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Dining: the historic Simpson’s in the Strand

6 February 2024
Art: Dame Laura Knight in Worcester
6 February 2024
Bespoke: Cufflinks; wrist decoration
7 February 2024

Evolution not revolution

Simpson’s in the Strand has been a British institution since the 1820s, so news of its recent refurbishment raised eyebrows in some quarters. Would the result bring triumph or disaster?

M odernise a restaurant that is renowned for its sense of history and old-school charm and there is always the chance you’ll be entering a culinary minefield.

Simpson’s in the Strand has occupied its spot adjacent to the Savoy Hotel since the 1820s and to say it is an institution is perhaps to underplay its role in London society over the centuries.

PG Wodehouse was a devotee, as was Charles Dickens. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also dined here, a habit he shared with his creations Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson, who occasionally mention the place in their on-page interactions. ‘Something nutritious at Simpson’s would not be out of place,’ suggests Holmes in The Adventures of the Dying Detective, for example, and elsewhere Watson refers to the place approvingly as ‘our Strand restaurant’.

Simpson’s was already a established venue when the crime-fighting duo were at the height of their powers. It opened its doors in 1828, primarily as a coffee house where men-about-town could indulge in a fine cigar, a game of chess and a lively discussion about whichever European power was at the time being particularly vexatious towards Britain’s global ambitions.

Some 20 years later it gained the moniker ‘Grand Divan’ that it retains to this day and began to focus more on food, with large joints of meat wheeled around the restaurant and carved in front of the diners – a signature practice that survives to this day.

Even the most traditional of restaurants sometimes has to embrace change, however. By the early years of the 21st century there was a feeling that Simpson’s was getting left behind, its strait-laced traditionalism no match for an increasingly creative London restaurant scene and possibly even seen as a bit dull by many members of a Millennial generation for whom traditional was a synonym for blinkered.

In 2017 it closed for refurbishment, a word that may well have struck fear into many of its die-hard patrons.

They need not have worried too much, however. The result could be described as evolution rather than revolution. The wood-panelled walls still endure while the red-leather seats retain the Edwardian look of the originals while delivering considerably more comfort.

The menu has had a facelift, but without losing much, if any, of its innate Britishness

Other enduring features include the chess-board-inspired mosaic in the entrance hall, the fireplace (near which Sir Winston Churchill once had his regular table), and the silver-covered trolleys on which those impressive hunks of meat are wheeled around.

The menu, too, has been given a facelift, but without losing much, if any, of its innate Britishness. Oysters still make a prominent appearance, for example; plump, buttery examples fresh from the Essex coast. The Dorset crab salad, meanwhile, is a dish full of nice innovations, the typically salty meat complemented by chunks of tangy Granny Smith apple and surprisingly sweet (but strangely effective) caramelised walnuts.

Other highlights amid the starters are classics such as potted shrimps, served with thin-cut toast, and Scottish scallops in a pine nut and caper dressing.

Mains also celebrate tradition while delivering quality and a dash of imagination. Yes, you’ll find crowd pleasers such as Simpson’s take on fish ‘n’ chips and steak and kidney pud, but also on offer are Blythburg pork belly with braised cheek, burnt apple purée and pickled radish, the caramelised fruit and the spicy pickle combining to create a modern classic.

Piéces de resistance, though, are the silver trolleys that are wheeled noiselessly through the restaurant to your table. As you contemplate the perfectly roasted cuts of beef or lamb being expertly carved before your eyes you should take a moment to congratulate yourself on joining the massed ranks of diners who have enjoyed this very experience at Simpson’s over the centuries.

Served with crisp roast potatoes and fluffy Yorkshire pudding, the roast portions are impressive and may leave one or two diners contemplating the desserts with a sense of waist-expanding trepidation. Brave souls, however, can dive into unctuous temptations such as dark chocolate tart with whisky ice cream, sticky toffee pudding or Black Forest trifle.

The wine list is wide-ranging, though it’s fair to say towards the pricey end, while service is exemplary; attentive without being continuously present and indicative of how a restaurant with such a long history can haul itself into the future without turning its back on an illustrious past.

Simpson's in the Strand

Words: DH

This article was originally published in Halcyon magazine in 2018

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