How long would you wait for a steak?
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Would you ever queue for dinner? If so, for how long? Normally my answer would be “not if I can help it” and “20 minutes max (with a Martini)”. But tonight I’ve abandoned those rules and joined the queue snaking round the block outside Le Relais de Venise L’Entrecôte in London’s Marylebone. I want to find out why this Parisian steakhouse is worth the wait.
The chain is known for its queues. When this first branch outside Paris opened in 2005, there were lines from the start. There are queues outside branches in the City of London, New York and Mexico City. No doubt more will queue for the new Monte Carlo branch due to open in September.
The concept behind the restaurants hasn’t changed since the original was opened in Paris by winemaker Paul Gineste de Saurs in 1959. Everyone is served the same: a green salad with walnuts followed by rib-eye steak cut into slices with frites and the famous house sauce (all for £28). You can choose from 20 or so heavily ice-cream-based desserts (from £4.75). The waitresses wear black with white aprons. And the tables are packed so close, you’re practically swimming in your neighbour’s lap.
According to director Pauline Godillot, one of the founder’s granddaughters who oversees the Paris, London, New York and Mexico branches, the restaurant serves 600-700 customers a day and receives no more than a couple of complaints a week. “Usually about there not being enough space to sit. Or the service being too fast,” she says. Tables are typically turned in less than an hour. “But we never push people out.”
Sometimes the complaints turn out to be about “copycat” restaurants. And confusingly, the extended family operate restaurants under similar names. Alongside Le Relais de Venise L’Entrecôte, there is L’Entrecôte (run by Godillot’s cousins with branches in Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes, Montpellier, Lyon and Barcelona) and Le Relais de l’Entrecôte (run by Godillot’s other cousins with three locations in Paris, one in Geneva and one in Zurich). The differences are minor and largely relate to the decor.
Godillot puts the success of the original Le Relais down to quality and consistency. The Paris branch has sourced its meat from the same family butcher for 60 years. Patrons know what to expect and how much it will cost. As for the queues, Godillot only sees these getting longer as people line up for experiences they have discovered on social media. “It means the restaurant is good,” she says. After Covid, she installed additional tables on the terrace outside the Paris branch, which meant customers no longer had to wait. “But people said, ‘We’re not queueing any more – is this less good?’” So she removed them. “People are happy to queue,” she adds.
I, generally speaking, am not. Particularly on a cold night like tonight. But I’ve put on long-johns and roped my friend Tim into joining me. He likes Le Relais. “There’s a social aspect to the queue,” he points out. “And it makes you hungrier.” Most of the people in tonight’s line are in their 20s. Some are sipping wine from plastic cups. I definitely smell marijuana too. We end up queuing for an hour. But the time flies amid the fug of camaraderie.
Once inside, I pop downstairs. When I return, the salads are already on the table and Tim has been cajoled into ordering our steaks. “Rare” is his guess for how I want mine. Actually, I prefer medium (blue and well-done are also options) but it proves too hasslesome to change. Unfortunately, the salads are limp and look like they’ve been waiting as long as we have. But the dressing is a winner – a simple vinaigrette with the right amount of bite. And we’re starving by this time.
Then the steak frites arrive, slaked in the signature sauce. The recipe is a family secret. A paste is apparently mixed up in a laboratory in Provence and sent to each restaurant to be diluted with “kilos and kilos of butter”. Le Monde speculated chicken liver, thyme and mustard. Others have mooted green peppercorns. The result is weirdly addictive. “Like Pringles,” confirms Godillot.
I’ve tasted better steak. But there’s pleasure to be found in it, particularly washed down with the most expensive wine on the menu, a Château Queyron Saint-Émilion Grand Cru (only £46). When the waitress returns to heap an extra round of steak and fries on my plate, I have to marvel. What other restaurant gets such performative mileage out of seconds?
The desserts are disappointing: stiff wedges of ice cream and lacklustre chocolate in the Le Vacherin du Relais (a meringue ice cream tower) and profiteroles. But overall, it’s been kind of fun. A throwback to my leaner years when meals were less precious and more affordable and clocking up experiences was all that mattered. Isn’t that still worth queuing for?