In London restaurant terms, it doesn’t really get more Christmassy, reliable and comforting than Simpson’s in the Strand; a wood-panelled, justifiably legendary institution that has been happily inducing beef-dazed postprandial naps for 191 years.
Yet, as I approached for my maiden visit, I felt a pang of unfestive apprehension. Maybe it was the weight of reputation, general nostalgia fatigue or the fact that this year has featured some quite dispiriting run-ins with supposedly ‘iconic’ (sic. ‘tired’) restaurants. Either way, there was a little intake of breath as I stepped into the hazy warmth of the grand, festively decorated foyer.
Well, more fool me. Yes, Simpson’s is steeped in the ceremonial tradition you’d expect from a place that basically invented domed trolley service. But from the well-chosen craft beer to staff who have been emboldened to show a bit of cheek, warmth and personality, it has shrewd modern edges where they count. And the food is the bountiful, skilled stuff of dreams; a waistband-bursting riot of British classics that deliver the sort of pleasure that goes straight to your brain’s hard drive.
I took my mum along, which gave me an acute feeling of favourite-son smugness right until she took one look at the perfectly fine divan table we’d been seated at and — deaf to my complaints — demanded our sweet, baffled waiter move us.
In fairness, she wanted a better look at the room and, having been spruced up in 2017, it is a space you’ll want an undisturbed gawp at; a buffed hall of panelled oak, chess-themed art (this was, as one of the servers will almost certainly tell you, the de facto headquarters of the game in the Victorian era), cherry-red leather seats and dangling chandeliers. Soon it was rapidly filling with a mixed crowd of boisterous office Christmas outings, nervy-looking young tourist couples and men in boxy suits having the sort of languorous business lunches that aren’t supposed to exist anymore.
First from the menu — or ‘bill of fare’ as it is still known — were devilled eggs, piped with decisively spiced mayonnaise and layered with the double crunch of chicken skin and a scrim of melba toast. Next came the fabled antique carving trolley (which we got to watch stopping at practically every table like a kind of culinary railway replacement bus) and it did not disappoint. ‘Wow,’ said mum, taking a first bite of the tender and flavoursome beef that had been winnowed off a blackened, 30-day aged roast rib and generously heaped on her warmed plate in rosy, fanned hunks.
My beef Wellington — hefty, luscious and beguilingly supported by creamed spinach, belting cauliflower cheese and a fairly outrageous golden-brown pillar of fluffy-middled fondant potato — was no slouch, either. And the drinks we had — a featherlight, lingering Balfour English pinot noir and a whisky-spiked, smoky-sweet Simpson’s hiball — played their part. But it was that carved beef that we couldn’t stop talking about, even as an enjoyably daft, mint chocolate baked Alaska was set ablaze at the table and the 160 quid bill arrived, trailed by squidgy blocks of rosemary fudge. It is, of course, a fairly hilarious figure for essentially two courses each and not much booze.
Yet even my mum — who had been muttering playful disparagements about the prices all afternoon — conceded that it was completely worth it; worth it for the exceptional cooking, worth it for the thrumming, unstuffy atmosphere and worth it for that glow-giving, Yuletide sense of occasion. Appetites change and restaurant empires crumble. But what Simpson’s does will surely never go out of fashion.
1 Devilled eggs £11
1 Carving trolley beef £42
1 Beef Wellington £42
1 Creamed spinach £5
1 Cauliflower cheese £5
1 Baked Alaska £10
1 Orbit pale ale £7
1 Simpson’s hiball £15.50
1 Glass of Hush Heath pinot noir £17
Simpson’s in the Strand, 100 Strand, Covent Garden, WC2 (simpsonsinthestrand.co.uk)