En route to Sophie’s Steakhouse, an American-themed restaurant in Chelsea, I thought about the UK’s rather complex feelings about US food. Our cousins over the pond have always laughed at British “fayre” – they chortle at our spotted dicks, steak-and-kidney puddings and fry-ups – and, more generally, snigger at the drab, mediocre pub grub they have to endure when they’re over here. What they rarely grasp, however, is that we guffaw right back at them, for their wasteful enormo-sandwiches, breakfast potatoes, half-and-half cream and how their national dish now seems to be deep-frozen popcorn shrimp.
Even so, we Brits generally eat rather better in America, because there is a sense of largesse in the States, as well as chipper, tip-based customer service to which we’re utterly unused. It’s no surprise, then, that some of us look to recreate that feeling back home, which explains why brands such as Big Easy Bar BQ & Crabshack and Sophie’s Steakhouse thrive, not to mention the roadside OK Diners where you can get a chilli and cheese hotdog with twister fries and a blue bubblegum-flavoured “Million Dollar” shake.
Sophie’s is a bit more refined than that. It’s a classic US-style grill bar that’s open seven days a week and serves prawn cocktails, chicken wings with blue cheese dip and corn ribs, alongside ribeye, butcher’s cut rump and sirloin steaks. There’s a classic hamburger with a dill pickle, and a chargrilled tuna steak with avocado, and waffle cone ice-cream for afters.
Sophie’s is not loud, blaring or gimmicky. It’s the genteel face of steak eating – this is Chelsea, after all – but it is breezy enough to go as a family group without worrying about making too much noise. It puts me in mind of all those faceless, run-of-the-mill, family-owned grill restaurants that I have chanced upon in upstate New York, Florida and even California. Sophie’s is not pretending to be anything new, experimental or remotely earth-shattering. Rather, it’s quietly determined to be simply “somewhere to go” when you fancy a centre cut fillet with a jug of peppercorn sauce and baked alaska for pudding.
Yes, there is paprika rubbed on those very good corn ribs, and harissa in the mayo that comes with the courgette fritters, but the food is resolutely, safely unadventurous. Shockingly so, in some cases: I’d ordered the grilled sweet potato side to go with my main, imagining something baked, whipped with butter, gilded with herbs and spices, and finished under a grill, only to receive a plain sweet potato, just parboiled and grilled. It was the sort of British cooking that the Americans have laughed at for the past 20 years.
Still, while nobody ever leaves Sophie’s thinking, “Gosh, that changed my life”, service is bright and swift, they throw house salami on your table when you sit down and offer buttermilk wings that are crisp, gorgeous and far too hot to eat. That tuna steak was gargantuan, which doesn’t happen often these days, and came topped with avocado, tomato and red onion. Charles’s “house fries”, which I stole following my disappointment with the sweet potato, were glorious (as stolen chips so frequently are). He ordered his ribeye rare, and it arrived as bloody as required; the peppercorn sauce that came with it, however, was oddly lacklustre, while the creamed spinach was actual spinach, not canned – which is good – but was unseasoned and drowning in an ocean of cream. The house salad, meanwhile, was fresh and generous, and featured a good, sharp vinaigrette.
“If this place was next door,” I suddenly found myself saying, “I’d come here a lot.” Because, among the various duds and “what the hell?”s, there are actually some decent things to eat, such as those corn ribs, the smoked mackerel paté and the crispy squid with aïoli that provided all the oily, crunchy joy of eating at an American bar without having to shell out £450 to get to Florida.
For dessert, we ordered a dark chocolate brownie that was more like a square of warm sponge cake and came smothered in chocolate sauce, Jackson-Pollocked with custard and served with a scoop of very good vanilla ice-cream. I defy anyone not to be cheered by that. I was dead set on the waffle cone, even though it’s clearly for children. But if there is any upside to ageing, it has to be the lack of self-consciousness you have about lapping a mango sorbet, letting it melt and run down your arm, before crunching the chocolate-rimmed cone right down to the point. Yes, people nudged each other and made comments, but that made it all the more enjoyable.
Sophie’s does a rather more refined berry mess and burnt cheesecake, too, but that waffle cone was delicious. I had come looking for Santa Monica, but it turned out the bit I enjoyed the most was Margate pier.
Sophie’s Steakhouse 311-313 Fulham Road, London SW10, 020-7352 0088. Open all week, Mon-Thur 5-10pm, Fri 5-11pm, Sat noon-11pm, Sun noon-9.30pm. From about £40 a head for three courses à la carte; pre-7pm/post-10pm set menu, £18 for two courses, £21 for three, all plus drinks & service
The new series of Grace Dent’s Comfort Eating podcast starts on Tuesday 26 September. Listen to it here.
Join Grace Dent in London, Manchester or via the livestream this October for a series of Guardian Live events where she will be discussing her new book, Comfort Eating (Guardian Faber, £20). Tickets available here. To pre-order a copy of the book for £16, visit guardianbookshop.com