Although not a reason in and of itself to fork out big money on dinner, in a market as volatile as London’s, there’s a certain auspice to a restaurant that has stood for generations. To do so, an establishment necessarily must eschew faddism in favour of a focus on the things that diners essentially want; good food, efficient service and an agreeable atmosphere. So for a restaurant to continue to thrive centuries after it opened its doors (see: Wilton’s), it’s safe to assume it’s delivering on at least two of those promises. This class of restaurant is rarely the most innovative, but in a Michelin star/Instagram fame-hungry world that continues to incubate gimmicks and reward fads, traditional English restaurants are often pleasingly immune to frivolity and can satisfy our palates in ways others often fail to.Read More
10 of London’s Oldest Restaurants Worth a Visit
The timeless classics that have played host to generations of diners
Based in the Grade II listed Albert Buildings in the city of London, London’s oldest seafood restaurant — established in 1889 — can tell a good anecdote or two. To wit: apparently south London gangster George Francis once offered one-time owner George Needham £1,000,000 in cash for the restaurant. More notable for current purposes are the fine shellfish (oysters, potted shrimps, for example) and quaintly British puddings. The signature beverage — a Sweetings Black Velvet (Guinness and champagne) — has many fans, including Fergus Henderson, who was inspired to propose to his wife after quaffing one.
Having begun life as an oyster stall in 1742 before it’s establishment in St James in the 1840s, Wilton’s proudly announced in 2017 that it was older than America — a nice detail in its rich history. Olaf Hambro (a forbear to the current owners) had the restaurant added to his bill after a bomb fell nearby while he was eating there in 1942. A “no phones” policy makes this one of the most discreet restaurants for its elite clientele, but with a set three-course set menu available for under £40, the game and seafood dishes Wilton’s is known for are also some of the most accessible in town.
Rules Restaurant & Private Dining Rooms
Established in 1798, Rule’s is regarded as London’s oldest restaurant. The interior is as brilliantly brash as anyone could hope for — garlanded in red and gold, a Margaret Thatcher illustration here, a nude Britannia there. Expect fresh oysters, game and pies, with most produce coming from the restaurant’s own estates. Pro tip: head to the excellent upstairs bar, run by Brian Silva (the most proper barman in the city), drink whatever he decides to offer, and eat scotch quail’s eggs or Dorset crab salad.
Simpson's in the Strand
Opened in 1828 as one of London’s decadent chess and cigar rooms, Simpson’s is known for its roasts — to this day, wheeled around and carved up on big silver trays — and ‘traditional’ English comfort food. Last July, current owners the Savoy conducted a head-to-toe refurb, to the dismay of some. Gone are some of the more tired menu options, courtesy of new chef William Hemming shaking things up a bit in the kitchen, with more modish inclusions coming to the fore, like smoked egg yolk to accompany a tartare, or fresh cheeses from Tottenham-based producer Wildes. The biggest changes, however, are to the interior, now more ostentatious than austere; think red leather banquettes, a grand piano, and chandeliers.
Opened in 1867 by Auguste Kettner — chef to Napoleon III — Kettner’s has attracted the likes of Oscar Wilde, Agatha Christie and Bing Crosby over the years. It has changed hands and guises in drastic fashion in its life time — including a period as a Pizza Express — most recently relaunching under the direction of the Soho House group. Despite the questionable nature of a venue that proclaims to be “all about affordable glamour” (Nick Jones, ladies and gentlemen), many listed features, including the mosaic floor in the champagne bar, have been restored tastefully. If history is anything to go by, Kettner’s will long outlast this latest incarnation too, so those of the Jay Rayner persuasion need not fret. Sadly, only the Champagne Bar remains open to the public.
Opened in 1926 by the grandson of an English army general and an Indian princess, Veerswarmy — now London’s oldest Indian restaurant — was an instant hit with the upper classes. After being sold in 1997 to Ranjit Mathrani and Namitha Panjabi (who also own Masala Zone), much of the maharaja-inspired palatial opulence, which first attracted the likes of Winston Churchill to the restaurant, was restored. The traditional recipes from Punjab, Goa, Lucknow, and Kashmir, earned Veeraswamy a Michelin star in 2016.
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Established in 1917 as an unlicensed Italian café, The Ivy expanded into its current site in 1923, quickly becoming an institution for the highbrow theatre set, including regulars Laurence Olivier and Noel Coward. Having passed through many hands — Corbin and King bought it in the late 80s, Richard Caring has been the owner since 2005 — The Ivy experienced a decline in favour, before benefitting from a makeover in 2015. It didn’t just get a rather impressive art deco bar, but a new menu too — with Asian-influenced dishes rubbing shoulders with the classics (shepherd’s pie, sausage and mash) for which it is so loved.
Boulestin’s name has a history dating to 1927, when French anglophile X.Marcel Boulestin (variously bon viveur, chef, food writer, and first ever TV chef) opened the founding establishment in Covent Garden. Restaurateur Joel Kissin has attempted to revive Boulestin’s ethos in the current site, opened 2013, even going so far as to use the original Boulestin’s cookbooks for inspiration, and trying to replicate the hospitality the founder was known for. He was an experimental chef, too, known for enjoying Irish and Indian food, so expect more than French classics on the menu here.
An early 90s Mayfair icon which thrived under the stewardship of Sir Terence Conrad, the food at Quaglino’s was never as celebrated as was the perceived glamour associated with being seen there, and the champagne. Now part of the D&D portfolio, who purchased the restaurant from Sir Conrad in 2007, Quaglino’s had an update to its current form in 2014. For food, expect a touch of retro (in the form of a seafood cocktail, say), a healthy focus on “British” classics (thyme roasted chicken, or pan fried cod) and the odd foray into something a little more adventurous. Nevertheless, like many others in this list, it’s about more than the food — the 80s decor and live entertainment makes this a genuinely transporting experience.
Simpson’s Tavern is probably the least celebrated restaurant in this list, yet its apparent obscurity is a big part of its charm — as is the “would you like sausage with that?” that is sure to follow any interaction with waitstaff. Often referred to as a Victorian chop house, Simpsons was in fact established in the time of that monarch’s grandfather, in 1757. Now a grade-II listed pub/restaurant, the restaurant serves Bass beer and English classics, including calves liver and bacon, Edwardian pork chop, and Gammon and tomato, to shared tables and church pews. Friendly and inexpensive, there are few places in London to better catch a glimpse of a bygone era.
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