With its silver-domed carving trolleys and wood-panelled dining room, Simpson’s in the Strand has always looked the part as one of London’s oldest restaurants. Opened in 1828 as a coffee house and chess café, it once counted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens as customers and, alongside Le Gavroche, was one of the first restaurants in the UK to win a Michelin star, in 1974.
But while London’s dining scene has boomed the restaurant’s star power has waned in recent years, with its owner and neighbour The Savoy even considering a sale in 2015. Now Simpson’s has relaunched following a 10-week restoration, its first since 1903, in a bid to bring the dining room into the 21st century. The carving trolleys are staying, but the rows of wooden chairs have been replaced by comfy red leather seating more reminiscent of a posh pub than a stuffy gentleman’s club. While the building design may be limited by its Grade II-listed status, the culinary reins have been handed over to William Hemming, a former sous chef at Sky Garden, who has been challenged with balancing the old Simpson’s menu with the new. He spoke to Restaurant Magazine about the challenge..
This is the first revamp Simpson’s has had in a while…
The time was right for the restaurant to close its doors and look at where it was, and where it wanted to be. It was stuck in a bit of a rut and mainly catered to tourists wanting to see a traditional English trolley service. It was missing that passion and drive. Sometimes you need to close the doors and bring people something new.
How did you approach updating the menu?
It wasn’t necessarily about modernising the menu, but making sure we’re cooking things in the best possible way. There are some new dishes but a lot of them are reimagined classics. For example, the steak and kidney pudding was bigger and more starchy, now we make them individually in traditional pudding moulds and steam them in the oven. There was a ham hock salad with pease pudding which we’ve brought back as a ham hock terrine with British heritage carrots, and a light and crispy pease pudding fritter. These dishes are a part of British heritage and we’re giving them the stage they deserve to be standing on.
Are you bringing back any dishes from the Simpson’s archive?
I’d like to do a mock turtle soup in the winter, it was one of the first dishes on the menu here, but we’ll give it a modern twist. We’re not serving breakfast any more, though that’s something we might reevaluate in future.
You even have your own beer now
We’ve launched our own Pale Dinner Ale, created by small batch Yorkshire brewery Ilkley, which specialises in old-style beers. The style originates from the 1800s and was used to pay farm hands back in the day, and was generally light and crisp. Our ale is a Victorian Classic 3.3% abv beer, which diners can enjoy with their food.
What’s the biggest challenge updating a restaurant with so much history?
We have a tradition to keep up here so we can’t change everything. It’s a tricky balance to make sure the restaurant doesn’t become something it’s not. We have a lot of returning customers so we want Simpson’s to still feel like home to them, while attracting new diners as well. The prices are similar, with starters from £12-£16, mains from £17 rising to £42 for a beef wellington, and a roast from the trolley is £32.
So the famous carving trolleys are staying?
The trolley service is part of our heritage. Trolleys have made a bit of a comeback in restaurants recently; it’s interesting that people want to bring the more traditional style of service to the forefront again. It’s something I’d like to incorporate more into our menu. I don’t want to just have roast meats on the trolley, I’d like to do more things tableside.
What is Simpson’s place in the modern London dining scene?
I’m hoping we won’t just be seen as a carvery place. I measure Simpson’s in its modern form against other restaurants in the area, like Berners Tavern or Tredwells. Simpson’s was one of the first restaurants in the UK to win a Michelin star, which for a British restaurant in the 1970s was quite incredible.
What is your ambition for Simpson’s?
I want it to become a mecca for British food in London. I’d love to do a taste of Simpson’s menu with seven or eight courses, taking people through the restaurant’s history and with the main course coming from the trolley. I want to build on its reputation and set the restaurant up for the next 200 years, though I doubt I’ll be around for the next refurbishment.