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.
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