This food needs a little less grandeur, and a little more love: Simpson’s in the Strand reviewed

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

Simpson’s in the Strand stopped serving breakfast in 2017, after it had been renovated to stop it smelling of cabbage. Fat men wept, but worse things have happened here. Simpson’s is built on the site of John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace, in which Geoffrey Chaucer, Gaunt’s brother-in-law, wrote part of The Canterbury Tales. The palace was destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381; it is all detailed in Anya Seton’s romance novel Katherine. Of the palace’s successor, Henry VII’s Savoy Hospital, only a small chapel remains. It looks deeply oppressed.

Instead we have the Savoy hotel, created by Richard D’Oyly Carte. This is the hotel The Mikado built; and beside it is Simpson’s in the Strand — formerly Samuel Reiss’s Grand Cigar Divan, a club named in homage to its sofas, which sometimes contained Benjamin Disraeli. I like to imagine that, being near to Charing Cross station, it was more multicultural than White’s. These things are relative.

The Grand Cigar Divan was swallowed by the Savoy in 1898 and re-opened in 1904 as Simpson’s in the Strand, which is a useful name for drunks since the address is included. I think that is why they did it. Drunks or no, it was instantly famous. When the chef Thomas Davey died in 1914 it was reported in the Times. Tears were shed over his skill with cows. He prepared 1,400lb of meat a day — and the gravy!

We only have one sauce in England, my husband likes to say, with a Brexit-y tear leaking down his Brexit-y face: but what a sauce! Really? What about bread sauce, eh? So, like much of modern London, Simpson’s is really Edwardian, and as we seek that half-invented glory in our politics, so does Simpson’s, with the same curious but erratic success. That is, the Christmas tree in the lobby — the surface — is sufficiently sumptuous to intimidate the foreigner. The food — the purpose — could be better. It is understandable for an old restaurant to idealise itself; but it is disappointing if the food was better in 1911, which I suspect it was.

Even so, I am fond of Simpson’s, because my husband brought me here in 1994 after he read an advert in The Spectator; the commercial department of this magazine facilitated our romance, and how many people can say that, except nerds? The usual customers were on holiday, and students were taken in for £10 a head, like orphans in a Christmas miracle — except it was July. I remember nothing about it except that it was grand and ancient.

Here you dine with dead men; with fat ghosts. I like to imagine Winston Churchill getting drunk at Simpson’s, which he did. Drunks are good at wars. They run at machine-guns, shouting.

The exterior is the Savoy hotel, of course, which looks like a vast grey wedding cake leaking soot over itself and wishing it were elsewhere; the Strand looks like a globally famous taxi rank. There is an awning with Simpson’s in lights, a pretty ornamental gate and an advert for Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, a musical about the pay gap, which you should absolutely go and see.

Inside, the dining room is vast, cold and lovely. It looks like a Pall Mall club: dark wood floors and panelled walls; cream plastered ceilings; glossy red leather chairs; brass chandeliers. It is not a date restaurant, unless you are a giant who wishes to seduce a lady giant. It is a restaurant for pseudo-aristocrats, then; another Savoy Theatre, but interactive, and with meat.

‘Simpson’s in the Strand,’ wrote P.G. Wodehouse in 1915, ‘is unique. Here, if he wishes, the Briton may, for the small sum of half a dollar, stupefy himself with food. There he sits, alone with his food, while white- robed priests, wheeling their smoking trucks, move to and fro, ever ready with fresh supplies.’

The solitary men are now couples taken hostage in a London restaurant–theatre for £80 a head. They are here to experience fine dining in a room whose heyday, like imperialism’s, was when George V was on the throne. Ah, the British! The menu is simple: meat, fish and sugar. My companions order Jersey oysters and Dorset crabs, lobster thermidor and monkfish. It is Friday and I had forgotten they are devout; but my husband says a lobster can be a mortification of the flesh. I have the beef which is, as Wodehouse said, wheeled about on trolleys under silver domes. This is still the Simpson’s third-act bump, and it is world-famous. Other restaurants put things on wheels too, but they are usually bottles of champagne; if properly done, they look like ice-hedgehogs spurting alcohol. The trolley rolls up and the beef is sliced. It is faintly, but not terribly, exciting, probably because I was thinking about hedgehogs.

I want to say it is a perfect roast beef dinner, because it is Christmas etc, and I am a hack. But I cannot. Simpson’s third-act bump destroyed my third-act bump, and I am slightly angry. I am afraid that Rules, an even older restaurant around the corner in Maiden Lane, is still better and cheaper than Simpson’s. (It serves potatoes dauphinoise, not roasted, and this is wise.) The beef is very good, but it is not medium rare, as advertised, but very rare. It is bright red, like Cardinal Wolsey, or a tomato, or a spot, and while I didn’t mind, others might. The roast potatoes do not taste freshly cooked; the Yorkshire pudding is too crusty and almost cold. The cabbage is cabbage; you can’t do a lot with cabbage. This food needs a little less grandeur and a little more love. The gravy, though, is superb — what a country, what a sauce! We will always have gravy, as Rick didn’t say, because he was more into alcohol.

Still, it is pleasant to sit in a restaurant that can evoke so many fat drunk men. I have hopes of the profiteroles, but they fail. They are small, gilded and tough, and not as good as my husband’s, which makes me glad he brought me here on a Spectator offer long ago and married me. Merry Christmas, then — just not here.

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