“ Pizza chain in Colombia „
I always eat out more abroad then I do at home, often because where I am living will have a naff, small kitchen. That's the case here too, and without an oven or microwave or anything other than 2 hob plates really, I've no hope of making my own pizza. Enter Archie's.
Archie's is a pizza restaurant chain in Colombia. I first went on my 2nd day here, and liked it a lot, so even though it's higher than averagely priced rather than super cheap, I regularly return, and have been back 3 times in the past 2 months alone, to different branches. Not everyone is as familiar with it as I am, so this weekend I returned with 3 friends who had not been there before, to put their first-time opinions against my regular returning one.
The setting of Archie's depends on the branch, and can vary quite dramatically. There is one near here inside a shopping mall, which has a lovely outdoor corridor area, but is mainly inside and quite dark. Another is outside (just a few streets from the mall, quite oddly) and more like a normal restaurant. Out most recent visit was to a wonderfully airy 2 storey set up near the Museo Nacional. Natural light is not a feature in most Colombian buildings, so this one really stood out as it had full floor to ceiling windows on 3 sides of the cube, and a glass roof to match. It's on the main road (Septima, i.e. Avenue 7) so we had a great view of a crown of football fans marching along towards the stadium. It's well insulated though, so we weren't disturbed by the noise outside.
This is quite a small branch but we managed to get a table for 5 set up by moving two together. We got much more space this way too, as their normal square tables are quite cramped for the 4 people they are set for - in the end one of our party was a no show, but they didn't ask us to downsize. The tables are pre-set with temporary cloths over permanent coverings bearing the Archie's name and logo. There are side plates and knives set, plus napkins, and the only slightly off-putting bit is the dried chilli flakes and dried herbs in shakers, identical to those found in Pizza Hut at home.
The red and white colour scheme and the general layout is reminiscent of a US diner, and the retro music adds to this (I say retro...yesterday's was circa 1995). There were 2 flatscreens on our level, both showing football, but since these were on mute they blended nicely into the background. This branch has a bar too, though it didn't look like they expected anyone to sit at the high stools. The general ambience is something between fast food and fine dining, and the menu matches this. It is colourful and includes some photos but far from being tacky, they are artistically shot and look deliciously tempting. The menu is like a book - definitely hard to flick through if you were 4 people at a normal small table - and has a number of sections.
The appetizers include things like a 4 cheese dip with tortilla chips, a mushroom dip, the standard (but nice) mozzarella and tomato combo, and some shrimp / prawn concoctions. They also have an antipasta platter, and several soups on offer, but the prices seem quite out of proportion - $18,000 (that's £6) for the mozzarella and tomato for example. I'm not sure how big these are because I've never ordered one in addition to a main, but hope for that price they wouldn't be too stingy. There is no garlic bread or similar on offer, buy you get a complimentary dish of ciabatta style slices and an oil / balsamic dipping swirl brought to the table once you've ordered. This is yummy, but I couldn't help but notice we got the same amount for the 4 of us as I did for just me on my last visit.
The main courses are split down by type. There is something for everyone with chicken and fish dishes, topped focaccias, risotto, salads and pasta. Something very odd about the menu is their labelling - they have symbols for dishes containing seafood, spicy options and those with mushrooms in (!) but nothing for vegetarian which means you have to read each description carefully. On several occasions I have fancied a salad, but they only have one meat free one which randomly contains mango and a few other things I'm not sure I'd want with my greens.
As this is a pizzeria, understandably the main part of the menu is for pizzas. These are broken down into 3 types, rustic, gourmet and traditional with the latter 2 coming in various size options. The difference is down to the base, so for example you can have a traditional margarita or a rustic one. On my very first visit I tried the pesto pizza which is just as it sounds, and topped with slices of tomato. It was absolutely divine, beautifully crisp and bursting with flavour even better than my favourite mass produced pesto. The only downside was the size, which was on the small side. It was fine for lunch, but on this latest visit the two members of our group who went for pizza thought they were a bit small. Good think I had Milka in my bag to help out... On my second visit I tried the vegetarian pizza which was nice if a little odd, containing asparagus and broccoli alongside the more normal peppers, olives and mushrooms. They have a wide selection, from the usual to the absurd (prune and bacon, anyone?! Friend #3 seemed to enjoy it but then she is Colombian). The pizzas aren't swimming in cheese but aren't lacking in it either - combined with the crispy, not too greasy bases you almost feel like this could be a healthy option (almost!)
The final section of the mains is Calzoni and Wraps, which is what I opted for this time. I was quite surprised to find the Calzone served without any sauce over it - this came in a small pot on the side. The Calzoni don't come with descriptions, but since most match the names of pizzas, I assume the ingredients are roughly the same. I chose the Napolitana which was the expected cheese and tomato combo but though the filling was generous, there was a lot of dough and the extra sauce was needed. This was a herby, slightly chunky tomato (with a lone basil leaf in) and really brought out the flavour of the dish. With a few sprinklings of those tacky but tasty chilli flakes, I was good to go and plunged in to find so much lovely cheese I had to do the comedy fork stretch, raising it above my head to try to get it to snap so I could twirl it round. As with the other meals I've enjoyed at the chain, this one tasted freshly prepared with decent, not cheap ingredients. It was a simple dish but the tomatoes in particular tasted freshly picked and were nice and chunky, and though it was simple it was far from boring or bland.
