In December, Building launched a contest to find the best site canteen in the UK. With the shortlist whittled down to three, Katie Puckett joined our intrepid judges as they worked their way through the finest ‘grill-ups’ and porridge in the land. It was a tough job, but eventually a winner was declared

Risking life and limb in pursuit of the truth is, of course, all in a day’s work for Building’s journalists. Clambering around sites in oversized boots, ascending skeletons of skyscrapers in rickety hoists, sacrificing our livers at Mipim can all be taken in one’s stride, but few challenges have come close to eating three fried breakfasts in one morning to judge our Nouvelle Canteen competition.

Back in November last year, we threw down the gauntlet to the industry. Inspired by the tale of a Taylor Woodrow site where chips were taken off the menu, we wanted to hear from the best site cafes in the business – the ones that could boast healthy, nutritious and satisfying food at reasonable prices, and rave reviews from their on-site customers too.

Today, our team of judges will visit the canteens that made the shortlist. Time Out restaurant reviewer Guy Dimond says he’ll be looking at the quality of the food and, particularly, the cooks’ use of ingredients and flavours. As anonymity is vital to his craft, he doesn’t want his face shown in our photographs.

Anne Sidnell, a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation will be assessing the healthy options and how well they are promoted. For Michael Glackin, former site worker and occasional Building contributor, this will be a trip down memory lane. Michael has many harrowing stories of devouring site grub only to discover used plasters lurking in his bacon sandwiches … but will he find that things have changed?

Ropemaker Place, Mace

330 workers on site, 150-200 meals served each day
Open 8am to 4pm Monday to Friday, and Saturday morning
Run by Mary Perry, Professional Project Catering
What we had Full English breakfast £3.50, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs £3.95, porridge with honey £1.40

Building’s judges were lured to the Ropemaker Place canteen in the city by the prospect, in the words of one worker testimonial, of “the best curry I’ve ever had”. Sadly when we arrive it is only 8.30 in the morning so a bit early for a curry. It is also terrible timing for Mace because today it is moving from the old canteen to a much bigger venue elsewhere on site, and it’s partially dismantled already.

The world of site canteens is a new one for Guy. Certainly few of the places he’s visited have been just a few hours from demolition – at least not before his reviews were published. Why would you need a site canteen in the middle of the City, he wonders. Michael explains that the likes of Pret a Manger don’t necessarily welcome diners in site gear, and in any case, their bosses don’t want them wandering off site.

When we arrive, Michael is deeply impressed – it’s warm and dry and a considerable improvement on the breezeblock structures he used to shiver in 20 years ago. There is also a luxurious 50-inch flatscreen television showing BBC News 24.

At the serving hatch, there’s a gastro-pub style blackboard with today’s menu and stacks of freshly made rolls in clingfilm. “Plenty of cereal,” Anne notes approvingly, “lots of fruit…” She’s brought along a score sheet the British Nutrition Foundation uses to assess corporate restaurants and is diligently ticking off the basics.

We order the full breakfast, choosing fresh tomatoes instead of tinned; porridge with honey and – definitely one for the managers – smoked salmon with scrambled eggs and brown bread.

The first dish, our fry-up, arrives in a matter of minutes with big mugs of builder’s tea all round. It’s mainly grilled, which scores points with Anne, and the scrambled eggs are nice and fluffy. “If you wanted a scrambled egg 20 years ago they’d just mash it up a bit in the pan,” says Michael. The tomatoes go down well too – big, tangy, with a charred crust. Anne approves of the high tomato-to-sausage ratio, which lowers the overall fat content.

But the sausage itself scores badly with everyone. “It’s made with a lot of rusk and not enough meat,” complains Guy.

Michael is not allowed bacon at home and dives straight for it. “There’s not much fat,” he says, slightly disappointed. “I like the fat.”

If you wanted a scrambled egg 20 years ago they’d just mash it up a bit in the pan.

Michael Glackin, judge

The smoked salmon is delicious. But the porridge has a harder time. At first, piping hot and glistening with milk and honey, it meets a chorus of approval. “Ooh, that looks good,” breath the judges as one, brandishing spoons. But Guy is a Scotsman and knows his oats. “It’s middle ranking, too smooth for my taste.”

