After writing about how difficult it is to find a truly great steak in London, my friend Robbo calls to suggest the Guinea Grill in Mayfair, if it is still there. He says he first went to the Guinea in the 1960s, for a celebratory dinner funded by richer, more sophisticated London relatives — he is from somewhere called, I believe, ‘Leeds’; have you heard of it? — and was astounded: ‘I’d never seen anything like it. On the way in there was this crushed ice display with strawberries on it, and the strawberries were huge, the size of avocados. And the avocados? — the size of melons! And the steaks were fantastic. I’ve never, ever forgotten it.’ Amazingly, the Guinea, which was established in 1952 and meant so much to this boy from ‘Leeds’ — nope, still can’t place it — is not only still there and appears to be still thriving, but has since developed a prize-winning reputation for its pies: three times National Steak and Kidney Pie champion of Great Britain (1991, 1994, 1997) as well as winner of Steak Pie of the Century (2000), which is a curious thing. Which century? And how would you know?
Anyway, it is on Bruton Place, a lovely street otherwise occupied by those fine art galleries where the floors squeak so you can never slip in or out unnoticed, or so I imagine, as I’ve never quite found the courage to go into one. (I shouldn’t add, but will anyway, that when the Athena chain died I not only stopped buying art altogether, but a little something in me died.) The Guinea is actually a Young’s pub with a dining-room at the back — so I suppose this makes it one of the first gastropubs. The small, authentic bar is crowded, mostly with blokes: younger blokes in smart suits — it’s apparently popular with local property developers — as well as older gentlemen of the kind who carry proper, big umbrellas and, probably, big, proper handkerchiefs. Robbo says it is exactly as he remembers it, right down to the ice display and the open grill and the rather dim, wood-panelled dining-room with its tartan carpet, solid old silverware, and paintings of horses, fox-hunting, the English countryside, that kind of thing. This is definitely one of those peculiar, expensive Mayfair places, full of strange, well-off people, that fashion has simply never bothered with.
It hasn’t bothered with the waitress’s uniform: tartan waistcoat and bow tie so tired-looking they all but yawn. It hasn’t bothered with the old bloke who, dressed in full doorman’s regalia, takes our coats and then does a lot of vigorous nose-blowing on, yes, a big, white proper hanky (not entirely sure this counts as dated charm). It hasn’t bothered with the chair cushions, flattened by more than 50 years of well-off bottoms, and now the most uncushioning cushions ever. This is a shame, as the old chairs are hard, hard, hard and our own bottoms suffer, suffer, suffer. Well, Robbo’s does. Mine is bouncier. But you know what? As someone whom fashion has never bothered with either — let’s put it this way: I didn’t even know that leggings had ever gone out of fashion — I think I rather like it.
The service is old-fashioned, possibly even a little obsequious. The wine waiter calls me ‘lady’ — ‘Can I help you with the list, lady?’ — but, then, I rather like that too. Plus, he does direct me towards a Lebanese red (Château Musar, 1997, £35) that is supremely delicious. Our waitress, even attired as she is in tired tartan, is jolly and cheerful and of a decent age, hurrah! You just don’t see many middle-aged waitresses any more, do you? Where have they all gone? That said, I’ve nothing against young, hot, fit waitresses, apart from the fact they are young, hot and fit, which is always just so annoying, somehow.
The menu is also unreconstructed — yup, you can get avocado with prawns or half a melon — but it is also simple and unpretentious: starters of smoked salmon, asparagus, artichokes, oysters. Mains of steaks, pies, unfussy fish dishes. It’s expensive, though, and in some instances shockingly so. A 10-ounce fillet, for example, is £24. Wow! Anyway, Robbo starts with the Arbroath smokie galette with poached egg and hollandaise sauce. Perfect egg, he says, and lovely bit of coppery, kippery fish. I have the Scottish smoked salmon, the sort of thing that should be able to speak for itself, and it does. ‘Hello,’ it says, ‘nice leggings!’ OK, maybe not. But it is obviously first-rate salmon, peaty and silky, served with excellent home-made bread and the offer of capers. Capers? You don’t see those very often any more, do you? Capers and middle-aged waitresses. I miss them. A capering middle-aged waitress would make me very happy, I think.
We decide to order a fillet steak as well as a steak and kidney pie and split them. First, the pie, which is, as Robbo says dreamily, ‘celestial’. It is. It’s baked in the most perfect pastry: crisp crust on top, all suety underneath. The steak is of tip-top quality, meltingly tender and flavoursome, while the kidneys are nicely pert and offally, all in a rich, dark, meaty gravy. I, too, would award it ‘Steak Pie of the Century’, which, so long as you don’t think about it too much or at all, can actually sound quite meaningful.
The fillet — all the Scottish beef here, by the way, is aged for 28 days — is excellent, too. Charred and black and smoky on the outside, sweet and juicily red within. But I do think the pie is the thing. The big let-down is the mustard, which has obviously been left to stand uncovered for so long that it has a crème brûlée-type crust on top. This is not good. If you are paying £24 for a steak, you have the right to uncrusty mustard. As it happens, we order a calvados crème brûlée for desert but it is quite dismal, actually. It’s a kind of under-flavoured custard above some grainy stewed apple.
I don’t think the Guinea represents great value for money. Our bill comes to £150 with the one bottle of wine. And the ladies’ loo is shabbily dire: all dirty curtains and stacked chairs and gunked-up Carex dispensers. But the Guinea does have a kind of integrity, the kind that says to other restaurants: you know what, you can move with the times with your blond wood and stainless steel, rocket and parmesan, but we’ll stay just as we are, if you don’t mind. The fact that it has survived for all these years must mean that the food it does well it does very well indeed. Just because something isn’t fashionable doesn’t make it bad. Similarly, just because something is fashionable doesn’t make it good. Look at the tulip skirt, a lovely item of apparel so long as you don’t mind wearing something that looks as if it’s been hemmed by a drunk. With Parkinson’s. I’ll stick to the leggings, thanks.
The Guinea Grill, 30 Bruton Place, London W1. Tel: 020 7409 1728.