‘London institution’ is a term tarnished by overuse; some days it feels like any restaurant or bar that survives into its third year feels bullish enough to slap the old ‘LI’ boast on the website.
Yet then you visit an establishment such as Simpson's in the Strand, founded in 1828 and nearing its 200 birthday, and you realise what a London institution actually is.
1828! It’s easy to take such longevity for granted so let’s take a moment to compare with other legitimate cultural benchmarks of our fair city.
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In 1828...Queen Victoria was nine years away from ascending to the throne. Harrods wouldn’t be founded for another six years; Big Ben wouldn’t be built for another 31. Simpson’s was nearly 60 at the publication of the first Sherlock Holmes story – and Holmes and Dr Watson dine here in The Dying Detective and the Illustrious Client. (Not uncoincidentally, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also a regular. Charles Dickens, William Gladstone, and Benjamin Disraeli among many others.)
Simpson’s began life as a chess club, and reminders of this heritage are woven into the very fabric of the building. Boards played on by the likes of Paul Morphy decorate the walls; a mosaic of black-and-white tiles runs around the welcome mat; and the Knight’s Bar has taken residence upstairs for the past two decades.
While the Grand Divan and its carving trolleys of roast beef is the place to go for the full Simpson’s experience, the Knight’s Bar offers a more relaxed alternative without ever allowing you to forget where exactly it is you are drinking. Dozens of black-and-white miniature portraits beam out over the beautiful upholstered furniture, and it really doesn’t require much imagination to transport yourself away from 2018 to a more sophisticated era.
Yet while the interiors may be old school, the cocktails are a little more cutting edge. The new Allotment menu has been designed by bartender Harry Brereton to complement the seasonal produce used by the restaurant. Each cocktail celebrates a different garden ingredient – rhubarb, strawberry, fig, etc – and the menu will evolve regularly with the harvest; ensuring fresh ingredients and another reason for you to come back.
London can offer few more delightful settings to enjoy a drink, or even a dozen drinks
What to order? As many as possible: the alcohol level is reasonably forgiving, especially if augmented with some comfort food. The best seller is apparently Elderflower – gin, elderflower, grapefruit oils, sparkling wine – and you can see why, the drink slipping down as sweetly as summer air. Meanwhile Peach is essentially a pina colada minus the cream but not the taste – our waiter Azizur assures us a couple ordered 12 the day before.
And why not? London can offer few more delightful settings to enjoy a drink, or even a dozen drinks; looking over the Strand as the crowds gather for the evening’s theatre and dining, just as they did 200 years before, while you luxuriate in the comfort and the cocktails and the wonderful Englishness of it all.
I mentioned comfort food: the Knight’s Bar offers a roast beef and Yorkshire pudding sandwich, which is exactly what it sounds – a Sunday roast, potatoes and all, sandwiched within a bisected Yorkshire pudding, plus gravy served in a little silver pot. Yes, it may be one of the most decadent snacks I’ve ever eaten, yes it’s completely delicious and I wanted another before I’d swallowed the last bite. Yes I might try and recreate it this Christmas, no doubt to maternal despair.
A final word on the staff. Azizur and his colleague Cedric could not have been more attentive, and this isn’t a case of press privilege: all guests are treated as though they belong to not-so-minor royalty. It’s this kind of hospitality that preserves the magic of venerable old places such as Simpson’s, and gives your visit a sense of occasion. It’s also easy to take such hospitality for granted – so a raised glass to them both.
Summer may be fading but the autumn version of the Allotment menu is scheduled to be available sometime in October. Treat yourself.
For more info, see Simpson's in the Strand