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Save Aberdeen Angus Steakhouses: A London Design Classic

by Tom Armstrong
8 January 2014 14 Comments

Big, brash, expensive and under threat. There's lots of reasons to hate Aberdeen Angus Steakhouses, but they're as London as London can be, and must be saved.

Aberdeen Angus

They are the gastronomic equivalent of Soho’s clip joints, herding in wide-eyed tourists with flashes of neon and promises of tender flesh, everything under-dressed and overpriced. They’re as much a part of the West End as the sex shops, the basement bars and the vagrants, but the familiar face of the Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse is under threat. As well as seeing their numbers depleted over the past decade from around 30 to just four London restaurants, to my horror, it seems the dulling beacon of golden-era London which has, as the Cheese and Biscuits blog delightfully put it. “done more damage to our culinary reputation than the BSE crisis, foot and mouth and salmonella outbreak combined” is undergoing a re-brand.

Once upon a time in its ’60s heyday, with an instantly recognizable uniform design of plush red banquettes and snazzy new dishes like prawn cocktail and gateaux, the chain of steakhouses were seen as the pinnacle of a new dining-out experience, going as far as earning a place in the Good Food Guide. More recently however, BSE, foot and mouth and the loss of American tourists after 9/11 hit the Aberdeen Angus company with a triple blow to their leather-bound wallet from which they never fully recovered, leaving a number of ghost restaurants around town preserved in a Mary Celeste-like time warp.

Night after rainy night I’d walk past the (now defunct) Charing Cross Road branch and peer into an empty, Hopper-esque vision of intense loneliness. Rows of vacant tables, waitresses with vacant stares, their faces veiled by the melancholy blue glow of the neon strip-lighting. Everything pristine from the outside, but as in some Lynchian suburban nightmare, closer inspection revealed that everything was not as it seemed. The red velvet booths became frayed at the edges and grey with dust, a plastic sheen covered the bright green plants, the maitre d’s eyes were desperate, bloodshot and tired. London was witnessing the tragically romantic decay of a once proud establishment.

Night after rainy night I’d walk past the (now defunct) Charing Cross Road branch and peer into an empty, Hopper-esque vision of intense loneliness.

I won’t try and defend the food – due to the fact that I’m neither suicidal nor American I’ve never actually eaten in one. Funnily enough I’ve always resisted temptation as the plates of mouse droppings and botulism disguised as a steak dinner are routinely hurried out of the kitchen, and instead usually settle for a low-risk pot of tea. But a quick scour of the online reviews returns a range of customer experiences ranging from bad to worse. The food – inedible. The service – Fawlty Towers at its most comical. But in banishing the humble steakhouses to the bin of bad taste, we are ill-advisedly throwing away a design gem.

Has the age of vintage taught us nothing? Have we never coiled in torment as we realize the aesthetic value in the things once carelessly cast aside in a wave of changing taste? The story of Grandparents taking that ’70s tiled coffee table to the dump last month because ‘nobody would want that old thing’? The blood red banquettes, the folded napkins, the neon ‘cocktail’ sign, all hark back to a bygone-Britain which we, as a culture, currently have an aching nostalgia for. The BBC are in the midst of a retrospective series called simply “The ’70s”, while last year the hugely popular Vintage Festival celebrated past decades of British design at the post-war Southbank Centre. But in 2007 we lost the New Piccadilly Café from under our noses without so much as the whistle of a kettle. And with the gradual sanitisation of Soho, fully preserved examples of the West End’s glory days are becoming rarer by the day.

A handful of branches have already updated and in turn become nothing more than charmless tourist traps. The framed menus in the window have been replaced with modern substitutes (I personally prefer the ’30 years in direct sunlight’ approach) and the bold, portentous lettering replaced by pseudo-trendy signage. Yes, according to reports the food may be slightly better, but it’s a big price to pay if we’re to lose a part of our city’s design heritage, of which very few similar examples exist.

As far as calls to action are concerned, I’m at a bit of a loose end. My strict advice is don’t eat in one – ever. They’re frighteningly expensive and their inevitable disappearance will probably save the NHS a fortune. But before they go the same way as the New Piccadilly, get a photo, nick a serviette or even just get a mental keepsake to remember an example of design once inherent to the fabric of the West End.

