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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home