Off went the divan with my old man in it, innit
U100 Strand, London
WC2R 0EW 020 7836 9112; simpsonsinthestrand.
co.uk Three courses with wine and coffee: about £75
per head npardonably cruel though it is to raise the ghost of pleasures past during this vindictively gloomsome interregnum between Christmas and New Year (“Hemlock Week”), I must none the less report the following. With the sole exception of Marco Tardelli’s visage after scoring for Italy against the Hun in the 1982 World Cup final, never have I seen a look of such pure, transcendent joy as that which lit up the face of my friend and accountant Robin as we bowled up at Simpson’s-inthe-Strand.
Whenever Robin and his son/ partner Alistair form a lunching quartet with my father and me, as that mythical beast “the regular reader” may recall, the venues cleave to the uber-traditional. Yet neither at Wilton’s in St James’ nor at Oslo Court, that peach paean to Seventies bourgeois cuisine opposite Regent’s Park, did such beatific joy commandeer his features.
“Now this really is the stuff, isn’t it?” he cooed, taking in a deeply handsome, lovingly maintained erstwhile cigar divan, gently illuminated by four beautiful chandeliers, laden with rich wood panelling, and adorned by an oil painting of a monarch being served blackbird pie with the nursery rhyme caption “Was it not a dainty dish to set before a king?”
The concept of daintiness is clearly a movable feast, because there can be no restaurant on earth less dainty than this one. Its butchness seems wholly unleavened since the Edwardian era, when it featured regularly in the oeuvre of PG Wodehouse, though there has been one astounding change. “Good grief,” said Robin, noting the occupants of one table, “when did they start letting women in?”
It was in 1984 that the proto-PC Gone Mad Thought Police took their toll. Before then, ladies were allowed access only to an upstairs room (since sold off) with walls of a calming eau de nil.
But apart from a single nod to second-wave feminism, the last three decades have had no discernible impact. “It’s a bit, erm, clubland, isn’t it?” sniffed Alistair, playing his usual role of hip young dude pincered by fogeys. “You wouldn’t accuse this menu of being overly concerned with vogue.”
You would not. On the front of the said menu is a Bateman cartoon of a red-faced chap flinging his knife skywards in outrage at “the gentleman who asked the carver whether the meat was foreign or English”. This reminded me of an etiquette conundrum that urgently needed resolving. “How much,” I asked the table, “do you tip the carver these days?” “Half a dollar,” replied Robin. Alarmingly for an accountant, he appears yet to come to term with this new-fangled decimal currency. “Though it may have gone up since I last ate here, I suppose.”
He supposed right, but before coming to that rite of passage (tipping a carver had been an ambition of mine for a long time), we had set about a deliciously elderflowery Kentish white called Bacchus Reserve – no fancy foreign wines for us, not here – and the starters.
No one acquainted with sanity would come to Simpson’s for a ground-breaking gastronomic experience. This is high-class comfort food, by and large executed well. Potted salmon had “a nice gentle flavour”, while smoked salmon was “adequate, though no better than Tesco’s Finest”. My roast wood pigeon breast came properly pink, with beans and lardons, though the winner by a country mile was my dad’s “seasonal creamed mushrooms”, served in crispy brioche buns. “Exceptionally good,” he said – and at £14, so it bleedin’ well should have been.
Only once the plates had been removed did things take a turn. A female diner mildly reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie ridiculed this faddish concept of unisex dining by taking to the piano to play Happy Birthday. I asked a waiter if she took requests. “I do not know, sir, but I will ask. What is your request?” “That she cease and desist playing, immediately.” Far from either desisting or ceasing, she then dipped into the music-hall repertoire with Roll Out the Barrel – eschewing Let’s All Go Down the Strand for some reason.
Calves’ liver was “tender and really good”, according to my father, while Alistair dismissed his shepherd’s pie as “a grownup school dinner. Fine but not brilliant.” Robin described his beef wellington as “very nice”. Might he be a shade more precise, I wondered, as if completing a VAT return? “No. It’s very nice.”
I had the roast rib of beef with all the trimmings, and tipped the carver £4 – double what we were told is the going rate, and sufficient to secure a bonus third slice of meat that was correctly rare, if not the meltiest or most flavoursome.
Electing not to ’ave a banana, we enjoyed some faultless puds – sticky toffee pudding and plum cobbler with orange ice cream – and we might have stayed for ages over coffee had Tootsie not launched an unprovoked assault on The Girl From Ipanema. “I think it’s very sweet that a guest can perform like this,” said my dad when I moaned. “Do you really?” I snapped, with perhaps less filial reverence than was his due. “In that case, I’m going to do a 20-minute set telling my smuttiest Northern club comic jokes.” “Definitely time for the bill,” he said.