The judges’ verdicts

6/10 - Guy: I’d be happy to have lunch there any day. The food wasn’t amazing but it was quite cheap, and varied. There was no awful Muzak either. So many places you go have Heart FM or something on – it drives you mad.

6/10 - Anne: This kind of catering is about big, hearty breakfasts. It did have a selection of healthy food on offer but this wasn’t really promoted.

6/10 - Michael: It was clean and comfortable. The porridge was new, that was a first for me. Most of the fry-up was grilled, and the tomatoes were very good but the sausage was poor. And they asked whether I wanted milk or lemon in my tea!

Central St Giles, Bovis

Serves 85-100 hot meals a day at the moment but has the capacity to do up to 900
Open 7am to 4pm Monday to Friday, and 7am – 12pm on Saturday
Run by Kieran Robinson, Zak Hospitality
What we had Cajun chicken burger, £3.50, tuna Nicoise salad £5, Middleman breakfast

Our next stop made the shortlist for its extraordinary menu. Guy is looking forward to the handmade Kent “Korker” sausages, and everyone is intrigued by the promise of seared tuna loin and pan-fried salmon with balsamic dressing.

Chef Kieran Robinson is an ebullient Irishman, clearly very proud of his canteen (or the “St Giles Grill”, as he has named it) and insistent that we sample his specialities. Even though it’s only 10.30am we agree to a Cajun chicken burger and tuna Nicoise salad, as well as more porridge and of course, a full English.

While we wait, Michael and Guy try the filter coffee; Anne and I opt for peppermint tea, hoping it will speed up the digestion of our first breakfast.

The organic porridge is a hit even before it appears. “That’s so cheap,” marvels Guy – it’s just £1.10 plus 40p for bananas on top. He’s used to paying more than double for his morning bowl from upmarket sandwich chains near Time Out’s offices.

“That’s the best so far,” declares Michael, “and there’s the double whammy of the bananas as well.” “Absolutely,” agrees Anne, “adding more fibre and vitamins”.

When the “grill-up” arrives, the sausages too look more promising, small but conspicuously herby. “Those look like real sausages, not full of rusk,” approves Guy, picking up his fork. The tomatoes have a herby basil topping, and there’s a soft fried egg covering juicy pink rashers of bacon.

For under a fiver, that tuna Nicoise was great. This is five minutes from my office – I’m going to be down here every day.

Guy Dimond, Time Out food critic

While the large portions at the Mace canteen were a source of praise from workers, Anne takes a different view: “This is a more reasonable meal size,” she says of the smaller plate. “There’s one egg rather than three in the scrambled. There’s better signposting of the options here too.” Kieran has put “good for you” labels on healthy options like porridge and kippers.

The tuna Nicoise also goes down well – a beautifully presented salad with a slab of fresh tuna, perfectly hardboiled eggs, rocket and, yes, balsamic dressing. Guy is enraptured. “It’s not far off restaurant quality.” Kieran, who is hovering nearby, adds: “It’s probably a bit overcooked for most tastes but the last one I served pink on a building site ended up on my head …”

It’s the price that really astonishes – in the heart of the West End, you don’t get freshly cooked tuna for under a fiver. Kieran sees it as a business opportunity that the catering chains have missed. “I can’t understand why nobody else is doing this – it’s a captive market.” As well as the £5 mains, he also offers beans on toast for £1. He’s also having some success pushing the healthy options.

“I do more poached eggs than fried now.”

The judges are more dismissive of the Cajun chicken burger – essentially chicken in a bun with red onion and sweet chilli sauce. “It’s a bit sweet, and it’s not very spicy,” says Michael. “It’s not really Cajun,” says Guy.

Anne goes off with her assessment sheet to quiz Kieran on cooking methods and drink options, and next thing we know he’s getting out a bottle of organic pomegranate juice.

Times have definitely changed.

The judges’ verdicts

8/10 Guy: I’m really impressed. For under a fiver, that tuna Nicoise was great. This is five minutes from my office – I’m going to be down here every day. Kieran makes a lot of effort with the sourcing of ingredients, like the free-range eggs and the sausages. It’s probably not necessary, but he just cares.

