I have to be careful what I say about Langan's Brasserie. When Fay Maschler gave it a less than flattering review in 1989, the owner, Richard Shepherd, banned her from all his restaurants. Earlier this year, Shepherd tried to take the Sunday Telegraph's restaurant critic to court when he gave the thumbs down to another of his establishments. Clearly, Shepherd is highly sensitive to criticism.
Well, having sampled the cooking at Langan's, all I can say is he ought to be a lot better at taking crap from other people given his propensity for dishing it out. This was, by some margin, the worst meal I've had since I started reviewing restaurants two years ago. It was quite staggeringly awful.
I should say at the outset that I've got nothing against Langan's. On the contrary, I've always had a soft spot for it. At the height of its fame in the mid-80s, when it could give the Ivy a run for its money, I managed to snag a table by pretending to be the Hollywood actor Kevin Bacon. I had a full head of hair in those days and bore a distant relationship to the Footloose star. But the manager rumbled me as soon as I set foot in the door and, while he was kind enough to honour the booking, he punished me by asking me a series of detailed questions about my burgeoning film career.
It first threw open its doors in 1977 and in those days was co-owned by Peter Langan and Michael Caine. At Odin's, Peter's previous establishment, the legendary restaurateur had initiated a policy of accepting paintings from penniless artists in lieu of payment. In this way, he came into possession of original works by Lucien Freud, David Hockney and Francis Bacon. He continued this policy at Langan's and the result is that the walls are covered with fine art. The restaurant manager, Graziano Oragano, pointed out a Hockney portrait of Ossie Clark's wife still hanging on the wall.
Peter Langan is long dead and Michael Caine was bought out by Richard Shepherd last year, but the restaurant still retains some of the louche, bohemian atmosphere that made it such a hit in the 70s. What it doesn't still have, at least on the night I went there, is a celebrity clientele. It's like an outpost of Essex in the middle of Mayfair. Plump, middle-aged blonde women, their breasts squeezed into age-inappropriate dresses, tottered back and forth to the lavatory, spilling their pina coladas on the carpet. What few distinguished figures there were looked as though they'd been sitting at the same tables, rooted to the spot, for at least 25 years.
None of this would have mattered, of course, if the food had been any good. But the culinary revolution that has swept Britain's restaurant trade appears to have completely passed Langan's by. Langan's bangers and mash in white onion sauce may have been acceptable in the 70s, but there's no excuse for it today.
"This is a kebab," said Grub Smith, one of my dining companions, when his starter of "grilled pitta bread with minced lamb" appeared. "I've had better than this on the Finchley Road at three o'clock in the morning."
My wife was equally unimpressed by the roast potatoes that accompanied her glazed wild mushroom and ricotta pancakes. "They're exactly like the ones we used to get at school," she said. I suggested she try my new potatoes as an alternative, but they, too, failed to pass muster. "They taste like they've come out of a tin," she said.
I started with black pudding accompanied by something called "choucroute mustard sauce" which turned out to be a reddy-brown gunk that formed a skin within 30 seconds of arriving. My main course of "boeuf en croute" came with what looked like an identical sauce, only this one was billed as "madere". The filet of beef was a sorry, dried-up little affair, with a layer of pastry on it that was as thin as a piece of A4 Croxley Script. The "croute" was actually soggier than the beef, which is surely the wrong way round. It was the kind of bog standard, Anglo-French food that I imagine is served in Britain's prisons.
Amazingly, the restaurant was packed to the rafters, which just goes to show how far you can coast on your reputation. Perhaps it's a testimony to the front-of-house staff, all of whom were very efficient and pleasant. Langan's is a well-run restaurant with great ambience in a fantastic location. But Richard Shepherd really should do something about the food.
Toby Young is currently appearing in How to Lose Friends & Alienate People at the Arts Theatre. For tickets call 020-7836-3334.