A waiter scribbles on my placemat, asking: “Have you eaten here before?” Yes, of course, because I’m at Wagamama, the 128-strong chain which has been feeding hungover, shopping-weary and other assorted Britons for 25 years.
Launched by Alan Yau in 1992, Wagamama has since produced enough noodles to circumnavigate the globe 64 times, and 2016’s sales clock in at £266m. Wagamama has revolutionised the way Britons eat, what we eat and the spaces we eat in. But what is its place today, in the increasingly competitive but struggling restaurant sector?
At Wagamama’s “noodle lab” in London’s Soho, customers use digital tablets to review new dishes, such as the perversely delicious katsu curry ice cream. Tablets have always been part of Wagamama’s offering, with waiting staff keying orders into hand-held terminals because of “a desire for speed and efficiency,” says managing director Sarah Hills. “It was really a turning point in modern ‘casual dining’ in the UK.”
She’s not wrong. “Wagamama felt very high-tech when it debuted,” explains Sarah Housley, senior lifestyle editor at trend forecasters WGSN. “It played an important role in normalising the use of advanced tech in dining, such as augmented or virtual reality and projection mapping.”
Technology has also changed the way customers appreciate their food; dishes have to look great on Instagram. “The original restaurants were very minimal, bordering on stark,” says design director Mark Standing. “There were lots of hard surfaces and bright ‘lambing shed lighting’ so we’ve introduced a lot more warmth and texture, with brick walls and polished plaster.”

 The pared-back decor didn’t only give the chain its identity, though. It inspired customers. “Japanese-style dining was well received as a sort of halfway house between the traditional fast-food destinations and smart white table-clothed restaurants,” says Dr Vanessa Brady, president of the Society of British and International Design. “The fuss-free, no clutter, clean lines of home interiors has progressed year on year and influencers like Wagamama cannot be ignored.”
Offering just enough to fit on to an A3 paper placemat, the original menu was simple, too. No dish more so than chicken katsu curry, which, bought 2.5m times last year, is Wagamama’s most popular dish. “It doesn’t scare people,” says executive chef Steve Mangleshot. “People read ‘fried chicken, rice, curry sauce’ and think, ‘Oh, I can eat that!”
 As Britons’ palates have diversified, though, so too has the menu, which now includes such pan-Asian delights as pad thai, Cambodian samla curry, Peking-style duck wraps and Korean bulgogi steak. A Vietnamese salad is being trialled. “Customers are a lot more travelled now, so you can’t get away with doing the simple things,” Mangleshot explains. “We need to push some of the boundaries and make flavours unique. We’ve got to keep it fresh and exciting.”