Sunday, 3 April 2011

Angus steak house - back from the brink?

London has dozens of Angus Steak Houses and near-identical (apart from the name) Aberdeen Steak Houses, as well as the odd American Steak House. It's not unusual to see several branches within sight of each other - indeed at one point there were three on Shaftesbury Avenue, two of which were directly opposite each other.

They have a curious history, which all started in a chance encounter when butcher Reginald Eastwood met accountant Tom Beale and bar-owner Peter Evans, whose bar The Cat's Whisker on Kingly Street in Soho had just been closed down by police due to overcrowding. With one eye on American chop houses, and the other on the increasing disposable income of Londoners - especially those out to see shows in the West End - they spent just a few weeks converting the premises into the first Angus Steak House, selling "supremely succulent Scotch steaks" at "prices that won't spoil your appetite" - and went on to develop 40-odd restaurants in inner London.

More interestingly - these restaurants where some of the earliest to be developed in London - when the idea of eating out on anything like a regular basis was just starting to spread across the British population. They were pretty much all developed in the early 1960s with nay a penny spent on them since, and since we lost the late lamented New Piccadilly Cafe to a residential development project, these are one of the few "unmodified" restaurants in London that date from the middle of the last century. The decor is a proper time warp: signature red double sided banquettes lined up by the window, tarnished brass rails here and there on the inside, silver reflective slat ceilings, usually a neon 'cocktails' sign somewhere near the rear, bright red signage on the outside, rather harsh lighting, a 'today's specials' board that's the save every day.

It's fair to say their reputation among Londoners has not been a good one in recent years. They're generally viewed as dreadful tourist traps, with online reviews are ranging from merely appalling to scathing even by the standard of review sites, pointing to pretty mediocre food, high prices and woeful service. The staff are apparently so disinterested haven't even bothered to intersperse the reviews with occasional 5-star "brilliant - the best in London, staff were great" efforts by "Bob" and "Sarah".

Couple of couples

Many wondered how they keep hanging on, given that (along with visiting Madame Tussaud's, and eating anywhere near County Hall) they're somewhere no Londoner would be seen dead in. By the time they were bought by Ali Salih, described on Wikipedia as "a Turkish businessman with a low profile", they were already about 20 years out of date - and absolutely nothing changed under Salih's ownership. Much of the reason they keep going is no doubt their extremely good locations - presumably when the sites were originally acquired, they were cheap - they tend to have prime corner locations on major thoroughfares in the West End, and are also sited opposite most of the main railway stations. They're also good at having a multilingual menu, and the sheer visibility and brashness of the restaurants probably pulls in some of the tourists.

This wasn''t enough, though, and - after selling off some sites in Soho to stay in business under Salih's ownership, and feeling the heat from the BSE crisis and a post-9/11 drop in the tourist trade that made up much of its clientele - the chain bowed to the inevitable and went into administration in 2002. Nine more branches were sold off to pay debts, and the remaining 21 (around half the peak size of the chain) were sold to Noble Organisation, a company better known for owning Brighton Pier and running amusement arcades.

And that, it seemed, was it - they struggled on, generally giving Aberdeen a bad name and making the most of unwary tourists, but still seen as something of a laughing stock among Londoners. Everyone pretty much assumed that at some point Noble would deliver the coup de grace and the poor old Angus Steak Houses would be kicked out to make way for something else more in tune with the times.


But wait... what's this?

On St Martin's Lane, there's an 'Angus Steakhouse' that doesn't fit the mould. My photo doesn't really do it justice - it looks pretty decent. Elegant floors, wood panelled walls, subtle lighting, and a frankly stylish interior. The only sign that this actually is one of the chain, apart from the name, is the red banquettes that have become a bit of an icon for the chain (albeit upgraded to a more sophisticated leather version, and restricted to a few tables down one side of the restaurant), and a pair of (rather thin) red lines on the main sign.

About five minutes' walk down to road to Covent Garden, there's another newly-refitted Angus Steakhouse - quite an interesting setup where the kitchen's visible from the street, again preserving the old red seating theme but in a subtle way. On close inspection, the Leicester Square branch has had something of a refit as well, though not as much of a change as this branch. They've even got some rather decent reviews (most of which seem equally surprised), with what seem to be decent staff and decent food - so presumably some changeovers have taken place.

So - maybe it's not the end of the road after all? It's interesting that Noble see value in the brand - it's certainly a famous one (everyone has heard of the Aberdeen Steak House), and brands do count for a lot in British restaurant choices. I reckon if it can be turned around - and that is something of an if - it could work. Not that many other people are in the steak market in central London (the odd branch of Cote, and the odd one-off, pretty much sums it up at the mid-price level), and it still seems to play well with tourists. Some good media coverage & reviews could help, unless they're relying on people seeing the (quite radically) changed looks of the branches and deciding to experiment again with something some of them will have deserted years ago. And they'll need to get a reasonably even standard of restaurant - while the new ones look good, there are still some branches that have barely been touched.

It's good to see that someone is taking a punt on the Angus Steak House. If it works - and this branch at least looks like it could well work - it could one day become a case study of turning around a reputation.

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