Walk through the revolving door from the hustle and bustle of The Strand into number 100 with its wooden panels and tiled floors and know you are walking into an iconic London restaurant. Walk into Simpsons on the Strand and walk into another century, one where elegance, sophistication and style is always in fashion. Even now after over 190 years it is still in a very special way of thinking; not just current, but also forward thinking.
Initially opening in 1828 as a coffee house, where gentlemen smoked cigars with their coffee, browsed the newspapers, indulged in conversations regarding the politics of the day and also, most famously they played chess. Matches were played against other coffee houses in the town, with top-hatted runners carrying the news of each move. The Grand Cigar Divan (as it was initially called) soon became recognised as the home of chess in England. Today, one of Simpson’s original chess sets is displayed in the Bishop’s Room.
As time went on they needed to feed the gentlemen and so great silver carving trollies were added, and it was these carving trollies that cemented its reputation as a fine dining experience. It was soon established as one of the top London restaurants, becoming a popular attraction with patrons including Charles Dickens, William Ewart Gladstone, and Benjamin Disraeli.
Simpsons is still a worldwide institution. From the suburbs of the UK to Japan via China and Europe, it is one of those landmarks that is not just part of a once in a lifetime trip to London but also a destination revisited: passed down from family members and welded to the memories (like my own) of visits as a child to the enchanted dining rooms. The practice of wheeling large joints of meat on silver dinner trolleys to each table and carving them in front of guests, and for those that may well have visited with a great aunt or grandparents as an early dinning out experience, will know this custom still prevails today in this magnificent institution, along of course with the restaurants’ own take on the ‘classics’.
And talking of institutions there is a most unusual connection between this one and another great British one, the Beano, albeit with a very different DNA. One of the hottest young talents in the world of illustration is Zoom Rockman. Born in 2000, the British cartoonist’s comic strip Skanky Pigeon first appeared in the Beano when he was 12 years old. He is the youngest artist in Beano comic history as well as now working with Private eye and has been voted on several lists as a hot talent to look out for from The London Standard to British Vogue, The Observer magazine and the Daily Telegraph.
The restaurant officially unveiled a series of illustrations created by its Zoom. He was appointed as Artist in Residence at Simpson’s in the Strand earlier this year and has produced a series of six new artworks celebrating the restaurant’s most eminent patron, Sir Winston Churchill, which are now displayed throughout the historic building.
The series of illustrations includes a fantasy dinner in the restaurant between Churchill and former Prime Ministers, and rivals, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone. Disraeli was one of Churchill’s political idols, therefore Rockman has chosen to imagine the pair engaged in animated conversation while Gladstone looks distractedly out of the frame. As well as this there are nods to other iconic elements. The restaurant also has a cinematic history as the famous Master Carver, Charlie Brown, featured in one of zoom’s illustration, was featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film, Sabotage. And to top it off the image of the politicians actually hangs above the table that Winston Churchill always sat at and is in fact the only table that is named in the whole site.
A few other notable film links include The Guns of Navarone, where David Niven’s character leans over his wounded, dying companion and tells him that when he recovers, they will return to London and go straight to Simpson’s to have roast beef or in E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End, Henry Wilcox is a known devotee of Simpson’s.
So what else is to be found within the walls of this palace? Go upstairs to the Knight’s Bar upstairs an extremely comfortable softly lit area where gentleman bar tenders will mix great cocktails and aperitifs. The bar serves its own Gin, there are two made exclusively for Simpson’s made only for the bar A London Dry distilled by Portobello and one called Old Tom by Blackdowns. This is a place where aperitifs are served pre-meal (or on their own) but we are not talking sickly sweet triangle glasses here, but proper pre dinner drinks there to stimulate the appetite and of course they can serve digestifs to aid digestion post meal.
All in all it is still a wonderful step back in time, albeit one with food planted in the now. From the elegance of the silver trollies to the Rock Oysters, Steak and Kidney pie Ox tongue, poached smoked Haddock all the way to the baked Alaska (utterly divine) to the gin cocktails, the managers -who all know the history and can tell you stories, to the illustrations hanging on the wall Simpsons of the Stand, knows its DNA holds its own and is still an utter joy to visit.
Visit the Simpson’s website here
Rockman is also Young Ambassador for the world’s biggest arts charity, The Big Draw, and is passionate about the importance of creativity in education. Visit his website here