London’s most old-fashioned restaurants

This originally appeared in Food & Wine magazine. They’ve made a fancy slideshow out of it.

I read a review recently of Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, a restaurant that opened in 1850, in which the writer described the restaurant as “old-fashioned.” It went on to say: “Simpson’s does not look like a place that changes.” That could have been written yesterday—but is actually from 1899. The reviewer, Lieutenant-Colonel Newnham-Davis (how many restaurants reviewers nowadays have a military rank?), went on to say: “carvers. . . leisurely push carving dishes, with plated covers, running on wheels, from customer to customer.” Simpson’s is a bit faded round the edges now but in the wood paneled-dining room, white-coated waiters still push huge joints of roast beef around on trolleys.  

In a city such as London, with its vibrant culinary scene, it’s easy to get swept up in the new, in pop-ups and food trucks, in Instagram-friendly dishes and on-trend vegetables, and forget about the familiar faces. So I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the city’s longest-established restaurants. The places I’ve chosen aren’t just old, they are like stepping back in time.

First stop is the 1970s. The menu at Maggie Jones behind Kensington High Street in West London has not changed in 40 years. There’s prawn cocktail, duck pate and chicken in tarragon sauce. The prices have barely budged either, with starters at £6 ($9), mains at £9 ($13) and £4 ($6) for a glass of wine. Best of all, they bring the wine bottle to your table and charge you by how much you drink. It’s a rabbit warren inside with tables in little nooks and crannies. All the couples look like they’re having affairs.

Also inhabiting the 1970s but rather more upmarket is Oslo Court in St John’s Wood, North West London. Again, the menu is a time warp that includes veal holstein, duck a l’orange and beef wellington. The interior is a riot of pastel. It’s a great place to take deaf relatives as there’s so much sound absorbing fabric. The napkins alone could be used to soundproof a small recording studio.

These places are mere babies compared with the daddy of London restaurants, Rules in Covent Garden, which was founded in 1798. The interior is gentleman’s club heaven with thick carpets, old paintings and dark wood. The wood-paneled private dining rooms are particularly convivial and you get your own personal waiter for the evening. Unlike Simpsons, which is considered a bit of a tourist trap, Rules has never really gone out of fashion. It’s still popular with actors from the nearby theaters, politicians, and anyone with a bit of money to splash around. The thing to order here is game such as pheasant, rabbit and grouse.

A short walk away is J. Sheekey’s fish restaurant, founded in 1893. Try to eat in the wood-paneled (are you detecting a theme here?) dining room rather than at the bar for the full old-fashioned experience. Along with Scott’s and Wilton’s both in Mayfair, Sheekey’s makes up the holy trinity of West End fish restaurants. Both Sheekey’s and Scott’s are part of the Caprice group and their menus have been updated somewhat, but Wilton’s is still resolutely traditional. It began as a shellfish store in 1742, and though it’s moved around a lot since then and has only been at its current address on Jermyn Street since 1984, it has the air of an unchanging institution. The lobster and crab omelet is legendary.

Also famous for its seafood is Sweetings in the City, which has been going since 1830.  Only open at lunchtime, the regular clientele are largely bankers, lawyers and stock brokers, and the prices reflect this (none of these places I’ve mentioned so far except Maggie Jones are anything but very expensive.) Dover sole and oysters are the specialties – washed down with pints of Black Velvet, a mixture of Guinness and champagne served in pewter tankards – but it’s also famous for traditional heavy puddings.

The first Indian restaurant in London, the Hindoostane Coffee House, opened in 1810. It didn’t survive, unfortunately, but Veeraswamy, which opened in 1926, has prospered. Sadly the premises just off Regent Street, largely unchanged until the 1990s, have had a number of makeovers since then—as has the menu. The current look is best described as colonial bling. The food can be very good, but I feel that it’s lost some of its history. Instead, for the ultimate old Anglo-Indian experience, go to the India Club in the Strand Continental Hotel. It was founded in 1946 and not much has changed since then.  The threadbare white ocean liner style jackets worn by the waiters look like they were made when the place first opened. The food is delicious: good lamb bhuna, great dosas and chapatis. Added bonus: it’s very cheap and you can bring your own drink, as they don’t sell alcohol.  

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, used to meet Edwina Mountbatton, wife of the last Viceroy of India, for very friendly meals at the India Club. They are rumoured to have been lovers. It sits almost next door to Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. The two restaurants may be a world away in price, but they share a similar grandeur. As long as they sit in the Strand, London will still be in touch with its culinary roots. Last January, however, management at the Savoy Hotel, which owns the Simpson’s building, announced that it was looking for a new tenant to open a more modern restaurant. It seems that over 150 years of history will soon be coming to an end.  At the moment Simpson’s is still there, but the staff don’t know for how long. Go before it’s too late.  I heartily recommend the steak and kidney pudding.


About Henry

I’m a drinks writer. My day job is features editor at the Master of Malt blog. I also contribute to BBC Good Food, the Spectator and others. You can read some of my work here. I’ve done a bit of radio, given some talks and written a couple of books (Empire of Booze, The Home Bar and the forthcoming Cocktail Dictionary).
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