Peter Langan was born in Ireland in 1941. After moving to England in the early 1960s, Langan began his catering career working at Odin’s restaurant at 26 Devonshire Street. Odin’s quickly became a very popular and proved profitable enough to permit Langan to embark on what became his most successful venture, Langan’s Brasserie. Michael Caine, a customer and friend of Peter Langan, became his business partner and the pair transformed the site with original artwork. Richard Shepherd, the former head chef at the Michelin starred Capital Hotel in London, joined the Caine and Langan partnership in 1977 and introduced a menu that has changed little since. By the mid-1980s Langan’s had become London’s most fashionable haunt for stars as diverse as Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Mick Jagger, Francis Bacon, Mohammed Ali, Jack Nicholson and David Hockney.
Princess Margaret was not amused. Sitting at her usual discreet table in her favourite restaurant, Langan’s in Piccadilly, she had just suffered a serious sense of humour failure.
Accompanied by her lover Roddy Llewellyn, she had been interrupted at the coffee stage of her intimate meal by Peter Langan, the rumbustious Irish proprietor of the restaurant she had helped make fashionable.
Langan was drunk. His trade mark white suit was stained with champagne. He mumbled incoherently. Neither the Queen’s sister nor her young beau could understand a word he was saying. Comprehension slowly dawned on Langan’s face. Diners at neighbouring tables – all 272 covers were taken – watched in fascination and apprehension. Unsteadily Langan removed his jacket and hung it on the back of Margaret’s chair. His braces straining he clambered up onto the Royal table, knocking over coffee cups and a jug of milk. He lay down across the stained tablecloth and promptly fell asleep. “He could sleep anywhere” recalls Langan’s business partner Richard Shepherd.
He was still dozing when Margaret left with Roddy never to return.
Richard chuckles at the memory. But forty years after Langan’s opened in Piccadilly (October 1976), Richard still shivers at the behaviour of his partner Peter Langan, with whom he founded the brasserie, alongside Hollywood star Sir Michael Caine. Richard, now retired from Langan’s, recalls the creation of London’s first celebrity restaurant 40 years ago. In an age before Marco and Gordon and Nigella, before the profusion of food programmes on TV and the emergence of restaurateurs as household names, Langan’s was the most famous restaurant in the world.
It is nearly a half a century since Richard met the force of nature called Peter Langan.
“I still miss him” says Richard, sipping an Americano in the cavernous eaterie that is still haunted by Langan, who died aged 47 in 1988. The art collection is gone, including the life-size painting by David Hockney in his trade mark white suit. “Peter was impossible. When I first knew him he wasn’t an alcoholic – it was an act. He created this persona and as time went on the act became reality. It took over.”
Richard still cringes at the recollection of the night in 1986 shortly after Wayne Sleep had opened in the musical Cabaret and ended up in Langans. After leaving the kitchen, Richard had made the short journey to Tramp nightclub for supper. He was driving home past the restaurant at 2am when he noticed all the lights were ablaze. “I went in and Peter was at the bar with Wayne Sleep and his boyfriend. I sent the remaining staff home. Wayne was by now having a row with his boyfriend.”
“He was wearing a figure hugging cat suit which he unzipped. He had nothing on underneath. It dropped off and he sprung onto a table and starting hopping, naked from table to table doing pirouettes. I pulled down all the blinds as quickly as I could. Wayne ended up lying over a table. Peter went to the bookcase at the end of the room and came back with a volume of poetry. He was holding the book in one hand reciting poetry and holding Wayne’s dick in his other hand. It was now nearly 4am. I later discovered that all three had gone to the room at the Ritz with Wayne and his boyfriend sleeping in the bed and Peter on the floor.”
This was not an unusual evening on Planet Langan. As the restaurant became THE place to eat, Langan had an endless supply of well-known diners to amuse himself with.
His habit was to invite himself to a table by beckoning a waiter to bring an additional chair. One evening in 1978 he sat down with the publisher Lord Weidenfeld and his girlfriend. Within minutes his head was on the tablecloth and he was fast asleep. In 1982 he tried to carry Billy Connolly on a lap of honour through the restaurant after The Big Yin had opened in the play The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. He barred Rudolf Nureyev for, as he quipped “being himself.” He didn’t recognise Marlon Brando when he came into the restaurant explaining, “The only thing I knew about him was that he is even fatter than me.” With female diners he had a habit of crawling drunkenly on his hands and knees under their table and nuzzling their ankles. This happened to both Janet Street Porter and Molly Parkin. Maria Aitken was not so lucky. He sat at her table and concluded she was “boring”, before adding a string of abdominal references.
Says Richard: “One night Peter was standing at the front door: ‘Hey kid’ he said, ‘there’s not many celebrities in tonight’… ‘What a surprise’ I said, ‘you threw most of them out!’ He insulted so many of them… one night Prince Albert of Monaco was sitting at a table with six people and Peter lurched up and said ‘Is it true you are a fucking poof?’ I told Peter I’d sent Ronnie Corbett a case of champagne, ‘Why?’ he asked… Because you insulted him, he might be small Peter but there was no need to call him a fucking midget.”
