It’s a forlorn picture: the black and gold sign reading “Simpson’s Tavern” dates the establishment of this storied City of London eatery all the way back to 1757.
The chophouse — said to have been frequented by Dickens and beloved of lunching financiers in the centuries since — has survived fire and flood, wars and plague. It even endured its period of closure during the height of Covid-19 but, in a shock plot twist, its proprietors were suddenly evicted last month after being unable to meet the landlord’s demands for back rent and sundry amounts dating back to the pandemic. If the heavy wooden doors are ever to reopen, the tavern must raise £385,000 to resurrect itself — barely even a bonus cheque for many of those working within a half-mile radius.
Simpson’s, housed just a stone throw from the Bank of England, is a City staple. Its entrance at 38½ Cornhill is reached via a narrow alleyway hidden between grand buildings, a London secret if ever there was one. This was Nigel Farage’s regular lunchtime haunt, and where he chose as the venue for his Lunch with the FT (consumed over the course of six pints, a bottle of wine and two glasses of port). Long before his political career took off, this is where the original Brexiter hung out with his former London Metal Exchange mates.
Farage would typically take one of Simpson’s signature long, hard pews, usually upstairs, with a group of close male friends, tucking into “Edwardian pork chop” or possibly the mixed grill, with a serving of the house special, “stewed cheese” either as starter or dessert. Bizarrely, the long-serving waiting staff would also offer an optional sausage with each main course.
But while Farage has joined the long list of dedicated patrons calling for Simpson’s to be saved, the fundraising effort is going slowly. According to Simpson’s manager Ben Duggan, the landlord Tavor Holdings has demanded full payment of all arrears rather than allowing the business to pay off its dues gradually. Tavor is Bermuda-based, using agents Hartnell Taylor Cook to handle a possible sale of the property, with the help of solicitors Memery Crystal.
Who owns or controls Tavor is hidden behind a Jersey trusteeship. The UK’s new economic transparency rules now require the mandatory declaration of beneficial ownership of property. The deadline for this is January 2023: too late for Simpson’s supporters.
You can almost hear the ghosts of these old City alleyways working up a petition — the local councillor has applied to have the institution listed as an asset of community value and the MP tweeted that she had demanded a meeting with the landlord. But even several centuries worth of signatures might not work.
It is the ultimate irony that this, one of the City’s oldest eateries, has fallen victim to the capriciousness of market forces. In a “heartbroken” statement explaining the forced closure, Simpson’s team boast about being “woven into the City’s DNA”. “The tables elbows rest on, in our booths, are from the underwriting room of Lloyds 2nd room and were soaked in its ink and now the Claret from generations of Brokers, underwriters, and agents,” it reads.
Developers have already ravaged so much of the Square Mile, with many of the original interiors of its buildings stripped off and sold to architectural salvage yards to make way for the glass and steel of chain sandwich shops.
What’s next on the chopping block? Not Sweetings, I hope. My lunch venue of choice boasts it is “probably” the City’s oldest fish restaurant and has a similar pedigree to that of Simpson’s. Warm wooden surfaces, familiar portraits on the walls, simple fresh food and service from a loyal brigade of staff who have been cheerfully attending to the same customers for maybe a decade or three.