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