“I’d be in the kitchen when I’d get a call to come upstairs. It happened all the time. One night Michael Caine was in with his wife, his mum, his brother and his daughter… I got the call at the busiest time right in the middle of service. ‘I think you better get up here. It’s not going too well between Peter and Michael.’ When I came upstairs Michael was on one side, Peter on the other. Michael said: ‘Rich can you tell Peter Langan to leave my bloody table.’ His mother said, ‘Don’t swear Michael.’ I went to Peter, who had pulled over a chair and had sat down at Michael’s table. ‘Come on Peter come to the bar and have a drink.’ I said. He replied, ‘I ain’t going anywhere kid, tell Michael Caine to fuck off.’ Michael said, ‘I can go anywhere I want. I don’t have to come here. Unless you leave my table I am leaving, Peter.’ He replied: ‘Then fucking leave!’ Michael stood up and took the whole table and left. ‘Well done, Peter ‘ I said. Now come to the bar and have a drink so I can sell this table again.’ He turned on me and said, ‘I ain’t going anywhere kid… I’m staying right here.’”
When Richard first met Peter, the swashbuckling Irishman who had previously worked unsuccessfully as a petrol pump attendant in Sunderland, he already owned Odin’s, a thriving restaurant in Marylebone. Because he had lived in bachelor digs with upand- coming artists like David Hockney, Patrick Procktor and Patrick Caulfield, he was able to adorn the walls of the restaurant with their pictures in return for free meals. He in turn received an introduction into The Art of Peter Langan, son of ex-Irish rugby international Dan Langan who ran Texaco Ireland and educated his son at Ireland’s top public school Clongowes Wood.
“He deliberately wore odd socks. He would go to the flower seller at Green Park station buy all his flowers and give every girl on the street a flower. He never drank spirits but there was another phase where he would drink a rum-based cocktail called Scorpion. He would have enough for four made up and drink the lot. After we closed, we used to go to Tramp. He would have bangers and mash. I would have fish and chips. He’d order a fillet steak and would dice it up into little cubes and take it upstairs and feed the dog at the front door. ‘I’m having fish and chips, he’s having bangers and mash and the fucking dog is having fillet steak!’”
Langan boasted of a daily consumption of a dozen bottles of champagne. On most days it wasn’t an exaggeration but at the height of the restaurant’s popularity in the early eighties, he had lost control and was an alcoholic. “One day I was in the kitchen at 12.15pm when the telephone rang” recalls Richard. “A very posh voice said ‘Mr Shepherd I am speaking from the managing director’s office at Sotheby’s. I believe we have Mr Langan in our sales room. I wonder if you could send somebody over to pick him up. Mr Shepherd in fact, you’d better send two people. He is asleep.’ I said, ‘He does tend to do that.’ ‘Yes’ she replied, ‘but he is half way up the stairs on a bookcase and every time somebody goes past he keeps telling them to fuck off.’”
Perversely Langan’s very boorishness attracted hordes of non-celebs to his restaurant. Despite asking legions of women about their bra size and availability for sexual congress, few seem to have taken serious offence. Richard cites a typical example.
“A bloke takes his girl to Langan’s and wants to impress her. Peter starts walking down the room. That’s Peter Langan the bloke says. ‘Do you know him?’ asks his girlfriend. ‘Watch’ says the boyfriend. ‘Hi Peter how are you? Come and join us.’ Peter gets the waiter to bring a chair. ‘Would you like a drink?’ ‘I’ll have a glass of champagne’ says Peter. So now the bloke thinks he has scored with the girl and then Peter turns to the girl and asks I ain’t going anywhere kid, tell Michael Caine to fuck off! ‘Do you shave your pussy?’ By now the bloke is embarrassed. He says: ‘Well Peter lovely to see you, we’ll carry on with our dinner now.’ Peter asks: ‘Are you going somewhere ‘cos I ain’t fucking moving.’
That’s when they would come and get me. ‘Tell him there’s a phone call for him,’ I’d say. Peter comes to the bar, but there is no one on the line. He then turns to the waiter and asks, ‘Where was I sitting?’ I signal to take him over to another table. This used to go on all night long.”
For 34 years spinach soufflé with anchovy sauce was Langan’s signature dish. When the first floor Venetian room with murals by Patrick Procktor opened, it was deemed too far to risk bringing soufflés from the basement kitchen. Langan objected and insisted that the signature dish could be brought by waiter’s two floors up without being spoiled. Shepherd disagreed so Langan set out to prove him wrong. “I’ll run it up myself” he said in the middle of the pandemonium of service. A soufflé straight from the oven was handed to him and off he went. Recalls Richard: “Peter takes off with the soufflé on a plate. Three minutes later he comes back with spinach covering his shirt and trousers. ‘What the fuck happened to you?’ I asked. ‘I fell down the fucking stairs’ he said, ‘by the way I think you are quite right.’”
The bomb finally exploded in October 1988 after his wife Susan asked for a divorce.
Depressed, Peter pleaded for one last get together. Susan agreed. Peter then tried to set fire to her in the upstairs bedroom of the marital home in Essex. She escaped with a damaged ankle after leaping over a first floor balcony as flames engulfed the bedroom. Peter suffered serious burns and toxic inhalation. In a coma he lingered for six weeks, dying alone on 7th December 1988. At his inquest the coroner declared that Peter had made a grand exhibition of his death by taking a lethal cocktail of pills then setting fire to his house while wife Susan was present. Shortly before he pressed what Richard Shepherd called ‘the self-destruct button’ he had said: “I can do some strange things when I’m drunk but I’m often a target that is set up to do it and I go along with most things out of bloody boredom. The pursuit of pleasure at any cost has always been a priority in my life but after a while it becomes a plague. My wife says I will be dead in two years if I don’t tackle the boozing.”
Mrs Langan was only out by six weeks. His friend the writer John Bradshaw dedicated a novel to him with the message: “To Peter Langan. Unfortunately for him… his dreams came true.”