It’s always a pleasure to catch up with an old friend, particularly when you find they’ve hardly changed in, oooo, it must be forty years or so. Simpson’s Tavern, aka Simpson’s of Cornhill is one of the places to which various friends of mine, who had gone into that Slough of Despond, The City, and I, used to go for an hours or so at least, erect a barrier of food, drink and banter against the cruelties and discords of working life.
Beer before lunch, and some times with, but more usually a bottle of red, with a short, sharp brandy by way of a nerve tonic after, was usual. Food, well, if you were sensible, you stuck to the smoked salmon and the grills. Lamb chops were a favorite, and the splendid mixed grill, dripping with juices, charcoaled around the edges, particularly the fat. And then a pudding, something steamed with custard. Oh, happy days.
It was huggermugger sort of place, plump with pin-stripe-suited, red-faced City folk in jovial frame of mind sitting jowl by jowl, at communal tables, masticating the deals of the morning and those yet to come. It was lively, convivial, jolly. There was something of the lost world about Simpson’s, a sense of stepping out of the continuum of time. It was set up in 1757, and you could almost be back then.
I experienced the very same sense when I stepped back into it the other day. There it was, tucked away in Ball Court, the brown, varnished door, the mullioned window, the bright lights gleaming within. Push open the door, and there was the bar to the right, brass bits polished, gleaming paneling a shade of Vandyke brown, warm, fuggy, manned with that cheeky familiarity that knows just how far to go with each customer. And draft Bass was still on the pump. We’ll have a pint of that and chew over the pleasures of the day, if you don’t mind. We’ll have a seat for you very soon, sir. Oh, never mind. I’ll have that second pint if you don’t mind.
The place is teeming. Good God. Whatever happened to banking disasters, depressed stock markets, economic downturns, double-dip recessions, fiscal cliffs and all the other financial impedimenta of the contemporary life? Well, even in these stressed time I guess a chap’s got to live, and he and she – there are quite a few shes – have to eat to live and they might as well eat properly.
Not that Simpson’s is expensive. Look at this. Slow cooked pork belly with crackling, £5.50; potted prawns on toast, £6.25; chicken liver on toast, £4.50. And those are just the starters, or first courses, as I like to call them. The daily special main courses range in from £7.85 to £10.85. What’s on today’s specials? It Thursday so there’s Fisherman’s Pie, £7.95; Braised Oxtail Stew, £9.90; Roast pork with sage and onion, £8.00 and Calves Liver and Bacon with Caramelized onion a whopping £10.85. That’s not too shabby, particularly by London standards.
I’m tempted by the Braised Oxtail but go for the Mixed Grill (chump chop; sausage; kidney, bacon and tomato) out of respect for times passed. I have particularly happy memories of that Mixed Grill. With some spinach and chips on the side, please. A crab and avo cocktail first. – very untrad. And then we’ll see about puddings when we get there.
The crab ‘n’ avo salad would never have appeared in the dainty turret on the plate forty years ago with a little roof garden of salady stuff. . A block to be heaped onto white toast more likely. It was perfectly good, plenty of sweet white crab meat, and decent base of good, ripe avo, with a slightly indeterminate dressing, and brown toast. And then the Mixed Grill. What can you say about a Mixed Grill? The meat was fine and the grilling had been well judged. There were the little charred bits. The juices tasted good. It was splendidly meaty. The years fell away, and there I was, a fresh-faced young fellow having a fine time with his chums. The spinach was top-drawer stuff, and the chips were as good as any you’ll find these days. It shows how time has caught up with me that I couldn’t manage a pudding, but I imagine it would have been of the same robust quality as the rest.
In these days of the uber-refined customer, the fashion-driven foodista, someone schooled in the niceties of the West End, Simpson’s is unlikely to cut the mustard. More fool them, say I. There’s no point in going to Simpson’s Tavern expecting an exemplary modern eating experience, suave service, carefully titivated food. It’s a chophouse, for heaven’s sake. It’s a place to eat. In my experience it does what it does extremely well – turning out decent food at very decent prices with dispatch. If only other restaurants carried out their duties with half the efficiency and skill as Simpson’s.
Simpson’s Tavern, Ball Court 38 1/2 Cornhill, City of London, Greater London EC3V 9DR. Tel. 020 7626 9985
Open: Tues-Fri 8am-3.45pm (Mon 11.30am- 3.45).