Established in 1976 – or so their crest proudly claims – the noble house of Aberdeen Angus Steak Houses seems always to have been among us, yet I cannot recall ever speaking to anyone who admitted to eating in one.
My own definitive experience of the chain is definitely a case of le lèche-vitrine. Heading dreamily up west on a Saturday afternoon in late March of 1990, I emerged from Leicester Square Tube to find myself in the middle of a pitched battle between police and anarchists. It was, indeed, the pivotal moment of the poll-tax riots: the police, having forced the demonstrators back against a building site in Trafalgar Square, were now being attacked by lithe young men hurling scaffolding poles, apparently with all the skill of hoplites.
I watched, awed, as the Met – some on horseback, others forming a loose testudo with their riot shields – retreated up Charing Cross Road. I was struck by the timelessness of the scene; this, I felt, could have been the Peasants’ Revolt, or the Gordon Riots, such was the perfectly achieved choreography of the Law and the Mob. Still more atavistic were the spectators who filled the mouths of the side roads; they were in festive spirits, laughing and pointing when someone managed a particularly accurate pole-throw or truncheon-swipe.
But most remarkable of all was the behaviour of the diners I could see plumped down solidly on the leatherette banquettes of the Steak House on the corner of Cranbourn Street. These hefty American tourists, far from being intimidated by the biggest civil disturbance central London had witnessed in decades, continued unabashed with their bovine noshing. The rich, far from being eaten – as the Class Warriors would have wished – were still eating.
Back in the day there were 30-odd of these establishments, poised to capture unwary tourists as they staggered from London’s mainline terminuses. With their red paint and black leather decor, and their menus of uncompromising naffness – prawn cocktails, steaks, chips, gateaux – the chain had by the late 1980s become a synonym for “clip joint”.
No self-respecting native would ever dream of setting foot in one. But 20 years on, revolutionary socialism has been reduced to a mere rump – and so, for that matter, have the Steak Houses: there are only four left.
When I rang at Friday lunchtime to see if I could book a table at the Cranbourn Street branch for dinner that evening, the woman who answered was mildly incredulous: “We don’t take bookings,” she said, “and to be honest you really don’t need one.”
The small herd of three prime young men I’d assembled to dine with me were equally thrown when I revealed our destination. They muttered about cholesterol, prions and – most important, this – the terrible solecism of natives eating in such a tourist trap.
“It can’t be that bad!” I cried, leading the way. “Besides, I’m paying.” Such arrogance, for just as the Steak Houses barely survived the BSE and foot-and-mouth epidemics, so the bill took a near-fatal chunk out of my bank balance. It was £130 for a single course for four, with no wine to drink, only four Cokes (plus 15 per cent tip on top). True, the bullocks all had fillet steaks, while I had a sirloin, but there was no tricky preparation involved – just beef + fire – and as for side orders: chips and salad, d’oh!
The strange thing was that although we had to wait a ridiculously long time for our steaks, the meat was of a premium quality and perfectly cooked. The bullocks grazed contentedly, while I too happily chewed on someone else’s cud, ruminating that as beef production is such a wasteful and environmentally devastating business, it was probably entirely apt that those other steak-holders, back in 1990, ignored the civil disturbances within feet of their snouts, for wasn’t I doing exactly the same thing 20 years later? Granted, there wasn’t a riot going on, but all meat is by definition murder, and somewhere else in the world someone was suffering the attendant grief.
Not I, though. I paid the bill, said goodbye to a pair of the bullocks and, accompanied by the third, headed for home. Herding him down Charing Cross Road, I shared some of my thoughts with this, the prime cut of my loins. “Dad,” he interrupted me, “can we get some Krispy Kreme doughnuts?” And people say the young have lost all interest in politics.