Before my remarkable beef wellington at Simpson’s in the Strand, I had been once before, to a party thrown by The Oldie magazine. Perhaps that tells you everything you need to know about the place – a few years ago it was over-looked and a little dusty.
Despite getting on for 200 years old, Simpson’s is now happily ageing well, thanks to an eye-wateringly expensive refurbishment that was completed last year. Everything feels luxurious and subtly spruced: the gleaming cutlery, the cut-glass goblets, the robust leather seats and the thick, starched napkins.
Arriving with a little ceremony at Simpson’s revolving doors gives the right sense of stepping into a peaceful haven, away from the grubbiness of the Strand. Through the chequered marble hall is the main room, known as the Grand Divan. It opened as a chess club and coffee house in 1828, when paying the entrance fee got you a cigar, a cup of coffee and a chess game. When it matured into a restaurant in the 1850s, Simpson’s became the proud owner of the world’s largest mahogany table, which attracted Dickens, Gladstone, Disraeli, Conan Doyle, to relax around it. In the Edwardian era, PG Wodehouse praised it as a ‘restful temple of food’.
When Churchill became a regular, his favourite corner was at the far end of the Grand Divan, by the fireplace. Secluded but with a good view of the room, the table is, unsurprisingly, a hit with tourists. Like a lot of old haunts – Harrods, The Savoy, Rules, Daphne’s – Simpson’s is now mainly inhabited by the peripatetic super rich, many of whom are dispatched from The Savoy, which is tucked in just behind it.
Simpson’s is self-confidently traditional, retaining its English ‘bill of fare’ instead of a new-fangled French ‘menu’. You might assume that the food would be all Victorian stodge. Fortunately you would be wrong. Simpson’s earliest recorded selection was a starter of turtle soup, main course of sirloin of beef and saddle of mutton, with a pudding of boiled syrup roll. These days the bill of fare is balanced and delicate unless, like me, you go out of your way to carb up. There is plenty of tradition if you want it, including the Bucceleuch Estate beef tartare with smoked egg yolk and gentleman’s relish, or the cranachan pudding, made with whisky-infused cheese, oat crumble and honey. The beef wellington comes highly recommended, and kept me full until the following lunch time. As lighter options there are dainty charred scallops with sliced cauliflower, rabbit terrine and St Clement posset with sorbet.
There is, of course, also the carving trolley, that has been the centrepiece of eating here since the 1850s, when it was originally employed to avoid disturbing the chess games. The chef specified that the meat should be wheeled over with not more than one minute passing between the large open fire, where it was revolved and basted continuously, and the table. Now the trolley is a bit of culinary theatre that ends up heavily photographed and all over Instagram.
The Grand Divan has an institutional feel – in the best possible way – it’s part-gentleman’s club, part-Inner Temple dining hall. The hushed, cosseted atmosphere makes you feel that nothing is going to upset you in here. The only drawback is that you could easily slip into a food coma between courses, helped along by the pianist and whispers of the staff. I like to think that Wodehouse, Churchill et al would still approve. As Wodehouse enthused in 1915, ‘The God of Fatted Plenty has the place under his protection’. Indeed he has.