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The Trouble with Steak Chains (2017)

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Steak

Some years ago, roughly at a time when Facebook was thriving and the banking crisis loomed, the business men and women of England’s major conurbations frequented branches of the go-to steak restaurant: Gaucho.

Gaucho more or less gave us the steak chain. More than a Café Rouge, Chez Gerard or similar, Gaucho peddled an essentially steak-based experience and supposed excellence with it. My own visits were unmemorable. I only recall an unduly restrictive wine list and a room set in near darkness (and I’m a person who likes a dimly lit restaurant). Men with a few digestifs in them stumbled en route to the toilet; some diners shone their mobile phone screens over menus, gurning and squinting at words no more than 10 inches from their faces.

I feel reasonably confident in saying that Gaucho was the first to promote the Malbec and steak pairing – a match so heaped in affectation as to be comparable with smoked salmon and champagne. One of London’s spectres is the faux bourgeoisification (the faux is important here) of the remarkably ordinary. You can go and see it at The Savoy Grill, where waiters with less training than the average household pet pour mystical ingredients over plates so as to create fumes, spumes and unnecessary pools of goo. With similar pomp, Gaucho has, under the banner of luxury, doled out average-quality steak and heavily marked up wine (a Malbec, presumably?) while making their guests feel “special”.

One of London’s spectres is the faux bourgeoisification (the faux is important here) of the remarkably ordinary

Tired of feeling special in the way that strippers make their regulars feel “special”, many progressed to Hawksmoor. Oh, Hawksmoor. How I could cry for you! So much potential. Those halcyon days in 2013/14 when great, chargrilled ribeye cuts bedecked plates. Hawksmoor even ventured into the Coravin arena, supplying clientele with some incredible wines and vintages by the glass. At the Knightsbridge branch, Mark (the co-sommelier (the other being Rob)) would let me have any wine by the Coravin, such was the combined good feeling of the restaurant’s success and the patrons’ happiness.

Many foresaw the decline of Hawksmoor’s food (though, in fairness, the wine lists at the London branches remain solid). While meant without comment whatsoever about its location, opening the Manchester branch signified an expansion of the chain that could only ensure the dilution of quality. Everybody sort of knows that chains are very rarely ground-breaking, although they can often be sound enough for their purpose. Cote or Jamie’s Italian might fall into this category. But great food cannot generally be given to us other than in a setting where the chefs and owners are free from the cardboard-cut-out instructions of a corporate HQ. If I think of some of my finest experiences in the last decade – Theo Randall; Murano; The Goring; Zelman Meats – they lie, not unsurprisingly, in independent or near-independent contexts.

What’s more, with the exception of Zelman Meats, Goodman and Roxie (the latter being my local eatery), I usually receive a better steak in a non-specialist restaurant that just happens to serve steak. A great example arose only the other day, at The Gilbert Scott. I’ve long been a fan of this restaurant, with its vaulted ceiling, experimental menus and interesting wine list. The meat (chateaubriand) was the best I’d had since that at Zelman some year or so before: tender and full of taste; a sheer delight.

In search of a conclusion, the reality is that male groups (I generalise), whether colleagues, pals or members of birthday gatherings, will keep accelerating towards restaurants which self-proclaim to be specialists in steak. They are quite often falling for the bro-orientated marketing that connects the chains with their target audiences. This is why I could never give fervent, steak restaurant counsel to an enquirer. I think I’ve seen the sales trick too many times; each new monosyllabic name and hyperbolic menu as trite as the last.

Sure, exceptions exist. Goodman competes pretty well, in my view. And I could send a locally-based friend in the direction of Roxie. It’s simply that I can see so far beyond the archetypal steak restaurant, right into immense foodie havens where (perhaps even unknowingly at the advent of the booking) the diner is going to order a steak that comes to wow him or her.

April 2017

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