It's been a long time since there was much of a buzz about Langan's Brasserie. The archetypal trendy London restaurant of the 1970s has rather fallen out of fashion in this century, along with male ponytails and two-bottle lunches. The only person I can think of who still goes regularly is my brother, who once had his tie cut off there by Alan Brazil, after a particularly rowdy business dinner.
But things are changing at Langan's. Co-founder Richard Shepherd recently sold his stake, and the group is under new management, in the substantial form of Brian Clivaz, who has made successes of the private members' clubs Home House and the Dover Street Arts Club. Under his experienced eye, the famous Mayfair brasserie and sister restaurant Odin's in Marylebone, have been discreetly updated. Subtle refurbishments have been undertaken, menus gently tweaked, a new executive chef installed, Sunday lunches belatedly introduced.
Then, not so discreetly, celebrity patron Chris Evans went public last month about his ambitions to take a stake in Langan's, and fill the first-floor bar with automotive memorabilia. It seemed a good time for a revisit, before those plans ever come to pass.
Walking back into Langan's for lunch for the first time in – could it really be? – more than 20 years, the only surprise was how pleasantly familiar it all felt. The long, golden, picture-lined dining room was humming – not with the brittle chatter of business lunchers, but with the throaty chuckles of friends applying themselves to the wine list.
Many of the customers looked like they'd been regulars for decades – raffish gents of a certain vintage, retired ad men perhaps, who should have been wearing bumper stickers proclaiming 'my other restaurant is Mr Chow'. But there were youngsters too, clearly enjoying the timeless glamour of the place; the cluttered walls filled with wildly variable art, the red plush chairs and well-spaced, crisply dressed tables, the indulgent attentions of the kindly, long-serving waiters.
The original troika of owners, including a cigar-waving Michael Caine, are still pictured on the menu, in Hockney's iconic sketch – that's the kind of brand capital you don't squander lightly. Also present and correct is the Langan's signature mix of British nursery food (bangers and mash, 'a very good fish pie') and French brasserie classics (moules marinières, lobster bisque, snails with garlic).
But a more contemporary feel has nudged in with such dishes as pearl barley risotto with thyme, crispy duck and red cabbage salad with pomegranate and blood orange, and macaroni cheese with wild mushrooms (although it's possible this last isn't part of the current mac'n'cheese craze, but has simply been hanging around since the 1970s waiting to come back into fashion, like Tony Blackburn).
We gave both sides of the menu a run-out; neither emerged victorious, over the course of a meal which ran the gamut from adequate to disappointing. From the progressive tendency, I ordered that duck salad, which sounded like it came straight from the Ottolenghi cookbook, but disappointingly turned out to come straight from the fridge. If the shredded duck in this generous bowlful of sharply-dressed slaw had been hot and crisp, rather than cold and tough, it would have been much the better dish.
Spinach soufflé, one of the menu's old-stagers, suffered from the opposite problem; it tasted wonderful and airy, but looked dismal, "like a deflated Muppet", as my guest put it.
A main course escalope of veal Holstein was overfacingly enormous – two continents of breaded meat, topped with overlapping fried eggs, capers, crosshatchings of anchovy, and served with a jug of gravy. Definitely blokes' food. For the ladies, pan-fried seabream with crushed potatoes and rouille was decent, unexciting, gastropubbish fare.
This, my guest and I decided, was a pre-foodie experience; the food was the background music to a convivial social occasion, rather than the main reason for being there. How else to explain the recycling of a flabby old pancake from that morning's Shrove Tuesday pancake-tossing event into a dessert special, and charging £6.50 for it?
That said, we did find ourselves settling in for a rather longer and more bibulous session than we'd planned. My friend slipped off to the loo as we were winding down, and returned looking shocked. "My God, it's nearly four o'clock!" And we were by no means the last to leave. Anyone who believes the long lunch is a thing of the past clearly hasn't been coming here.
Langan's may have dropped off the radar for London's fickle foodies, but it's still a fine, fun lunch spot. And it obviously still has a very healthy fan base. To return after so long felt good, if bitter-sweet. Rather like looking up an ex on Facebook, only to discover that far from being shattered by your defection, they're happy, successful and having a lot more fun than you are.
Langan's Brasserie, Stratton Street, London W1 (020-7491 8822). Around £40 a head for three courses before wine and service.
Tipping policy: 'Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary. All tips and service charge go to the staff'
Side orders: Brilliant brasseries
Chris Staines' impeccable food at the Abbey Hotel includes dishes such as pan-fried Cornish pollock with creamed potatoes, razor clams, salsify and leeks.
1 North Parade, Bath (01225 461603)
Cooked by trainee chefs, the well-priced mains here include a pavé of roasted halibut, tarragon mash, green vegetables and lobster cappuccino (£12).
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Brasserie Forty 4
Award-winning restaurant serving classics such as confit duck leg with puy lentils, Morteau sausage and Madeira sauce (£15.95).
44 The Calls, Leeds (0113 234 3232)