Old Haunt, New Tricks: Langan’s, and the resurrection of an icon

Langan’s Brasserie was the power restaurant of 1970s and 1980s London — a raucous Mayfair den lit up by flashbulbs and glittering stars. Can its new owners keep the spirit alive?

“I spent more time in Langan’s during the period of 1976 to 1990 than I did at home,” begins Richard Young, the de facto house snapper at the velveteen establishment. “If anyone needed to come find me for a meeting, they’d know exactly where I’d be.” For some, Langan’s was a literal office (David Bailey ran his Ritz magazine from the bar everyday, with mixed results and many missed deadlines). For others, it was an excuse for one — back when expense accounts were fat, ‘entertainment’ was actually entertaining, and the job of the socialite was simply to show up and be seen. But for most, of course, it was simply a restaurant. Or — to put things more precisely — the restaurant. Etonians of a certain stripe just say ‘School’ when really they mean ‘Eton’, because there’s only one place one could possibly have gone. In the same way, men of a certain generation at a certain point in the 1980s didn’t say: “Let’s do lunch.” They simply said: “Let’s meet at Langan’s.”

The pull of the place — which has just this month switched on that red neon sign again after a disconcerting hiatus — was formidable. “It was the only place in London where you could get a souffle with anchovy sauce,” says Young, whose new book, timed to this grand re-opening, remembers the first iteration in its pomp. “The atmosphere was incredible. You could be in Paris or New York — it was electric,” he says. “On tables one to four, which were Michael Caine’s tables, you would have Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Johnny Carson, and a Rolling Stone in a single night. It was fun.”

‘Fun’, perhaps, is an understatement. Langan’s was a carnival, sparked into life by a volatile odd couple. In 1975, Peter Langan was a chef-restaurateur plying his trade in a spot called Odin’s, when Michael Caine wandered in and tried the creme brulee. Enamoured with its evocation of the great brasseries of Paris — and in particular Caine’s beloved La Coupole — the actor put forward a simple pitch to the chef: “Peter, let’s create the most fabulous restaurant in London.” Langan — a bon viveur of the old school — would provide the atmosphere if Caine provided the guestlist. And so they found a chef (the highly respected Richard Shepherd) and locked in a location (the old Coq d’Or, just off Piccadilly) and set to work building an institution.

The food was classical French fare — Dover sole, avocado vinaigrette, duck a l’orange — scrawled daily on a broad, busy menu adorned with a Hockney illustration of the three partners. But the atmosphere was positively Roman. Langan, who apparently subsisted on twelve bottles of decent champagne per diem, quickly began to inhabit the role of circus ringmaster with Stanislavskian precision. “Most nights,” Young remembers, “It was the Peter Langan show.” On one occasion, an outraged guest discovered a dead cockroach in the ladies’ loo. “Well, it can’t be one of ours,” Langan said. “This cockroach is dead. All ours are alive and healthy” — at which point he popped the insect in his mouth and swallowed it whole, washed down with a thimble of vintage Krug. On another, Richard Shepherd received a nervous call during lunch service. “I am speaking from the managing director’s office at Sothebys,” the voice said down the line. “I believe we have Mr Langan in our sales room. I wonder if you could send somebody over to pick him up — he is halfway up the stairs on a bookcase, and every time somebody goes past he keeps telling them to fuck off.” Langan barred Rudolf Nureyev for the crime, simply, of “being himself”, called Orson Welles a “stupid fat fuck,” and developed a notorious party trick which involved biting the ankles of unsuspecting female diners. 

The punters loved the pageantry, but Caine was not always amused. “Peter stumbles around in a cloud of his own vomit and is a complete social embarrassment,” he once said. “You would have a more interesting conversation with a cabbage.” (For his own part, Langan described  Caine as a “mediocrity with halitosis who has a council house mind.”) Langan died in 1988 after a slow, sullen unraveling, and an attempt at self immolation. But the restaurant remained a success into the nineties, spurred on, in many ways, by its reputation as a honeyspot for the rich and famous. 