Follow Tom on Twitter @tomdisco

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Bingowings 8:22 am, 6-May-2012

"I won’t try and defend the food – due to the fact that I’m neither suicidal nor American I’ve never actually eaten in one," spoiled what was an entertaining read. They more than likely are shit but stop being precious and sample the fayre- then you can slag them off to your heart's content happy in the knowledge you know what you're talking about. At least it sounds like you got yourself through the door of one. What next? West Ham are awful because lots of people, i've neither met or talked to, have slagged them off on the internet...

davis 6:42 pm, 6-May-2012

I walked past one a few years ago, and the bulb had gone in the "G" of "ANGUS" on the front of the restaurant, well I was sad enough to go fnar fnar...went back the following week and disappointingly they'd replaced said bulb. As for the food, I decided to try one just once...it wasn't inedible by any means...it wasn't bad, but it wasn't particularly good either...it didn't really represent good value for money. I agree with the last two posters, the writer should've at least tried eating in an Angus Steak House to give this article more credibility.

Coco Bryce 7:25 pm, 6-May-2012

Stick to dj-ing Tommy mate!

Will Thompson 9:36 pm, 6-May-2012

When the chain was given the last rites a few years back I decided to try them out, having always seen them around London but never been in one. I could have enjoyed the same experience courtesy of Iceland for about £5. Frankly if they can't be bothered to serve half-decent food at the prices they charge then they should sink without a trace. Awful food. Awful places. The only problem is if they go, given the prominence of the sites, then London will be blighted by ever more coffee shops or 'quality burger' outlets.

ad 3:17 pm, 7-May-2012

i went to the one in leicester square a few years ago with my gf. it was christmas day. you think thats depressing, the man next to us was eating alone. if i remember you had to pay extra if you want potatoes which came on the same fucking plate as your steak!

ad 3:19 pm, 7-May-2012

and also i liked the article.

Tom Armstrong 9:27 am, 8-May-2012

Haha. Lighten up a bit, Jesus Christ. I hope you all get bloody salmonella. ps: only joking x

Rob A 10:04 am, 8-May-2012

Get over yourselves - he didn't set the article out to be a critique of the food. Will seems to be the only person who's actually grasped what the point of the piece was - that in a time where virtually every city in Europe is no different to any other thanks to globalisation, we should be appreciating and protecting what makes London different. Kitsch, uninviting and tired, they may be, but they're part of our heritage and should be regarded with a little love, even if most of us wouldn't set foot inside one.

Howard 5:02 pm, 26-Nov-2012

Ad - what the fuck were you doing eating in one on Christmas day? I've had some bad Christmas days but my word. Please expand.

Essvee 12:28 am, 27-Nov-2012

I went in one with my wife a few years ago. Any place that charges you extra if you'd like more than just a knife and fork with your steak is taking the piss. The steak was nice, if expensive, but asking an extra few quid for chips is, frankly, cheek of the highest order.

Melissa 1:45 pm, 12-Jun-2013

Brilliant brilliant brilliant article. Thank you Tom Armstrong, finally someone else who appears to think like me!

mike 12:07 pm, 4-Jul-2013

a London design classic it may be but the food is overpriced and crap , but I get what your saying, its like Howard Johnson's closed down in new York, again it was part of new York thats no longer there, the food in ho jo's was way better than your angus and it was open a lot later,

Steve A 4:05 pm, 17-Nov-2013

I did once eat at an Aberdeen Angus. The food wasn't bad at all, far better certainly than [say] a Wetherspoons, though very much overpriced for what it was. One of the redeeming qualities of chains like pizza express & so on is that they tend to have policies of charging near-identical prices in London's West End to what they'd charge in [say] Grimsby or whatever. So the big chains are actually something of a bargain in theatreland. Aberdeen Angus not so much.

Here Mate 2:08 pm, 8-Jan-2014

Myself and a colleague decided to give it a go back in 1999 after being seduced for many years by the neon sign. We entered the Charing Cross Road restaurant to be met with a sullen faced Spanish waitress who was perched behind the bar. She looked as if she wanted to kill herself and told us to sit wherever- we chose a booth in the window, of course! The banquettes both collapsed under us which caused the contents of the table to fly all over the place. I noticed how filthy the cutlery was when we picked it up off the sticky carpet. Both of us decided that there was no chance of us eating in there so we shamefully asked for new cutlery and fucked off as soon as the waitress had turned her back.

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