The ballad of Toby Carvery: A simple haven of meat and gravy
The new decade has only just begun and we're already doomed so let's take a moment to appreciate the endlessly surreal, hyper-British dining experience that is the Toby Carvery. You know, before it's too late
Walk into a Toby Carvery, any of the chain's 158 locations dotted up and down the country like chickenpox - approximately 157 of which share their setting with a Travelodge - and you know what awaits. A roast, namely, and a mostly unspectacular one at that except in the following categories: size, mass, scale and size. Which are all the same thing. Obviously. But for the extremely palatable cost of £6.99 (£8.99 on weekends), you can get a plate as large as your own head and pack to the very brim with whatever nonsense you so desire to enjoy in a family-friendly setting with all the soothing ambience of a hornet's nest. Which is also on fire. And yet... there's something so special, so wonderful about the place.
Walk into a Toby Carvery and you will have to wait to be seated as though its the Dorsia in American Psycho, and not, in fact, just a large house flooding with gravy somewhere off an A-road in the Midlands. I still haven't quite worked out why they do this, as there is typically an abundance of free tables in full sight of that weird desk where you are greeted (read 'looked at in a bemused fashion until you say something, as though you are intruding into someone's actual home'), but it helps crank up the anticipation regardless. That is, of course, unless you go for a carvery at any time on a Sunday. Literally any time at all. It could be 8 o'clock in the morning and you will still have to weigh up whether your basic human desire to consume as many roast potatoes as you can manage is worth the excruciating wait time, upwards of two hours, which you have to spend perched at the bar in the vastly inferior, non-carvery section of the pub.
Unlike Nemesis Inferno during a school holiday, however, the wait will be very, very worth it.
Now seated, you will politely flick through the menu despite knowing full well you are getting one thing and one thing only. In fact, you have likely known for several hours, possibly days, that you were ordering a carvery. You have probably been thinking about it for weeks. Sometimes you wake up and just feel it - Yep, I'm getting a carvery in the near future. In your bones, in your heart, in your soul. In that bit in between your chest and your stomach that hurts sometimes for no apparent reason. Possibly due to too many carveries. And after glancing through the menu and - as is now the law - commenting with incredulity on the new vegan options, the real fun begins. The queueing. The queueing up, for your food, in a restaurant, in a place where you are paying real, actual money for a meal but still have to queue up and wait in a line like you're just a little hungry child back in the school cafeteria waiting for a cold, rectangular slab of pizza to be shunted your way.
During my most recent visit over the festive period, the scene resembled the line to pass through airport security. They even use identical crowd control barriers, set in the same vague, snaking loop. Fortunately, the queue system gives you time to prepare for what is essentially the British restaurant industry equivalent to a video game boss battle. That is, of course, the heads up poker encounter with the meat carver at Toby Carvery, arguably one of the most powerful figures in modern society. Seasoned carvery goers will no doubt be aware of the meat gambit: pretending to select only one cut of meat, waiting for the carver to almost finish dishing up, before then asking for a second, different cut to procure an extra half-portion's worth. It is, however, not a tactic without risk, especially given the fact the carver is not someone you want to rile. But that's the danger of the game, and this is just how we play it, baby.
For a start, the carver spends their entire day slicing through apparently unsliceable meat under a heat lamp set to the intensity of a thousand suns. It's gruelling work. Even their lungs get a workout, as they also have to yell 'YORKSHIRE!?' several times per minute like an uncertain contestant on a game show endlessly being asked what the biggest county in England is. So yeah, these are not people to be trifled with, even aside from the fact that they are extremely skilled in what they do. It is almost mechanical, the precision with which they cut the exact same amount of meat for each and every person, always slightly underwhelming but just enough that you can't actually, physically bring yourself to ask for more. You know, in front of that impatient Gatwick queue as they say 'Isthatalrightforyoulove/mate', sweat gushing down their foreheads, and hand you a boiling hot plate, which you must then take off them, with your hands. Your bare hands.
I, in my 27 years on Earth, have only ever seen one person brave enough to ask for more meat from the Toby Carvery carver and - fair play - they did get a bit more. Personally I'd never risk it. Your chances of coming away with slightly more gammon, instead of a deep carving fork wound in the arm, are approximately 50-50.
Once you've battled past the carver its time for your inner artistry to take over. To channel some innate carvery expressionism held within and become a Picasso of the parsnips, a Matisse of the mash. Wincing with plate in hand, you will sidle across to the sides and veg and set upon creating your masterpiece. The key, as with the postwar Soviet Union, is to build upwards. Roast potatoes are crucial here. See that big crater in your Yorkshire? Fill it with roasties. You see that pile of roasties now leaking out of your Yorkshire? Contain the spillage with some more roasties. Cover your meat in roast potatoes, and then clog the gaps with mash. You see that small gap you were saving for veg? No need, they have macaroni cheese now! Not a traditional component of the roast by any means but lather it on. Dollops of it. Heaps.
After you've filled your plate with several hundred of the crispiest roast potatoes you've ever seen and a small number of other, lesser additions, move on to the gravy station to apply the finishing touch - the gravy. You should try and imagine you're paying at a petrol pump, as this kind of OCD precision is vital. There are probably myriad different theories on the right amount to cover a roast dinner but I personally favour the 'make the walk back to your table as difficult as possible' school of gravy application. It should feel like the egg and spoon race on sports day on your way back. Make sure your plate is BRIMMING with the stuff. Unless you leave a gloopy motor oil trail behind you as you waddle back to your seat, cupping your plate like the Holy Grail, you haven't done it right. (Try not to get any on your mac and cheese though, it's weird. A working solution would be to upgrade to an XL plate at the carver station, obtain a second Yorkshire and then use that as a kind of macaroni fort, with the gravy acting as a moat. Sometimes there is very little that separates a maverick from a genius.)
Finally, it's time to actually enjoy your food. Or the first half of it, before you hit the roast wall and the second half becomes a gruelling, primal showdown between those age-old adversaries: man and carbohydrate. The likelihood is you will need several small breaks in play to complete your mission. Stopping every few minutes, slouching back onto the lino seat and patting your belly whilst saying "I'm absolutely stuffed" will help. As will not drinking a pint with your meal, the only time I will ever, ever, advise that.
You will plough on though. You will plough through. Even as herds of rampant children on a Coke and cheese high sprint about and the Victorian lunatic asylum decor seems to close in around you. You will finish everything on your plate. Ordeal and meal end with the same three letters after all.
Against your body's wishes, and the advice of most medical professionals, you will even order dessert. A few scoops of ice cream to wash it down. You will be content, finally, and you will pay your bill in one tap and you will go home and you will sleep it off, sleeping as sound as a baby, safe in the knowledge that you have just consumed your usual calorie intake for a week in one sitting and have experienced the finest, most satisfying, most unashamedly British dining experience this ridiculous island nation has to offer to boot.
Keep your Michelin stars, I want a plate the size of my head and everything on it to be different shades of brown.