Smart, Westernised outlets for "Oriental pasta" have been a hit in the USA and Australia over the past two years. Their rapid growth in the UK, with chains such as Wagamama, WokWok, Tiger Lil's and Mongolian Barbeque, signals that the noodle has much potential here.
With a 100g helping costing less than 50p, noodles offer a low base-cost per serving, giving a wide range of "big bowl" presentations that are visually impressive and carry a high perceived value. Noodles are quicker to cook than pasta, suiting high-throughput dining service, and are widely perceived as a good-value, fun food.
This familiarity stems partly from the offer of noodles as a rice alternative on the menus of the UK's 8,500 Chinese restaurants and take-aways. At the same time, instant noodle products have been a grocery staple since the 1960s, with the market-leading Pot Noodle brand commanding £95m in annual retail sales.
The strength of these cheap, standardised noodles might seem a disincentive to caterers, but consider the analogy with pasta. Two decades ago, to most UK consumers, pasta still meant canned spaghetti. The popularisation by restaurants of fettuccine, tortellini and other varieties completely changed perceptions of "real pasta".
A noodle education process
If anything, noodles offer even greater scope for a similar education process. The range of noodle variations is vast, from the udon and soba noodles of Japan to the pan-Asian egg and vermicelli noodles.
Expansion of long-haul package holidays in the past five years has made this diversity more familiar to the 18-30s consumer group, while supermarket chains such as Tesco and Sainsbury's have started to enlarge their noodle product ranges in response to greater media interest.
"A year ago, you had one stack of shelves with Asian food; now it's a whole aisle," says Tania Webb, director of the WokWok chain. "But it is one of the few world foods that has yet to be exploited in catering."
As its name suggests, the six-branch WokWok focuses on a stir-fried, pan-Asian menu but noodles are the key ingredient, with six different types used.
Webb says she has heard of at least two brewery groups with Asian concepts in the pipeline, but she warns anyone entering the market to do their homework. She has spent most of her life in the Far East, while WokWok's menu development has been in the hands of top Vietnamese chef Mai Ngoc Henry.
Getting the right noodle supplier is vital, Webb says, pointing out that there are at least 100 brands to choose from, and certain types are more prone to break up or "mush" during cooking.
With five restaurants now trading in fashionable parts of central London, plus a unit at Didsbury, Manchester, the company is now rolling out 100-120-seat units rapidly and expects to have nine trading by year-end.
Also making an impact on leisure dining are the "street market"-style chains, Tiger Lil's and Mongolian Barbeque. Both feature noodles as a component of most meals, stir-fried to order in front of the customer. However, Wagamama is seen as far and away the most influential player in the noodle market.
The first of Wagamama's self-styled "noodle canteens" quickly attracted queues of Hard Rock Café proportions when it opened in London's Bloomsbury in 1992. The company, since sold by creator Alan Yau to investment combine Foreign and Colonial Ventures and Virgin's McCarthy Corporation, hopes to repeat this performance at the third Wagamama outlet, which opened in London's Wigmore Street on 20 July.
Wagamama's impact has come from an original blending of ideas not seen in Japan or elsewhere. Key features include a large, open kitchen, a minimalist refectory-style dining area, and a commitment to the Oriental values of Yin-and-Yang "positive eating".
The menu's focus is on Chinese-style thread noodles and Japanese udon and wholemeal noodles, served in big bowls, either swimming in freshly made soup with chunks of meat and vegetables, or teppan-fried on griddles. Portions are large and prices are keen; the best-selling Chicken Ramen, at £5.25, contains 125g of noodles and nearly half a litre of soup, including several slices of grilled chicken breast. Freshly made raw vegetable and fruit juices are also key menu items.
Service is ultra-fast, aided by the waiters' hand-held electronic terminals. With keen pricing - average spend per head is about £8.50 - the two London branches pull in an average of 20,000 customers per week, with daily business split 35:65 between lunches and evening meals.
Wagamama restaurants target "non-destination" diners - that is, customers don't have to make a special plan to visit, and typically drop in on their way somewhere else.
Central London, with its highly concentrated population of office workers, students and tourists, plus high fashion-consciousness, provides a constant stream of customers, but will the format suit provincial and suburban locations?
Managing director Ian Neill, with long experience in the development of chains such as Pizza Express and Rank Restaurants, concedes that, in its present form, Wagamama "probably won't work in Croydon", but believes there are opportunities to "stretch" the concept and make it franchiseable. The menu, which so far has been subject to subtle pruning, could be much tighter in a downscaled unit, where the kitchen would be smaller.
Some items could also be handled in a central production kitchen, and facilities such as take-away - not available at the London restaurants because they are so busy - could be introduced. However, Neill is adamant about retaining the brand's core values. "Changes must enable us to do things better. The big mistake is to take something out of the kitchen to make it cheaper."
He emphasises the relationship between volume and pricing. "The reason we have people queuing out of the door is that we insist on high-quality products to serve with the noodles, and they tend to shoot the food cost up." The average food cost across the menu is 28%.
Ultimately, Neill is convinced that noodles can become as popular as pizza. "Once consumers learn to differentiate on quality," he says, "they are going to buy decent noodles."