“Simpson’s-in-the-Strand is one of London’s oldest traditional English restaurants.
An earlier building on the site was the Fountain Tavern, home to the celebrated literary group the Kit-Cat Club, but this was replaced by Samuel Reiss’s Grand Cigar Divan (Oxford Languages: late 16th century (in divan (sense 3 of the noun)): via French or Italian from Turkish dīvān, from Persian dīwān ‘anthology, register, court, or bench’) which opened in 1828. The establishment soon developed as a coffee house, where gentlemen smoked cigars with their coffee, browsed over the daily journals and newspapers, indulged in lengthy conversations about the politics of the day and played chess, sitting on comfortable divans or sofas. Regular visitors would pay one guinea a year for the use of the facilities and cups of coffee. The daily entrance fee for others was 6d (2½p), or 1/6d (7½p) with coffee and a cigar.
Chess matches were played against other coffee houses in the town, with top-hatted runners carrying the news of each move. The Grand Cigar Divan soon became recognised as the home of chess in England. Today, one of Simpson’s original chess sets is displayed in the Bishop’s Room.
In 1848, Reiss joined forces with the caterer John Simpson (1808 or 09–1864) to expand the premises, renaming it “Simpson’s Grand Divan Tavern”. It was soon established as one of the top London restaurants, becoming a popular attraction with patrons including Charles Dickens, William Ewart Gladstone, and Benjamin Disraeli. Simpson introduced the practice of wheeling large joints of meat on silver dinner trolleys to each table and carving them in front of guests – a custom that still prevails today. The establishment flourished: in the 1851 census, the Cigar Divan’s premises were home to the tavern keeper, the manager, and 21 staff. The restaurant was, according to the Baedeker guide for 1866, a “large well-appointed establishment”.
Shortly before his death in 1864, John Simpson sold the restaurant to Edmund William Cathie, and in 1865 the business was floated as a limited company. A prospectus was issued for “Simpson’s (Ltd)” with capital of £100,000 (equivalent to £9,904,831 as of 2019), to purchase and extend the Divan Tavern. The prospectus stressed the great increase in trade caused by the opening of Charing Cross station nearby, and that Cathie would remain as manager. He employed the British Master Cook, Thomas Davey, who rose through the ranks to head his kitchens. Davey insisted on the thorough and consistent Britishness of Simpson’s. He even replaced the word “menu” with “Bill of Fare”.
In 1898 Richard D’Oyly Carte, proprietor of the Savoy Hotel, acquired Simpson’s. Carte died in 1901, and his son Rupert D’Oyly Carte took over the business from 1903, in which year Simpsons was closed for redevelopment. All the old furniture and fittings were sold off, including the largest solid mahogany table in existence, 265 chairs, and 60 other mahogany dining tables. The restaurant reopened in 1904 under the name it bears today, Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, Grand Divan Tavern…
In The Guns of Navarone, David Niven’s character leans over his wounded, dying companion and tells him that when he recovers, they will return to London and go straight to Simpson’s to have roast beef. In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage, characters lunch at Simpson’s. In E. M. Forster’s Howards End, Henry Wilcox is a devotee of Simpson’s. Simpson’s also features in the Sherlock Holmes stories, including “The Illustrious Client” and “The Adventure of the Dying Detective”, which concludes with Holmes’ words: “I think that something nutritious at Simpson’s would not be out of place.”
P. G. Wodehouse devoted several paragraphs of Something New to the restaurant, and in his novel Psmith in the City, his two heroes dine there: “Psmith waited for Mike while he changed, and carried him off in a cab to Simpson’s, a restaurant which, as he justly observed, offered two great advantages, namely, that you need not dress, and, secondly, that you paid your half-crown, and were then at liberty to eat till you were helpless, if you felt so disposed, without extra charge.” Simpson’s is also featured in Wodehouse’s “Cocktail Time” as the restaurant that one of the characters, Cosmo Wisdom, chooses to lunch at after leaving prison.”
Jay Rayner wrote in a review for The Guardian of 10.12.17:
“…Some of the food back then looked like the best kind of leftovers…– and the rest was what school dinners hope to be when they grow up.
The old Simpson’s laughed in the face of modernity. I didn’t love it back then because it was totally brilliant. I loved it because it had a sense of itself, and did what it did very well indeed…I talked then of veteran waiters who were there not to please you, but for you not to disappoint them.
…now it’s reopened. It no longer smells of old food. The saggy seating has been replaced with genuinely comfortable booths and banquettes. The staff are polite. For comedic effect I could now declare it a disaster, but these are, of course, the good things about the relaunch. A cheery, enthusiastic waiter is a delight, and the new Simpson’s is full of them.
The problem is the food. They’ve worked exceptionally hard to revive and refresh it and in so doing have lost everything that made the place what it was. They talk on their website of chefs cooking “with the hand of history on their shoulder”. It would have been better if history had been standing over them shouting: “Stop it! Stop it now! For God’s sake, just do it like they always used to do it!”
…The new Simpson’s is no longer even open for breakfast. Says it all, really.”