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Along with Rules (est. 1798) and Wiltons (1840), 189-year-old Simpson’s comprises a holy trinity of Empire-era, Rule Britannia British dining. It has just re-opened after a spruce-up, and entering the stained-glass and tiled lobby is like stepping into the booking hall of a gothic Victorian railway station. The dining room itself (or ‘Grand Divan’, to give it its proper title) is even more of a spectacle, a Grade II-listed showstopper of lustrous wood panelling and wedding-cake plaster moulding, oil paintings and leather banquettes, illuminated by chandeliers (there is no natural light) and, minus the cigar smoke, immediately recognisable to former patrons Charles Dickens and Winston Churchill. The food (from a British ‘bill of fare’ rather than a French ‘menu’) has been gently updated for modern appetites, losing some of its trencherman appeal along the way. A prettily presented pulled ham-hock salad, artfully arranged beef Wellington and a light gooseberry trifle all seemed aimed more at guests from the neighbouring Savoy (of which Simpsons is part) than Billy Bunter-ish City gents, although gently warmed potted shrimps to spread onto toast and sirloin with a slab of mushroom were in the comfort food tradition of old. And we were surprised that for a restaurant that prides itself on its trolley service (roast beef and Yorkshire pud, cocktails mixed tableside), the cheese selection turned out to be five pre-plated slices, presented without explanation. Overall, with Simpson’s-branded mustard and horseradish available to buy on the way out, we left with the impression that this is heritage-trail dining rather than a piece of living history.
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