Archie's also offers a tempting dessert menu with everything from crepes to cheesecake, but again the prices are a little higher. We ended up going to a place round the corner where out Chocolate Volcanoes cost half as much as something similar would have done at Archie's. A selection of drinks (soft, alcoholic, milkshakes and coffees) rounds off the menu though friend #1 spluttered a little at the price of the beer, and opted for a more usual priced Coke instead. Although I liked the bottles they came in, I would have preferred a 500ml serving rather than the considerably smaller one offered for our soft drinks (though Sprite came in a bigger bottle).
Generally the food is well presented here. The plates are always clean (always a pet peeve of mine - things that haven't been checked after coming out of the washer) and the pizzas especially have nicely arranged toppings that some thought has gone into. However I thought my Calzone this time was a bit plain - in the middle of a white plate with no garnish, it looked rather uninspired (though thankfully tasted much nicer). It looked like how I would serve it at home - eating out, I like it when things look a bit more special.
The service at Archie's is highly variable, even within the same visit. Friend #2 asked for parmesan for her pasta, which took ages to appear. At the end, some plates were cleared before everyone finished, and others were then left until we departed (we waited for the bill or the offer of coffee, chatting away, and then realised it had been 15 or 20 minutes with no attention from our waiter...and we were the only group left on the upper floor at that point). That said, in all other areas the service was nice and friendly, with our waiter introducing himself by name and checking we were ok. My food was warm when it came out, but not piping hot this time - I felt obliged to start eating immediately in case it grew cold. The plates were not warmed - something I think could have helped - but I also wondered if it was because we were a group, and/or because the food had to come from the downstairs kitchen. On other visits it has been too hot to eat on arrival, which is quite nice (since the bread appetizer will have taken a slight edge of even the largest of hungers).
In the other branch I'm most familiar with, I have always been asked to complete a customer feedback questionnaire (in a large book) on paying. Not only is this read...but they act on it immediately. I once made a comment about vegetarian salads (or lack, thereof) and the team leader came over as I was still counting my change to point out the one on the menu, and check I had noticed it which I thought was a nice touch - sometimes I wonder if customer feedback goes straight into a black hole, never to be acknowledged let alone responded to. In that same branch on my first visit I hovered in the door, expecting to be seated. I waited and waited while several servers flew back and forth in front of me, before finally being asked what I wanted - um, a table? I was then told to seat myself, and have done ever since, but I still remember the brusque and almost condescending tone I was spoken to with on that initial visit.
Archie's do their bills in a funny way which is slightly inconvenient for groups. They take off the tax (though this is included in the prices shown on the menu) and show the items without it, then add back the tax as a whole, and a service charge (about 10% - possibly minus drinks), at the bottom. Obviously if you're on a date, or with family, or on your own this matters less, but since we were all paying for our own meals it threw us somewhat and we ended up coming up a little short. Rather than mints, the bill came with lurid green lollipops which we all left, but I still get a little excited by a bulging bill wallet boasting unknown treasures.
As I mentioned, Archie's is not the cheapest place. The smallest pizza (and it is rather small - the same as a couple of pieces in a by the slice place) costs about $11,000 and most things are around the $16,000+ mark, so add on a drink and service and it's unlikely you'll get change from a twenty. This time my Calzone was $16,000 and my Coke around $3,000. This compares to an a-ma-zing little joint near me where you can get a slice and a drink for $2,500 - and while this was bigger, it certainly wasn't 7 times more food. The quality in Archie's is good, but for a regular meal I would still prefer the cheaper and tastier Crepes y Waffles.
There is definitely a market for Archie's. The branches are never empty and are clearly popular with local families. The food is nice if not all that authentic (neither Italian nor American) and if you're visiting from overseas and don't want to risk street food, you can come here for an enjoyable (and safe) meal that, by international standards is not too pricy (£6 - £8 for a main course and a drink, in comfortable surroundings with waiter service). The first few times I went I was overwhelmed by the choices on the menu, but now I've tried pretty much everything I wanted (with the exception of the breakfast menu's Nutella French Toast) so I might not be back anytime soon on my own accord. But, should someone invite me there for a meal, or suggest it for a group outing, I would happily accept. If someone else were paying I could eat there every week and not get bored, but when it's my cash I'm parting with, well I'd rather not spend my dough on their dough.
You can view the entire menu online (Spanish only, but you can look at the pretty pictures) and also find your nearest branch. Which is probably quite far from Watford or Limerick or wherever, but still...
In June 2011, £1 was $3000
3.5 stars, rounded up to 5, for the menu choices and food quality, with minor deductions for service at times and of course the price.