‘Do you want a sausage with that?’ So chipped the waiter. He was splay–bearded, like a sergeant major in the Pioneer Corps. His apron was like a bed sheet. The question of the optional sausage is the clarion cry at Simpsons Tavern, Cornhill. Everyone is offered one; no matter what they order.
This venerable old City institution first opened in 1757. Generous, busy and noisy; the conviviality of this old chop house is infectious. People sit elbow to elbow in conspiratorial wooden booths. The place was a favourite of Charles Dickens and it is hard not to feel the big-hearted warmth of the great man settle around you, as you nudge and laugh with your guests.
There were four of us. Our waiter was as arch in his advice as the sagacious boots Sam Weller. My friend Christian ordered the mixed grill – steak, sausage, mushrooms and egg. ‘Can I have an extra sausage, with my sausage?’
‘Another one for luck?…course you can sir.’
I asked for the thick Georgian Chop. ‘Sausage with that?’. I agreed that it seemed to be a very good idea. ‘Wise choice sir,’ he replied with a wink. I nodded, glad that I had done something right.
‘Steak pie for me,’ said Oliver.
‘Sausage?’ enquired the waiter.
‘Absolutely,’ said Oliver. He had been to Simpsons before.
‘A man of discernment,’ replied he of the big beard as he carefully recorded the sausages in his notebook.
JP called for liver and bacon…and a sausage. Off went the waiter with a laugh, a bustle and a sense of great purpose.
For starters we had smoked salmon, crispy pork belly, onion soup and chicken terrine. All came precise and unadorned. My salmon was as good as it is at the Travellers Club, and that’s nigh on perfect. We settled in to glasses of good house claret and with the winter sun slanting across our table we began to feel that sense of balance you get when you know everything will be alright for a couple of hours.
My Georgian Chop was a trencherman’s delight, as thick as a phone book. It had a salty grilled crust, a moist interior and a fine porky tang.. This was complimented by a large bosky wood mushroom. More claret. Our waiter had suggested sides of bubble and squeak, mash, spinach and chips. It quickly became a free for all. Forks everywhere. This was the kind of food an Englishman carries as a genetic memory – stalwart , well served , well seasoned (I hate to use the term) ‘fare.’ There was gravy on chins and claret on ties. You need a big appetite at Simpsons, but we all finished our optional sausages.
In our rose-tinted shallows of claret we ordered toasted cheese, apple pie and stilton. The toasted cheese was a cosy fireside, savoury sort of a dish. The kind of thing Ebeneezer Scrooge would have made if he had known what was good for him, instead of fussing with his meagre gruel.
At 3.30 we uttered out into the passage in search of the few other living relics of Dickensian London. At 250 years old Simpsons Tavern is a reminder of a London before Italian trattoria, Bangladeshi curry houses and fussy sushi bars. For fulsome, good food, hugger-mugger seating, extra sausages and the jolliest service Simpsons is without doubt the friendliest eatery in London. Go there.
Simpson’s Tavern can be found at 38 1/2 Cornhill, London EC3V 9DR
By Steven O’Brien