I'm currently spreading happiness wherever I go. Or at least wherever I go among the old and sentimental. I'm like a Stones fan who has sneaked an early listen to the greatest hits album and is going around telling other fans the new tracks are as good as anything the band ever recorded. Only I don't have to lie. Because in answer to the traditional restaurant-lovers' greeting, "Eaten anywhere good lately?" I'm able to respond with a hearty "Yes! The Quality Chop House has just reopened. And it's terrific".
The reaction is always the same. A big loopy grin, the recollection of some long-ago boozy lunch, sometimes an anecdote about the after-hours behaviour of the Chop House's roaring-boy chef/patron. And then the inevitable follow-up question: have they managed to make the seats comfortable yet?
The answer to the last is, no, not really. But you can't have everything. The QCH has been in business since the 1870s – nearly as long as the Rolling Stones – but the fondness it inspires among a certain type of chattering-class chowhound dates from its early 1990s incarnation. In 1989, the 'Progressive Working Class Caterer', as the famous old window signage has it, was reopened by ex-Caprice head chef Charles Fontaine, and became the dining room of choice for Guardian journalists and the other rackety types who were colonising Clerkenwell.
The perfectly preserved interior, with its cramped wooden pews and anaglypta walls, was always the draw, but also the drawback. Those wooden benches and cramped, shared tables were built for speed, not comfort. The Chop House eventually fell off the radar, Fontaine moved on, and after an ill-fated reincarnation as a meatballs joint, it closed down last year.
The youthful new owners have done what they can to freshen the interior up, within the constraints of the Grade II listing. Some clever upholstery has softened the seating a little, but the result still feels more Charles Dickens than David Collins. One of the two tiny dining rooms now functions as a wine bar, offering a lovingly curated list – unsurprisingly, given that one of the new owners is Will Lander, son of the writers Jancis Robinson and Nick Lander. But while wine is at the heart of the operation, it certainly isn't the only attraction; the dishes that appear on the all-day menu sound so good, they make you want to weep – Longhorn mince on dripping toast, for example – and there's a daily-changing choice of chop, with a glass of wine, for £13.
At night, the dining room serves a four-course, no-choice menu. Don't misunderstand – this isn't a tasting menu, a parade of tantalising morsels selon l'humeur du chef. It's a proper feast, brought to the table on shared platters, and left there for diners to help themselves. It's a style of eating that makes perfect sense in the age of the supper club, and all those new restaurants specialising in doing one thing exceedingly well – steak, fried chicken, meatballs (oh hang on, don't mention meatballs). The modern diner, so the thinking goes, is exhausted and paralysed by too much choice. Just sit down here on this unforgiving pew, and let us bring you something lovely.
And so we did. And the food was really excellent. Ox tongue, braised and fried into crisp little fritters, with a dab of salsa verde; Welsh rarebit so fine it made us forgive them for serving us cheese on toast when we were paying for a babysitter. Then fish – delicate, Cornish hot-smoked mackerel with the lightest celeriac remoulade. The centrepiece, Denham estate lamb, came on a vintage platter, in two cuts – sweet, pink folds of leg, and strips of salty, fatty belly. A heady braise of red cabbage galvanised the whole dish and almost eclipsed the meat. In an authentically 19th-century touch, green veg were entirely absent from the meal, although vegetarians are offered separate options.
There was some serious sniffing and swirling going on around us; the chefs at the next table were clearly appreciating the wine as much as the food. The pricing structure adds a flat £5 to the off-sales price, meaning the more expensive the wine, the better the value. We splurged £40 on a 2009 Chateau Santayme from the 'collector's list', which worked well right through to the pudding, a perfect chocolate tart, dark and dense, with praline hazelnuts and clotted cream.
The welcome is equally warm for everyone, but the Quality Chop House is probably best suited for people who really care about what they eat and drink, and want to do it in the company of others who feel the same. This isn't the place to come and order a Diet Coke or a glass of pinot grigio, and the no-choice dinner option isn't going to suit the faddy. But the charm, and the general sense of ease and generosity make it the perfect synthesis of the ancient and the modern. It may not be strong on comfort, but the whole place is an absolute joy. E
Quality Chop House, 92 Farringdon Road, London EC1 (020-7278 1452). Dinner: four-course set menu £35 a head. Chop and glass of wine: £13
Tipping policy: 'Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary. All service charge and tips go to the staff'
Side orders: Born again
Walnut Tree Inn
Since Shaun Hill re-opened this classic restaurant in 2007, it has gone from strength to strength. Current mains include Dover sole with lobster boudin (£26).
Abergavenny, Wales (01873 852797)
This glamorous Soho institution opened its doors again this year under the stewardship of Jeremy Lee and the Hart brothers; a pre-theatre dinner is £17.50.
26-29 Dean Street, London W1 (020-7437 9585)
This local hero has undergone a more casual makeover; the modern European cuisine is more affordable, too.
94 Church Road, London SW13 (020-8748 0393)
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