Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Advice Manuals - Dinners and Diners, by Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, 1899 - Chapter 5 - Simpson's

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CHAPTER V

SIMPSON’S

THE battle-painter and I were walking down the Strand, uncertain where to lunch, when just by the theatrical bookshop a man in a shabby suit of tweed and a billycock hat, drawn rather low down on his forehead, passed us quickly, looking into our faces for a second as he did so. “It’s Smith,” said the battle-painter. “Poor fellow!”
   
It was the man we had been talking about only that morning, the good fellow who had been at school with me, who had made a voyage on board a P. and O. in which both the battle- painter and I had gone out to India, and had been the life and soul of the ship; with whom we had spent a week in his station on the Bombay side, and who had come on a return visit to me in the Punjab when the battle-painter honoured me with his company at the quiet little garrison where I was quartered at the time. We knew he had left his cavalry regiment, and had heard vaguely that he had come to grief through some financial smash. Here was our [-32-] man, and we turned at once and went after him.
   
“I didn’t think you fellows would know me in this kit,” he said, when we caught him up and laid friendly hands on him. “Most people don’t seem over-anxious to recognise me now.” He certainly did not look flourishing, though he had the smart carriage of the soldier about him, was as carefully shaved, and his light moustache as carefully trimmed, as if he were going on parade, and had the old buoyancy of manner. “Where will you come and lunch with us?” we both asked in a breath. “It’s my dinner hour now,” he told us, and somehow there was a touch of pathos in the way he said it. We proposed the Savoy grill-room to him, or Romano’s across the way; but he said that, if we were anxious that he should come and eat with us, he would sooner have a cut from the saddle of mutton at Simpson’s than anything else.
   
We turned back and went into the entrance to the old-fashioned eating-place, with its imita­tion marble columns, its coloured tile floor, its trees in tubs, and its two placards on either side, one announcing that a dinner from the joint is to be had for 2s. 6d., and the other that a fish dinner for 2s. 9d. is served from 12.30 P.M. to 8.30 P.M. Smith changed his mind. The last fish dinner he had eaten was at Greenwich more than half a dozen years ago, when he had asked a party of thirty down to celebrate an invest­ment that was going to make his fortune, and if we didn’t mind he would eat another now.
   
[-33-] We took three seats at the end of one of the tables in the downstairs room. Smith looked round with an air of recognition. Nothing had changed, he said, since the days when he used to come to get a cut from the joint after a day’s racing. And, indeed, Simpson’s does not look like a place that changes. The big dumb­waiter in the centre of the room, almost as tall as a catafalque, with its burden of glasses and decanters, and four plated wine-coolers, one at each corner as ornament, the divisions with brass rails and little curtains that run down one side of the room ; the horsehair-stuffed, black-cushioned chairs and lounges, the mirrors on one side of the room and ground-glass windows on the other; the painted garlands of flowers and fish and flesh and fowl, mellowed by age and London smoke, that fill up the vacant spaces on the wall, the ormolu clocks, the decoratively folded napkins in glasses on the mantelpieces, the hats and coats hanging in the room, the screen with many time-tables on it, the great bar window opening into the room, framing a depth of luminous shadow, all are old-fashioned. Only the two great candelabra that stand, a dozen feet high, on either side of the room have been modernised.
   
The waiters at Simpson’s are Britannic and have that dignity which sits so well on the chair­man of a company addressing his shareholders, or an M.P. entertaining his constituents, or the genuine English waiter taking an order. It is an undefinable majesty; but it exists.
   
Rubicund gentlemen of portly figure, dressed [-34-] in white, the carvers, leisurely push carving dishes, with plated covers, running on wheels, from customer to customer.
   
