A tourist’s day out in London is likely to involve a trip to a museum, a guided tour, or a spot of sight-seeing.
But with restaurants that date back centuries, you may find that sitting down for some roast beef or fish and chips to be equally illuminating about the capital’s past.
Take a short walk around central London, and the chances are high you’ll be near an iconic eatery frequented by the great and good of British history.
Serving seafood to the British public since 1742, Wiltons can proudly call itself London’s oldest restaurant. From humble beginnings selling oysters to tradesmen from a market stall, Wiltons has risen to esteemed status as one of the capital’s most exclusive establishments. The forties were definitive decades in Wiltons’ almost three centuries of service. In 1742, George William Wilton stocked his barrow with oysters at the Haymarket for the first time. In 1840, a beer and wine licence facilitated the creation of a fully-fledged seafood restaurant. And in 1942, a Luftwaffe bomb came close to destroying it.
In 1984, Wiltons moved to Jermyn Street, its current location – a renowned London street which at different times had housed eminent historical figures such as Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Walter Scott, William Gladstone, and W.M Thackeray. Now associated with high-end fashion, haberdasheries, and restaurants, the move to Jermyn Street ensured Wiltons’ clientele remains exclusive, and its menu expensive.
Described by P. G. Wodehouse as “a restful temple of food”, Simpson’s in the Strand is a London institution. Now part of the world-renowned Savoy Hotel, Simpson’s has served its signature roasts, and insisted on the term ‘Bill of Fare’ rather than ‘menu’, for over 170 years. Simpson’s in the Strand opened in 1848 but the site was an 18th-century meeting place for the Kit-Cat Club, a group of influential Whigs that included Sir Robert Walpole, John Locke, and the Duke of Somerset.
After a refurbishment in 2020, the restaurant now has an ostentatious glamour. After another refurbishment in 2020, the restaurant now has an ostentatious glamour. Leather banquettes and chandeliers complement high ceilings to produce an aura of decadence.
One of London’s first French restaurants when it opened its doors in 1867, Kettner’s has been a favourite haunt for writers, politicians, theatregoers, and even the Royal family for generations. Now reimagined as a 33-room hotel with Grade II-listed bars, Kettner’s unique legacy lives on. Kettner’s was opened in 1867 by August Kettner, a German chef rumoured to have been directly employed by Napoleon III. Located in a part of Soho of fairly low repute at the time, the restaurant was expected to have a short-lived existence until an 1879 letter published in The Times extolled the virtues of Kettner’s cooking, swinging the tide of public support.
With three more townhouses added to the original four, the 33-room hotel now includes Grade II-listed bars, and a suite with private entrance. While the Champagne Bar is the only part now open to the public, booking a stay at this historic London establishment, and experiencing its enticing allure, is surely money well spent.
Founded in 1798 by Thomas Rule, the oldest restaurant in London is located in Covent Garden. Originally launched as an oyster bar, it became an instant success. Today it serves traditional British food, with a speciality in classic game.
Due to its proximity to the West End theatre scene of London, it has been a popular dining spot for those in the entertainment world such as Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Joan Collins, and Harrison Ford. Edward VII, then still the Prince of Wales, had his own private dining room that he used to discreetly romance the actress Lily Langtry. The restaurant is also a popular location for film and television, most recently being used in the series ‘Downton Abbey’ and the James Bond film ‘Spectre’.
Not to be confused with Simpson’s in the Strand, Simpson’s Tavern is known affectionately as ‘the oldest chophouse in London’. Its traditional British fare dates back to 1757, challenging Rules’ claim to the capital’s oldest restaurant mantle. Situated in a Dickensian courtyard, accessed via a narrow alleyway, Simpson’s Tavern is one of London’s most charming, historic eateries.
Thomas Simpson had been a restauranteur for 34 years when, in 1757, his father gifted him a site down a central London alley. There, Simpson’s Tavern has proudly remained for over 260 years, with its signature catchphrase ‘Do you want a sausage with that?’ still being repeated daily. Inside, dark wooden panels still adorn the walls, House of Commons green benches still stretch from connect tables inviting conversation, brass hat stands still punctuate the booths where diners continue to enjoy their hearty, boozy respite from city life.