Eating Out: Let's do the Strand

Simpson's is famous for its roasts, nursery puddings and gentlemanly diners. So has its relaunch been a success?

It's the hottest day of the year, traffic in central London is at a steaming, sobbing standstill, and the Underground is approaching meltdown. It's the worst possible day, in other words, to think about struggling into the West End for lunch at Simpson's-in-the-Strand, stout purveyor since 1848 of trolley-borne roast meats and steamed suet puddings.

But things are changing at Simpson's, and the idea of a midsummer lunch there isn't quite as mad as it might seem. A pounds 2m facelift has introduced a new air conditioning system and seen the creation of a more contemporary alternative to The Grand Divan, the venerable wood-panelled restaurant downstairs. Always the preferred choice of Simpson's lady customers, the first-floor dining room has been relaunched as Chequers, described as a "concept restaurant more suited to the new millennium". Gone are the trolleys and the traditional British bill of fare, to be replaced by a lighter decor and a menu which boasts contemporary European influences instead of the roasted meats and game for which Simpson's is famous.

The name Chequers has apparently been chosen in deference to Simpson's origins as a place where gentlemen would meet to play chess; the table- side carving of joints of meat was introduced so that players could enjoy fast food without disrupting their game. So it was fitting to discover my lunch date, Piers, playing computer chess on his Palm Pilot when I fetched up, travel-damp and unforgivably late. Piers works in the City and is an enthusiastic regular at Simpson's, so he was curious, if rather sceptical, about the new restaurant. He wasn't the only one - while he waited, two bluff old gents came upstairs, looked around, and wailed "It's changed!" "Yes, gentlemen, there's a new concept," the maitre d' explained, at which the gents promptly cancelled their booking and retreated to the dining room downstairs.

At first glance, their caution would seem to be unwarranted. The room has been sympathetically redecorated, in a dusty pink which makes the most of the Regency-style plasterwork, tall windows and high ceilings. Tables are well-spaced, compared to the elbow-to-elbow arrangement downstairs, and it's miraculously quiet, considering its position overlooking the Strand, one of the city's busiest thoroughfares. Simpson's has resisted the temptation to fetishise its own tradition in the conversion; nothing about the room feels flashy or ersatz, and the tablecloths obviously pre- date the refurbishment, their darned patches bespeaking a pleasingly thrifty approach to house-keeping. "They've made it a bit more feminine, without going gay," was Piers's gruff verdict.

The menu offers a selection of spit-roasted meat and poultry, but these dishes are outnumbered by fish and vegetarian options, and liberal use is made of fashionable ingredients imported from France, Italy, and even the Middle East. Duck confit is served with Ligurian olives, guinea-fowl is spit-roasted with mild spices, sea-bass comes with creamy polenta and bouillabaisse jus. Simpson's long-standing convention of using only English terms on the menu has also been set aside where no suitable translation exists, although creme brulee still appears as "burnt cream".

Our starters arrived so soon after we'd ordered them that it seemed unlikely that they'd been prepared to order, a suspicion borne out by the tell- tale chilliness of my crab and avocado salad, which had obviously been whipped straight out of the fridge. Presented nouvelle-cuisine style, as a circular mould surrounded by a tracery of pureed tomato, it had virtually no flavour, and a not entirely pleasant texture. Piers's salad of marinated artichoke hearts with goat's cheese cream was better, but also over-chilled, and it arrived without one of its advertised components, roasted pine kernels. Speed of service is an important factor for the business luncher, as for the chess-player of old, but a little more time and care would have improved both dishes immeasurably.

Still, it doesn't do to make a fuss in a place like Simpson's, particularly when there are waiters downstairs armed with sharpened carving knives. And standards improved drastically with our main courses. Deciding to favour tradition over innovation, I opted for roast sirloin of beef, and was rewarded with several thick, raggedly carved slices which reminded me just how good well-treated beef can taste. They were served in a light, winey jus, with horseradish fritters - balls of super-light mashed potato leavened with a soupcon of horseradish and fried off to a crisp, dry finish.

Piers's spit-roasted duck was pink and tender, and came with an adventurous little assembly featuring apple chutney, a caramelised white peach and a crunchy fried mint leaf. "It's very light - must be a domestic duck," Piers announced, with the confidence of a chap who regularly shoots and dresses his own dinner. Both main courses could happily be described as "classic with a twist"; they wouldn't have shamed a Conran restaurant, nor would they have frightened off any of the traditional diners downstairs.

Those traditionalists might well have been left hungry by the dessert menu, however, which revolves around summer fruits, sorbets and ices, and includes none of Simpson's famous nursery puddings. Piers was more beguiled by the look of his summer sorbet selection than by the taste, while I had the opposite experience with my citrus fruits rice pudding. A satisfyingly chewy confection, served at blood-temperature in a vivid red and yellow swirl of apricot and vanilla coulis, it looked, as Piers said, "like a very nasty wound in a theatre of war".

Coffees came with gorgeously pliable home-made biscotti - no doubt the authentic, twice-baked article would prove too dentally challenging for the older customers. Service was sprightly and discreet throughout, and the bill (pounds 35 a head without wine) was tactfully left between Piers and myself, rather than automatically given to the male, a welcome touch in such a masculine redoubt. "I hope they don't think I'm some kind of gigolo," Piers muttered as I settled up.

On our way out, we looked in on The Grand Divan downstairs. The newly refurbished wood panelling and draperies were glowing in the afternoon sunlight, the silver trolleys were being stowed away, and shirt-sleeved men were hunkered over cigars and brandy, with the satisfied air of those who have lunched not wisely but too well. As pleasant as we'd found Chequers, we had to agree that in terms of atmosphere, it just couldn't compete. "If I was entertaining a female client, I might well take her up to the new restaurant," Piers concluded. "But if I was with a female friend, I'd still prefer it down here."

Chequers, Simpson's-in-the-Strand, 100 Strand, London WC2 (0171-836 9112). Open 12noon-2.30pm, 5.30-11pm Mon-Sat. All major cards. No disabled access

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible