This Restaurant Has Been Giving English Food A Good Name For Centuries

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 70 months ago
This Restaurant Has Been Giving English Food A Good Name For Centuries

You wouldn't go to Parma and bitch about the ravioli, or to Hanoi and pick apart the pho. So it's only right the Londoner should feel affronted when foreign visitors scoff at the state of English cuisine.

Unfortunately, such visitors can be vindicated; in spurts of weak self-imitation, pub and restaurant menus all-too-often peddle limp fish and chips with luminous mushy peas, meatless grey-dribble steak pies, and Cornish pasties that should be banged up for fraud. We've often been guilty of the culinary equivalent of tearing down the terraces and train stations of our forebears' heritage.

Then you discover Simpson's Tavern, and know that everything is not lost.

Simpson's rumbles with the excitement of the City — the sore-throated melee of the London Metal Exchange, or the roar of Bank junction, which lies on the restaurant's doorstep. It's only when you come to a place like this, you realise how timid many of today's eateries are. It's all unabashed hustle and bustle in this three-storied chop house. Where else would you get a suited young maestro, lashing out symphonies on an upright by the Gents toilets? Each of the wooden-panelled rooms — lined with framed prints of moustachioed Edwardian gents — boom with testosterone, carried on waves of red-wine breath. (Women have been welcome in Simpson's since 1916, but men, alas, continue to outnumber them easily.)

The smoked salmon starter

Simpson's answers the question: 'does the liquid lunch still exist?'. As one o'clock becomes two, becomes three, pints of Bass continue to be poured, bottles of Jean Balmont emptied and reordered. (We wonder how many of the Lloyd's lot — banned from daytime drinking since 2017 — have sneaked in for a small one.)

In this demob happy atmosphere, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a Friday; it's not, it's Tuesday.

An atmosphere this hearty can only be paired with hearty fare. Ian Kay — a man with a bushy white beard, and a grin strong enough to shine through it — is insistent on serving us his favourite; the Edwardian chop, as thick as two hands pressed together in prayer, with a salver of mash ("You're not having roast potatoes," he informs us), another of peas, and a half-pint jug of gravy.

Ian usually has this dish with Smithfield sausage and egg too. "It puts hair on your chin," he smiles, reminding us of his well-folicled face.

For Ian, this is a dream job, with dream hours. "There was a little advert in the Standard about 14 years ago, that said 'Working lunches in the city. 12-4 only.' So I was going to do it for a few months.

"But when you're used to working in the catering business over the years, you just don't find jobs like this."

In keeping with the City's skittish schedule, you won't get weekday dinners here — or indeed anything at all on weekends. But come in before working hours, and you will find bankers, stockbrokers and underwriters launching face-first into plates heaped with cumberland sausage, white pudding and 'non-stop' toast.

Ian, Patricia and Francesco

As a cynical Londoner, you quickly deduce that Simpson's must be some ersatz chop house, conceived by Gordon Ramsay, and named after his pet terrier. Except you'd be wrong to deduce that. Simpson's has in fact been on this site — secreted down an alleyway off Cornhill — since 1757.

The history goes back further; Thomas Simpson's first restaurant was in Bell Alley, Billingsgate — largely selling fish dishes to the people who worked the market there. The emphasis may be on meat now — sausages, chops, cottage pie — but you can still get smoked mackerel with new potatoes, and cold salmon with brown bread. And though the place has extended, this is about as close as you'll get to genuine historical dining in London.

Funnily enough, in the same network of courts, you'll find the superb George and Vulture — another chop house, this one frequently mentioned in The Pickwick Papers.

Simpson's manager Christian looks on

Aside from the City folk (around 99% of the clientele falls into the bracket, reckons Ian), Simpson's' other diners tend to be tourists. They may have discovered it during a walking tour, or they may have caught in on a TV show (One of the Two Fat Ladies, Clarissa Dickson Wright, came to film here shortly before passing away).  

As the afternoon draws on, and plates are collected and rinsed, the stomachs of Simpson's brace themselves for the cheese platters. "The stewed cheese has been on forever," says Ian, explaining the pots of spiced molten cheese, which are spooned out on slices of toast, "That's a stalwart of ours."

Otherwise, it's partaking of unreally-sized wheel of stilton (in the old days this was painstakingly measured out — these days it's more of an ad hoc affair). "You've got to have the stilton, it's the law," quips a gentlemen on the next table. With the amount of salmon, chop and suet pudding settling in our guts, we think we'll risk arrest.

The famous wheel of stilton

And we don't suppose there are any vegan options at Simpson's? "Yes, you go somewhere else," Ian jokes, continuing, "There used to be two but we're down to one. And there's a salad or two on there. But people know it's a chop house."

You can lambaste the nature of City folk all you want, but at least they know how to have a proper lunch. Go to Simpson's, and the next time you're nibbling a Pret at your desk, just you try holding back those tears.

Simpson's Tavern, Ball Court, EC3V 9DR.

Last Updated 21 February 2018