It’s been there for 187 years but, if reports are to be believed, the historic Simpson’s-in-the-Strand may soon be no more. Having opened its doors in 1828, it has been reported that London’s third or fourth oldest restaurant, depending on your view of Wiltons, may soon be closed, as The Savoy has put out to tender the right to run the restaurant and will not insist on the new chef or operator maintaining anything to do with the old Simpson’s brand. Quite what The Savoy is after is not known, but a logical supposition would be that they are looking for a big name chef to come in and run the place, hoping to gain a few Michelin stars.
The Berkeley has Marcus Wareing and Koffmann, while the Dorchester has Alain Ducasse with his three stars; Claridge’s has Simon Rogan, The Connaught has Helene Darroze, and many more top hotels have top chefs. On the other hand, The Savoy’s only restaurant with a known chef attached is The Grill, run by Gordon Ramsay, which is not it the same league; it seems likely that the hotel wants to try and catch up with its luxury competitors.
So, not having been to this old institution and given its apparent imminent closure, some friends and I decided we should test out the historic dining room. We wanted to see if it had come to warrant the general view that it was overpriced and reliant on its historical reputation, or if, like Rules, it had suffered this in the past but had now upped its game to make such a view unfair.
Apart from the former flat rate of half a crown for all mains, Simpson’s is much the same as in 1914
My 1914 Gourmet’s Guide to London by Lieutenant-Colonel Newham-Davis, the food critic for the Pall Mall Gazette, talks of Simpson’s as recently moved into the new block of The Savoy and newly owned and run by them. While the place still has the same layout and design scheme, some things have changed. The entrance hall is now green rather than white, while the white uniforms have been retained only by those who carve the meat on the trolley. In all other ways (except the apparent flat rate of half a crown for all mains), Simpson’s is much the same as in 1914.
On our visit we were seated in one of the old oak booths, with their heavy padded seating and brass accoutrements that line the wall. Having decided what we wanted to eat, it took thirty or forty minutes for our order to be taken, with not even an offer of a drink to sustain us while we waited to give it. As a fan of pigeon, I ordered the pigeon breast with green beans and lardons for my starter, to be followed by the steak and kidney pudding, a favourite of mine and one rarely on menus (I have also had it at Rules, so this provided the chance to compare the two).
After another extreme wait of the same duration, the starters arrived. On first impressions the pigeon was suffering from a duel personality: it was beautifully pink, perhaps even underdone for some tastes, but perfect for myself, but the jus was overly thin, with the bird’s blood and juices in it, clearly indicating that it had not been left to rest before being sliced and plated. When taken with the time delays, it all rather pointed to the kitchen being overworked, which was hard to imagine given the number of waiters milling around the dining room, seemingly with little to do. Despite all this, though, one couldn’t really complain about the way the dish tasted, nor fault the quality of the ingredients. It may not have been an original dish but it was a perfectly nice one, with the green beans still al dente, as they should be, especially when served with pigeon. So, all in all, it was worth the cost of £10.50; all the other starters were worth their price tag too.
When mains arrived they were served with quite a show, which proved unnecessary and rather messy
The starters took us all of ten minutes to devour, given our hunger following the long wait we had suffered to this point, and, thankfully, given this hunger was only temporarily abated, the mains came just twenty minutes later. When they arrived they were served with quite a show and, in many ways, it was unnecessary. Everything was plated up by the waiters, which was difficult as they could not reach down to the end of the booth we were in. It also meant that some of the plating that resulted was rather messy and took time, allowing the food to become, if not cold, merely warm rather than hot.
The steak and kidney pie was dished up onto my plate with the puff pastry topping rested on top. The sauce was a silky rich flavoured affair and the steak nice and tender, but the kidney! Oh kidney, where art thou? The kidney was practically non-existent, cut into small diced pieces you had to root around for – and they were then nigh-on tasteless. The dish was fine, but not worth the £17.50 price tag, and the rendering at Rules is certainly superior. One of our party had the duck breast which they enjoyed, though it was pitifully small, and another had the vegetable curry, which somehow had a higher price than my choice. It too was rather small; though my view may have been tainted by comparison with the mountain of curry you are given at far less cost at my club in St James’s.
Nothing was terribly wrong, but it was of only an average good quality; I shall be sorry to lose the historic establishment, but not what it has to offer
In the end we forwent dessert and made our way out. The evening was an enjoyable one, but because of the company and the experience rather than the meal. The dinner itself was slow and, while nothing was terribly wrong with it, it was of only an average good quality. Better fare, in all respects, can be obtained at Rules, and indeed most members’ clubs in St James’s. Will I miss Simpson’s if and when it really closes for good? Yes and no. I shall be sorry to see the disappearance of an historic piece of London’s culinary landscape; sadly, though, I won’t miss what it actually has to offer