Richard Young shot them all — the great and the good and the not-so-good. Elton John flicking the V-sign. Mick Jagger blowing out the candles on his birthday cake. Marie Helvin running barefoot through a rainy Mayfair. Rod Stewart manhandling a cherubic Van Morrison. Prince Andrew on manoeuvres. Night after night, installed at the bar or by the doors, the photographer had now-unimaginable access to the burgeoning celebrity class. “There were many stories,” he laughs. “But most of them can’t be repeated — just in case the people concerned come after me and assassinate me.” His favourite shot is an atmospheric portrait of Catherine Deneuve. “I’m at the bar, and she is on the phone by the check-in desk, and she looks straight at me. It’s a bit blurry, and you can see a bit of the restaurant, and it’s an incredibly ambient photograph. I just love the whole feeling of it — it’s got such warmth.” Another memorable picture shows Peter Langan — white-suited in two-tone brogues and splayed out on the restaurant floor — mid-way through a favourite routine in which he pretended to die in front of shocked diners. “He made it look so real,” Young laughs. “They would just start screaming.” 

“But things have moved on,” he concludes. “The characters don’t exist anymore. And you couldn’t run a place like that now.” Graziano Arricale and James Hitchen, however, are determined to give it a damned good go. The high jinks and low nibbles of Peter Langan will be confined firmly to the past, of course, along with the oyster cream carpets and Krug fire extinguishers. But the new proprietors of the restaurant hope to create, in Langan’s 2.0, that most elusive of things: a true modern power restaurant.

“I’ve always been obsessed with the site,” begins Graziano, a grandee of Clubland who most recently ran the Birley Clubs for Richard Caring. “A huge ground floor brasserie, filled with light. It was always so packed and atmospheric — but I always thought it could be so much more. It felt like a bit of a faded star.” The original Langan’s — by then a little tattered and overlooked, like a bachelor uncle at a wedding — closed its doors in 2019, and Graziano and James got hold of it in November last year. “It was an opportunity that came up very unexpectedly,” Graziano says. “We’re still sort of pinching ourselves.” 

“I spent more time in Langan’s during the period of 1976 to 1990 than I did at home..."

The place, they hope, will conjure up that intangible, unfakeable air of all good dining rooms: the sense that someone of great intrigue might suddenly walk through the door at any moment; an atmosphere so thick you could spread it on brioche. “I think there have been certain restaurants in London that have that aura, with an unspoken policy that they’re so busy they select their clientele, so to speak,” says Graziano. “They’re almost like memberships, in that respect. That to me is what a power restaurant is — an establishment that has an opportunity to look after the people it knows and cares about. That’s true hospitality.”

The ghost of Peter Langan will not quite stalk the halls, though his bonhomie lingers. “James and I talked a lot about how we can’t be nostalgic, or too reverential of the past,” says Graziano. “There is some beautiful history and this amazing, endless list of celebrities who have been photographed here. But we couldn’t turn the place into an homage to the past.” The Langan’s name — almost folkloric now, like a Mayfair Gatsby — will remain of course, while a striking portrait of the great founder himself will wink out over the bar. “We thought that was quite a fitting place for Peter,” says Graz. “We love the stories about him — he was clearly a larger than life character. And I’m sure they’ve been exaggerated a bit over the years. But you never let the truth get in the way of a good story…” 

The sense of theatre will remain, too. Langan’s was always known for unparalleled sight lines, and the framing proscenium of its entrance. “When you walk in, you are the star,” Peter Langan once said. “When you sit down, you are the audience.” And t he show must go on. “We’ve got live music downstairs in the brasserie everyday,” says James. “We’ve got a Steinway baby grand piano, and we’ve got a pianist for breakfast. So hopefully we won’t only have power lunches — but power breakfasts, too.” The unofficial clubbiness of the old Langan’s will also be revived for 2021. Upstairs, James and Graz are forming a sort of unspoken members-club — an invitation-only space open to friends of the restaurant, with no joining fees or memberships or formal application processes. “It’s more about curating an interesting group of people,” James says. “A good, broad mix.” The spinach souffle with anchovy sauce — an adored house staple — will return on the classic but confident brasserie menu, much to the relief of a few tutting countesses. But most telling of all, perhaps, is the retention of Richard Young as the Langan’s photographer-of-record. They’ve even given him a dedicated seat at the bar. “Let’s put it this way,” Young says. “I’m going to emulate my former relationship with the place. They’re going to have to get used to me.” Back in 1976, as the pair were embarking on the original venture together, Peter Langan told Michael Caine that “the walls must talk.” The pleasing thing at Langan’s is that they still do. 

A new book by Richard Young of iconic shots from the heyday of Langan’s is now available at richardyounggallery.co.uk

To book a table at the brilliant new restaurant, head to langansbrasserie.com

Read next: Taken by Surprise: Inside the re-opening of everyone’s favourite neighbourhood pub

Further Reading