Since 1968, Angus Steakhouse has been part of London’s cultural capital. In the early days it was listed in The Good Food Guide and today its dated aesthetic is immediately recognisable to many if not all. The chain had a wobble in the early Noughties and branches closed — there are now five when there were once almost 20 — but the business has endured and so it has staying power to its credit. It is about as old as Le Gavroche, another institution, though one that is sadly soon to call time.
The comedian David Mitchell once went so far as to suggest Angus Steakhouses might be granted World Heritage status. “These restaurants… are all that we have left of a proud heritage of serving shoe leather with béarnaise sauce to neon-addled out-of-towners,” he wrote. The brand has long been a point of fascination and ridicule. In 2010, the food critic Jay Rayner gave one of its restaurants a less than favourable review, finding only middling steak and regretful accompaniments; a piece in The Independent a decade ago compared the meat simply to “decay.”
So, yes, Angus Steakhouse is glaring but it is not generally associated with London’s burgeoning restaurant scene, one that has brought about such recent magnificence as The Devonshire, Mountain, and Bouchon Racine. It is a relic, derided as a tourist trap. Some might suppose its customers are bothered more by price and convenience than serious cooking. The only time I ever went was with my dad: roaringly hungry but pushed for time ahead of watching Bridget Jones's Diary at the cinema in Leicester Square, we panicked, bundled in desperately, and encountered gristle.
But Angus Steakhouse is undergoing something of an overhaul. While its "house steaks" — from “South America” — endure, the group has started serving Black Angus cuts from Jack’s Creek, the Australian producer that just won the prestigious World Steak Challenge for the third time in nine years.
Though the very best of Jack’s Creek, a wagyu sirloin, isn’t on the menu — it costs upwards of £300 for 250g — five others from the farm are, including a £55 T-bone, a rib-eye for £39, and a flat iron steak at £29. The prices are about £10 more, on average, than their equivalents from the standard range. They are also all aged for 180 days, rather than 42, and from "verified pure" Black Angus cattle.
Helping to steer this evolution is George Edwards, brand ambassador for Jack’s Creek and beef trade veteran of 20 years. He was on the team that developed Five Guys’ UK burger and has helped countless restaurants source quality meat.
Edwards says: “I think people want better meat nowadays. And customers can really tell. Our steaks are slightly more expensive, but I don’t think anybody would say they’re not worth the money after trying them. These steaks are the product of real care. The process is meticulous, and the result is tenderness, intense flavour, and a fat that easily renders down to coat the meat.”
He would say that. It’s his job. Mine is to eat things, and so I try each steak from the Jack’s Creek menu at the branch near Piccadilly Circus (Jack’s Creek paid). Any good? Well, yes. But you don’t need me to tell you that. They’re award-winning and stocked in Fortnum & Mason and Harrods. By the way, the service was charming.
Far more interesting is the fact they’re in an Angus Steakhouse, which has one of the worst reputations of all the steakhouses in town. If Hawksmoor is up top, it’s somewhere near the bottom, scratching around with Bella Italia and Cafe Rouge.
Are better steaks, albeit more expensive ones, enough? Does it even matter, not least because “business is good”? Executive chef Pawel Jursa says it does. Very much so.
“We’ve changed the menu and we want to improve the food and improve our reputation,” he tells me. “Everybody thinks we’re just a tourist trap, but we’re trying new things.
“We’re not trying to go upmarket, we don’t want to lose what we are entirely, but there is a huge market for steak and we want to serve good ones and give people options.”
Jursa says the team is doing far more than slapping better steaks on the menu. While the decor is still very 1980s airport crossed with a provincial barber shop, next year will see a chefs’ training academy installed at the Coventry Road site — no point putting good meat into an unskilled kitchen — and the wider menu has had a careful reworking. Importantly, the sauces have been tweaked and the peppercorn sauce really isn't terrible. Gloopy, but tastes fine. The chunky McCain's chips are okay.
“We’re still building and testing and seeing how we can change things,” Jursa adds. “But sales have doubled since we introduced the Jack’s Creek steaks (which now account for 20-30 per cent of orders) and updated the menu.
“We’not just for tourists any more or people out of London. We’re doing quite well. We’ve always been quite busy, but restaurants are about so much more than just getting people in. We need happy guests who want to spend more and come back.
“So we’re investing in training. We’re going to bring in whole cows to teach proper butchery. We’re getting fresh pasta from a better supplier, the peppercorn sauce is our own recipe now (made in a central kitchen), and bread is delivered daily. We’re already seeing a difference.”
Jursa talks with promise. He is also fairly corporate. But he would be: Angus Steakhouses might number only five today but the brand is owned by ATFC Ltd, which also operates Steak & Company, another less than enamouring central London chain, this one with four sites.
Regardless, you have to respect the grind. So often do we see chains fall away, lost and forgotten amid a sea of ingenuity and passion. Mostly it doesn’t matter (other than the staff) — who misses Byron? But here we have one of London’s oldest: a tired, outdated, flabby and unchic steak chain, sure, but also one that is part of London's gritty lifeblood. It’s quite romantic, really. And now it's got good food again.
21-22 Coventry Street, Piccadilly, W1D 7AE, angussteakhouse.co.uk