Address: Ball Court 38½, Cornhill, London, EC3V 9DR
£47 for two mains, two sides, two glasses of wine, one pudding and tip
Simpson’s Tavern is certainly not a new restaurant but an old style Victorian chophouse, and having seen it feature in the Lunch episode of Clarissa Dickson Wright’s series ‘Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner’, I thought it worth a try. The front page of the menu gives a history of the restaurant. In brief, it was founded in 1757 by Thomas Simpson at its current site in the City of London. So while I refer to it as a Victorian Chophouse, as that is very much what it is, Simpson’s really has its routes in the Hanoverian/Georgian period, more specifically it dates from the 30th year of the reign of King George II.
The heyday of chophouses was the Victorian age, and London was full of the things. Its role was to feed the hungry city worker and leave them filled until dinner, which might be some hours later after the commute home, something that was ushered in by the invention of the railways. The food was not overly priced and good traditional English fare served up in hefty portions, just what a man needed to see him through the rest of the working day. It also acted to ensure the continuation of an ‘English cuisine’ in the face of the more European style of cooking that was to be found on the dinning tables of many of the richer elements in society, and was permeating down to the rising middle classes.
When I arrived, I entered through a narrow wood clad space by a staircase, and was greeted cheerily by a chap who was particularly fast paced, making me feel unquestionably in the City where speed is needed by all, even in a place like Simpson’s Tavern whose main custom is clearly from City workers with little time to spare. That said, at no point did I feel hassled or that I was being hurried along, indeed quite the opposite. The staff were all very helpful and friendly, giving you the time you needed and, while you were not waiting ages for the food, it was not rushed to you and you could take all the time you wanted over it.
I was shown upstairs into a room with a number of long narrow wooden booths that seat six. The brass racks that where attached reminded me of an old Victorian rail carriage. The Victorian atmosphere did not stop there, the seat cushions were House of Commons green and the walls painted in that old light red colour with numerous caricatures of men in Victorian dress.
There was a relaxed informality about the place, resulting from the fact that the room was not overly large and you shared the tables. The room was full of the laughter and movement. This too was enhanced by the fact that the windows looked out onto an old office block that was covered in those old white ceramic brick tiles thus adding to the sense of being somewhere from another era. A nice touch I thought was the fact that the tables had plain jars filled with every type of condiment you could possibly want, including horseradish. The simple act of just engaging with the others at your table in order to pass them along, just furthered the relaxed informality which meant you left feeling that your lunch had been relaxing despite the noise, and relatively short time you had been their.
As one would expect given its pedigree, the food is still quintessentially English. Starters include smoked mackerel, chicken liver pate, potted shrimps and the like. For the mains there is a choice from four sections, the grill (as you’d expect in a chophouse) offering plates of pure meat, mains, the daily specials, and salads. Finally, there is a selection of side dishes of vegetables, including cauliflower cheese, red cabbage, bubble and squeak, and kidney.
We decided to forego starters and went straight for the mains. Tempted as I was by the mixed grill, I ordered the chump chop from the grill. While sorely tempted by the baked ham with parsley sauce, my guest eventually settled on the roast duck with seasonal vegetables and apple sauce from the specials of the day, and we ordered a side of chips and another of cabbage and bacon.
The chump was beautifully cooked; it was perfectly tender with a lovely pink on the inside and a well grilled outside which added that lovely charred flavour to the sweetness of the lamb. Frankly it was one of the best pieces of lamb I have had in a while, all the more impressive at only £8.95. There was nothing exceptional about the two sides, just as you’d expect, they were exactly what they claimed to be. This said, the cabbage is worth a note. It was well laced with bacon, which was great to see as so often one has to go mining through the cabbage in search of it and, while the Savoy cabbage was cooked perhaps further than you would likely find at a high end restaurant, it was cooked to the appropriate degree for what it accompanied and age the food harked back to.
The duck, a roasted leg, came surrounded by a deep coloured gravy, mixed with apple sauce, which provided just enough acidity to offset the richness of the meat. It was rested on top of a selection of winter vegetables, including carrots and beetroot, and was delicious and. At £9.75, it was also excellent value.
To finish we decided to share a house specialty, the stewed cheese. This may not seem an appealing name, I’ll grant you, but I am a fan of a savoury to end a meal. What came was a small metal bowl, about the size of a ramekin, placed on top of a piece of white toast. The bowl was filled with soft hot cheese and resembled something not dissimilar to the topping of a welsh rarebit. It was very good and there was plenty of cheese so you didn’t have to scrimp and could apply it to the toast in copious amounts. One word of caution though, the metal bow when it comes is surprisingly hot so I’d suggest not using your fingers, as I did, to push it off the toast, at least not without letting it cool down a bit first.
Simpson’s Tavern is the perfect place for a good quality quick lunch if you are in the area and don’t want anything overly expensive or fancy, or if you just want to experience a Victorian style chophouse. The staff and atmosphere are welcoming, very few mains cost more than £10, though the sides are around £3.85, but, with the main part of your meal so cheap, you can hardly complain and they are big enough to share between two. Most importantly, the food tastes good. Overall then it is easy to see why this place is so popular, so I’d suggest booking in advance which you can do on their website.
This article was written by Feasting Through London.