EATING OUT / Co-ed class at the old school: Simpson's-in-the-Strand

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Simpson's-in-the-Strand is a unique institution. It is perfect City-clerk to middle-management Edwardian, with its great room of heavy, high-backed, decorative chairs, nicotined plaster ceiling and dark wood panelling, with the big picture at one end of the king uncovering four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. The waiters, some of them obviously foreign, wear old-fashioned long white French aprons, and yet somehow still manage to look English. I've always thought of it as a really nice unsnooty middle-class men's club.

I used to have lunch there regularly with my father. The barman downstairs always remembered our names and had my father's bottle of Guinness ready, holding the glass and bottle up and pouring it out very slowly at eye level. Upstairs, the silver-domed meat- trolleys were shunted about, and there was a kind of freemasonry in the discreet ritual of tipping the carver.

Max Wall often used to eat there, usually on his own, and I even had lunch there once with Groucho Marx, who passed unrecognised until he dropped into his bent-kneed lope and lifted his cigar. He made a charming joke to the head waiter about the service, which on that occasion was rather slow: 'What happened to that very elderly guy who took our order? Did he retire or something?'

In those days, the dining room downstairs was segregated. The restaurant still prints on the back of the menu a colour reproduction of the Bateman cartoon with everybody's eyes popping out at 'The Gentleman who asked the carver whether the meat was English or Foreign'. If you'd tried to introduce a lady companion in those days their eyes would have popped out and stayed out, and so would you and the lady companion.

Last week I had dinner there, and things have definitely changed. Not the decor: that is exactly as it has always been, with the silver- domed meat-trolleys being shunted through, waiters, aprons, courteous service, old plaster ceiling and panelling all in place. There was even a slightly nostalgic whiff of cigarette smoke in the air.

In post-Sexual Revolution Simpson's, however, several ladies were swinging their legs provocatively from under the white tablecloths, a whole long table across the middle of the room was occupied by a party of mixed Japanese tourists, and at one point during dinner a baby cried. My own companion was elegantly and discreetly pregnant.

At one moment in the evening, too, a squad of waiters marched across the room carrying something with a candle burning on it, surrounded one of the banquettes in the corner, and sang in deep, harsh voices:

'Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday, dear Mudd-um, Happy Birthday to you]' Mudd-um did not look all that pleased, but not an eye popped out.

To begin with Simpson's simply rode the punch and adapted: now it is aiming for full- scale Reaction - it has just launched a new 7am to 12 noon English breakfast with black pudding, bubble and squeak, etc at pounds 8.50 or pounds 10. Lunch there still rolls along its largely male-dominated way, and from the numbers downstairs on a Thursday evening - just over half-full - its dinner policy still needs a bit of thinking about.

I began with oyster and Guinness soup, which was very smooth and soothing, with

a discernibly authentic flavour. My friend lives opposite a very good smokery in south

London, and says that when the wind blows in the right direction there is no more wonderful a smell than that of smoking fish. So she was well placed to judge the smoked eel, which she thought was very lightly smoked, very fresh and very good. She was also impressed by Simpson's horseradish sauce.

She was, out of deference to the baby, holding back on the booze, so I risked the ridicule of hard-drinking friends and ordered half a bottle of Chateau Cissac at pounds 14.25.

After that my friend ordered the steak, kidney and mushroom pie with some spinach, and I had roast lamb from the trolley with roast turnips. The great silver dome swung back, the carving knives were brandished, and there was all the old charm and attention. I asked for it pink. It was not quite pink enough. I had to ask again for the fat to be cut off, and it came with roast potatoes that could have been crisper and cabbage that needed salt. The roast turnips were very good.

My companion wolfed her pie down, but had mild reservations about it. The pastry was slightly soggy, and she thought it was altogether a bit too 'schooly', which I think was what I meant about my roast potatoes and cabbage, and she said she wished they'd used more herbs and seasoning. She very much liked the nutmeg they put in the spinach.

Simpson's is famous for its savouries - Scotch woodcock, angels on horseback, etc - and has a line in killer puddings. Its treacle roll, taken with a glass or two of sweet wine, once almost felled my ex-uncle by marriage. They also do bread-and-butter pudding and spotted dick with custard, but we chose the chilled coffee souffle and the lemon mousse in a hazelnut meringue, both of which arrived with a little treble clef motif on the top in chocolate and were delicious.

Thinking about it afterwards, I came to the conclusion that food in England had improved so much in the past 20 years that English food in particular needs to be that much better if it's going to fill a restaurant through the evening and after the theatre. A very enjoyable night out, but the cooking could do with a tweak to put it into the alpha class.

Dinner for two, including the wine and the tip, came to pounds 77.50.-

Simpson's-in-the-Strand

100 Strand, London WC2. Tel: 071-836 9112. Open every day,

weekday breakfasts from 7am. Last orders 11pm Monday to Saturday, 9pm Sunday.

Two-course set meal pounds 10 per person (ring for details). Most credit cards accepted.

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