London Corners: Simpson’s, Kettner’s & Rules
There is only one Simpson’s and it’s not yellow. There used to be two – the other, Simpson’s of Piccadilly was a gents’ outfitters (as they used to be called). It’s the building with invisible glass that became the Waterstones flagship store. Simpson’s-In-The-Strand belongs to a different world, and is at the Aldwych end of the Strand. It’s rather forgotten which is a shame, because the hushed, high-end venue has been there since 1828, when it opened as a coffee house and chess club. In fact, that’s the reason why it’s still hushed. It was to avoid disturbing the championship chess players that the idea of placing large joints of meat under silver-domed trolleys and wheeling them to guests’ tables first came into being (and they still do it).
The rooms are terribly grand, the cuisine English, and their site hilariously roll-calls the names of some of their dining guests, including, quote; ‘Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Gladstone, Disraeli and Sherlock Holmes.’
What less well-known is that they serve a killer breakfast at a bloody good price, and you can always get in. They also run carving classes.
Kettner’s Restaurant was originally a series of four Georgian town houses, and was first opened as a restaurant by Auguste Kettner, the chef to Napoleon III, in 1867. It has survived four kings and a queen, the blitz, and was popular with Oscar Wilde (who had liaisons in the private rooms), Edward VII, Lillie Langtry, Agatha Christie and Bing Crosby. It once hosted risqué parties and landed on its uppers in the 1980s when, despite its opulent surroundings it became a pizza/burger bar. Perhaps the location was a problem – Romilly Street, Soho, opposite a car park – although its champagne bar remained unpretentious. Its waiters sang (sometimes annoyingly) through luncheon, and I liked that the gentlemen’s urinals had glass plates angles over one’s shows (the last time I went they had gone).
But it has always seemed unfashionable and ill-defined – the building is large but seems unable to decide what it wants to be – so despite its longevity it has never recovered its image as a fashionable venue, and staggers on.
Rules, on the other hand, had a more salubrious history. In the year that Napoleon opened his campaign in Egypt, Thomas Rule promised his despairing family that he would say goodbye to his wayward past and settle down. No sooner said than he opened an oyster bar in Convent Garden. To the surprise and disbelief of his family, the enterprise proved to be not only successful but lasting.
Contemporary writers were soon singing the praises of Rules’ “porter, pies and oysters”, and remarking on the “rakes, dandies and superior intelligence’s who comprise its clientele”. Rules still flourishes, and is the oldest restaurant in London.
In over 200 years, spanning the reigns of nine monarchs, it has been owned by only three families. Just before The Great War, Charles Rule, a descendant of the founder, was thinking of moving to Paris; he met Tom Bell, a Briton who owned a Parisian restaurant called the Alhambra, and the two men decided to swap businesses. In 1984 Tom Bell’s daughter sold Rules to John Mayhew, the present owner. Today Rules seats around 90 people and employs 90 staff .
Rules specialises in classic game cookery, oysters, pies and puddings, and owns an estate in the High Pennines which supplies training in game management for the staff.
The tables of Rules have been crowded with writers, artists, lawyers, journalists and actors. As well as being frequented by great literary talents – including Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, John Galsworthy and H G Wells – Rules has also appeared in novels by Rosamond Lehmann, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, John Le Carré, Dick Francis, Penelope Lively and Claire Rayner.
Rules has also been an unofficial Green Room for the world of entertainment from Henry Irving to Laurence Olivier, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin and John Barrymore. It’s still going strong.
Londoners tend to forget that all three restaurants are still there in these times of bling high-altitude restaurants and fire stations-cum-celebrity hellholes.