A benignant waiter with a grey beard had stood and accepted our order, which was, to begin with, turbot and sauce; and while with becoming dignity he conveyed the news to one of the white-coated gentlemen, Smith gave us a résumé of his history since we had all three parted at a railway station in the Punjab. He had almost been a millionaire, he had ridden as a trooper in a squadron of American cavalry, he had fought in Matabeleland, he had tried gold-mining without success; and now he was going this afternoon down to the City to meet a man who was going to finance a marvellous invention of his, and presently he would make the fortunes of the battle-painter and myself. The battle-painter and myself smiled, and fell-to on our turbot and its rubicund sauce, for we knew Smith of old. A fine big slice of firm turbot it was, but I fancy the sauce owed its deep colour and some of its substance to the artistic methods of the cook. Next Smith voted for a fried sole, while the battle-painter and I ordered stewed eels, and as the first bottle of Liebfraumilch, which Smith had preferred to any other wine or spirit, was getting near low-water mark, I asked our waiter, who somewhat resembled the ex-Speaker, to bring us another. Smith having for the moment exhausted his historical reminiscences, we could look round at our neighbours. Half a dozen country gentlemen up to see the shire-horses at Islington, most of them confining [-35-] their attention to those saddles of mutton which are the pride of Simpson’s, a barrister or two, the good-looking husband of a popular actress, and four or five well-known bookmakers, for Simpson’s is essentially sporting. Then our eels and the sole were brought. Smith said the sole was excellent; and except that I like my sauce with the eel a little richer than I got it at Simpson’s, neither the battle-painter nor myself could find the slightest cause to grumble. The Liebfraumilch was pleasant and soft, and we were in the best of tempers when the whitebait, a trifle large, and the salmon for Smith—salmon which looked beautiful, and which we both secretly envied—arrived. A little group of men who bore the stamp of racing men about them had congregated round the bar window while we had been at table, and were being attended to by a rosy- faced maiden. Cheese and celery we paid but little attention to, for Smith, now quite the cheery, confident cavalryman of old, said that he must not miss his appointment in the City, but that when the splendid fortune that was in his grasp came to him he would give the battle-painter and myself, in return for our mid-day meal, a dinner at the Savoy that would outdo the celebrated rouge-et-noir one. It was pleasant to see the good fellow himself again, and we wished him success in his venture. Then, after seeing him off, we paid the bill. Dinner, 8s. 6d. (Smith’s salmon was 3d. extra); two Liebfraumilch, 12s.; attendance, 9d. ; total, £1:1:3.
   
Afterwards the battle-painter and myself went upstairs into the ladies’ dining-room, a fine [-36-] room, which is lighter and fresher than the gentlemen’s dining-room below, and there we had coffee and chatted with Charles Flowerdew, the head waiter, one of the real head waiters as they knew them in the old days, and listened to his stories and took a pinch of snuff out of his presentation snuff- box. And here Mr. Crathie, tall, clean-shaved, except for narrow side whiskers, with a white head of hair in which a ruddy tint still lingers, found us, and under his guidance we went farther upstairs and peeped. through the glass doors into the room where half a dozen games of chess were being played. Mr. Crathie, who has been proprietor and, later, managing director of Simpson’s for half a long lifetime, told us something of the history of the place, how it originally con­sisted only of a cigar-shop on the ground floor and the chess divan above, how he purchased it and formed it into a small company, and how now a larger company was to have control of it.
   
Before we left the old-fashioned house, about which the steam of saddles of mutton seems to cling, we looked in on the Knights of the Round Table, who have their club- room at Simpson’s, who possess a wonderful collection of portraits of past worthies of the club, and a unique book of playbills, whose motto is, “I will go eat with thee and see your Knights,” and who once a week dine together off plain English food at the round table, one piece of mahogany, from which they draw their name.
   
1st March.

[-37-] *** Since I wrote the above, Simpson’s has been acquired by a company which has also taken over The Golden Cross Hotel, Trafalgar Square. The old place has in no way been altered by its new masters, who believe in letting well alone. Charles Flowerdew has left the upper room, and retired with, I trust, a comfortable competency ; but William, who for many years was head waiter at the Cock, and has as fine a store of reminiscences as any old­fashioned waiter to be found in London, now serves in the lower room, and is in himself a mine of amusing information.