8/10 Anne: Kieran seems like an enlightened chef. Overall the menu had lots of variety. He had some fresh fruit on offer, though not as much as the first place. I could still suggest some changes, like not using butter …

8/10 Michael: The menu wasn’t as clear, it was very fragmented and confusing. But it was very good food. If you’re on site, you want something hot. The porridge would do – you wouldn’t need a fry-up after that.

Mid Kent College, Gillingham, Kier

Thirty labourers on site at the moment
Open 7am to 3pm daily
Run by Anne Farmer, Constructameal
What we had Chicken curry and rice £3.75, beef casserole £3.95, (with cheddar and spring onion mash and mashed swede, carrots and green beans), meatballs with linguine and grated cheddar £3.50, chocolate pudding with real chocolate custard £1.60

For the final leg of our canteen crawl, we board the train for Kent, a welcome break for our stomachs. It’s the tail end of the lunch rush when we arrive, and there’s a relaxed Friday afternoon feel about the place. Michael thinks it has the best atmosphere so far.

I always do a healthy option, with cous cous or pasta and salads. Sometimes they go for it …

Anne Farmer, Mid Kent college

Mid Kent College’s place on the shortlist is down to Anne Farmer, the much loved cook who wins rave reviews from her patrons. The affection Kier’s workers feel for her is apparent straight away: “Very nice, thanks Anne,” says one as he returns his plate.

Now used to the form, Guy grabs a tray and scans the specials board. Sadly, they’ve run out of the beef casserole, but Anne F gives us some of the leftover sauce to try. We opt instead for meatballs with linguine and chicken curry. Against my better judgment, I ask if Anne F could do us a fry-up and she graciously agrees to fire up the griddle.

It’s all much more down to earth than Kieran’s posh nosh, but among the basics, there are flashes of brilliance. The meatballs are incredible – homemade, with a good solid meaty texture and delicate flavouring. “These are proper meatballs – it tastes like a mixture of beef and pork,” says Guy.

Anne S likes the casserole, or what we try of it – a rich tomatoey sauce. The curry is tasty too, though quite sweet.

After the genteel fry-ups of the morning, this one is a crash back to normality. The tomatoes are tinned, there’s a deep-fried hash brown, black pudding and charred bacon. The sausage is better than the first one, but the bacon is deemed “pretty salty” by Guy.

But Anne F comes up trumps with puddings – homemade yoghurt with fruit, and a melt-in-the-mouth chocolate sponge pudding with real chocolate custard. “It’s very light, I thought it would be like a leaden marble cake, but it’s very nice,” says Michael.

When we speak to Anne F, she comes across as the most dedicated of the chefs so far – she starts making everything fresh at 6am, before opening at 7am – and brings shopping to the site at the weekend.

Anne F herself is clearly aware of healthy eating, but she has a tough crowd on the Mid Kent site. “I always do a healthy option, with cous cous or pasta and salads. Sometimes they go for it …”

She would grill the bacon if she could but her grill kept blowing the electrics so she’s waiting for a new one. She tries to cut out fat – using breast meat in the curry for example.

“I use only fresh vegetables, apart from the frozen peas, and make fresh orange juice in the morning,” Anne F says. She uses a lot of family recipes – the meatballs are her mother’s – and the secret of the casserole’s richness is a bit of brown sauce and a tin of tomato soup, a trick Anne S deploys too. “You’ve got to cheat once in a while, haven’t you?” they agree. Delia would be proud.

The judges’ verdicts

6/10 Guy: It was very mixed. The chocolate sponge cake and the meatballs were amazing but some of the other things weren’t terribly good and used cheap ingredients. It had a nice feel though.

6/10 Anne: There wasn’t anything to guide people towards any healthy choices, and nothing to indicate what was higher or lower in fat or calories.

10/10 Michael: Top marks for the yoghurt and the meatballs. All those who ate there seemed to like it and they liked the woman who worked there. Some of the grub wasn’t as good as the first two but it’s the one I’d most like to go back to.