For a festive meal to remember, head for one of the capital’s historic restaurants.
For a special meal, Wiltons is hard to beat. Started as an oyster stall in 1742, Wiltons was opened as a restaurant in the 1840s, and the oysters remained a mainstay of the menu. It received its first royal warrant from Queen Victoria in 1884.
Time has stood still here. The monogrammed carpet, the green velvet banquettes, the dim lighting, the silver trolleys that are trundled through the restaurant (one for meat, one for cheese, even one for brandy). The menu, too, is rigorously traditional, and the Christmas fare doesn’t disappoint. You can book the private Jimmy Marks Room (for up to 20 guests) for a slap-up festive feast: venison carpaccio, quince and hazelnut salad, perhaps, followed by beef fillet Rossini and a boozy Sauternes custard with Armagnac prunes: a classic soul-soothing Wiltons dessert. If you can’t make it for a Christmas meal, the restaurant puts on oyster masterclasses every month: the ideal gift for food-lovers.
Kettner’s is something of a Soho landmark, a bastion of class and tradition. Opened by Auguste Kettner, chef to Napoleon III, in 1867, it has long been a place to see and be seen. Oscar Wilde was drawn by its boudoir-ish glamour, conducting several “illicit assignations” there, and Edward VII met his mistress, Lillie Langtry, here for more secret liaisons. Winston Churchill, Agatha Christie, Bing Crosby and Margaret Thatcher were diners (though not all at the same time). Closed for many years, in 2018 the restaurant was acquired by the luxury Soho House group and restored to its original splendour.
Kettner’s Christmas menu offers starters such as roasted pumpkin, chestnut and truffle pecorino, or Atlantic prawns, tomato and horseradish, with mains such as whole roasted salmon and beef Wellington tempting alternatives to turkey. Of the desserts, panettone baked Alaska makes a nice balance between traditional and novel. Afterwards, a glass of fizz in the Deco champagne bar is a must.
Opened as a chess club and coffee house in 1828, Simpson’s in the Strand became one of the most important venues for the game in the nineteenth century. The name of the dining room, the vast, high-ceilinged Grand Divan, dates from this time, when the gentlemen chess players would relax on comfortable divans to play. Even in its chess days, Simpson’s was renowned for its traditional British food, particularly roast meats.
It remains so today, especially at Christmas. Leather banquettes, wood panelling and twinkling chandeliers provide a fitting backdrop to a special Christmas meal. The “bill of fare” – no menus here – is a roll-call of the classics of British cuisine: beef Wellington, steak & kidney pie, Dover sole. For a treat, order roast meat from the silver-domed serving trolley, wheeled to your table and served with a flourish: a tradition that dates back to the chess-club days, to avoid interrupting games in progress.
The Quality Chop House has been a bastion of British cuisine on Clerkenwell’s Farringdon Road since it opened in 1869. Its chequerboard floor, wood-panelled booths and pew-like bench seating, dating from its days as a “Progressive Working Class Caterer” is Grade II-listed. It is probably a unique example of the survival of working-class restaurant from this era.
The Victorian decor may have remained but these days, the food, based on seasonal British ingredients, is more innovative, though if your tastes err more on the traditional side, fear not: seasonal wild game with the trimmings, chops and steaks remain at the heart of the menu. The QCH Christmas menu – available for those booking the cosy, atmospherically-lit private room seating 8 to 16 people – begins with shared starters, the likes of game terrine with cranberry, or mince croquette with watercress mayonnaise. – before mains of turkey or chops, the restaurant’s speciality. Finish with treacle tart and Christmas pudding ice cream.
Located down a cobbled Dickensian alley at 38 1/2 Cornhill, Simpson’s Tavern is as unusual as its address. Noisy and convivial, this City institution has remained pretty much
unchanged since it was opened in 1757 by Thomas Simpson. It still has hat stands for your bowler, and little wooden booths in which diners sit elbow to elbow, tucking into generous portions of hearty British fare.
The daily specials of a pie and a roast never change, and the Christmas menu is predictably meaty. Start with wild boar terrine and chutney, followed by roast turkey with all the seasonal trimmings, or sea bass or wild mushroom and pearl barley with goats cheese for non-traditionalists. While you’re here, be sure to try their signature dish of stewed cheese, consisting of a pot of baked cheese sauce to be poured over a slice of toast. Whatever you order, you’ll be asked, “Do you want a sausage with that?” The answer, of course, is always yes.