for teenagers with mental disabilities, which in part explained the paucity of tables. One of the kids kept making loud noises. OK, nothing wrong with that, but the thing was that they sounded uncannily like Michael Jackson saying "Oww!". It was as if he was there in the room. You'd be chomping on your chimichanga then suddenly, and in time to the music (see strange thing number 1), Michael Jackson chimed in. It was uncanny.
Anyway, we liked it so we'll go back again, perhaps when the crowds have died down. That's more than we will the new Middleton's restaurant on North Hill, which replaced the Strada we liked...
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