The UK has a rich heritage spanning hundreds of years, so it’s no surprise that there’s many a historic restaurant nestled in our cities. Those that have survived the scourge of redevelopment have taken their place as historic traditional British restaurants, but what is the oldest restaurant in the UK and does it serve a historic menu?
Simpson’s – 1828
Simpson’s doesn’t try to situate itself as the oldest restaurant in London, but it is definitely a historic restaurant in its own right. It has a pedigree which saw it become synonymous with a good game of chess in the 19th century. While this connection disappeared following the sale of the business to the owner of the Savoy Hotel in 1898, it has been recently revisited during a restoration.
Even if the name changed to Simpson’s-in-the-Strand in 1904 when it reopened following refurbishment, the traditional English food remained at the core of its business. The latest renovation has put the heart back into the atmosphere, bringing the best British dishes to a new generation in a historic restaurant setting.
Rules – 1798
Rules in London claims to be London’s oldest restaurant and certainly has a 200-year history which is often featured in novels about the capital, including books by Graham Greene and Dorothy L. Sayers. You might even have seen it on screen in Downton Abbey.
Originally an oyster bar, Rules has always served traditional food and has been popular with celebrities and aristocrats alike. If you’re looking for traditional décor which has been preserved and enhanced over the years with bespoke artwork, Rules might be the place to go. However, whether their claims to be the oldest restaurant in London hold up or not is still up for debate.
Wilton’s – 1742
Wilton’s current logo is an aristocratic lobster, which possibly tells you all you need to know about the historic menu offered by this London establishment. Their best British dishes come in the form of seafood and have their roots in an oyster stall established by George William Wilton to serve the trades at the 18th century Haymarket.
While the age of Wilton’s surpasses Rules, it could be argued that because Wilton’s has moved around London a fair amount, that it’s forfeited its right to be considered the oldest. Equally, as the restaurant has moved from place to place, there’s no sign of the historic and traditional décor you’d find at Rules. That’s not to say that Wilton’s shouldn’t be considered a historic restaurant, though – it has 277 years of heritage behind it.
Queen’s Lane Coffee House – 1654
Oxford is home to Queen’s Lane Coffee House which was founded in the aftermath of English Civil War and has been in the same spot ever since, making it the oldest continuously operating coffee house across Europe. Although Queen’s Lane is famous for (you guessed it) the coffee they serve, there has always been an emphasis on traditional food which continues to be served alongside more exotic fare.
We might be cheating a little by including a coffee house in this list, but they have a heritage as rich as any traditional British restaurants, certainly one that is richer than others which lay claim to being the oldest restaurant in the UK or in a given region of it.
Blackfriars – 1239
Take a trip to 13th century Newcastle by visiting Blackfriars Restaurant & Banquet Hall, which lays claim to being the oldest dining hall in the UK, if not the oldest restaurant. Again, the definition of what it takes to be one of the traditional British restaurants is flexible and, while Blackfriars hasn’t been continuously operated as a restaurant serving traditional English food, it retains its place in history as a dining location.
Today, Blackfriars offers traditional décor in the style of great traditional British restaurants. With a combination of wonderful traditional English food and plenty of atmosphere, Blackfriars deserves itS place on this list, even if it’s not strictly the oldest restaurant in the UK.
Why Do Traditional British Restaurants Continue to Thrive?
It’s clear there’s a taste (pun intended) for quality traditional English food that the likes of these five restaurants continue to tap into. For events, too, the desirability of matching opulent, traditional décor with a historic menu delivers a memorable occasion every time. Traditional food hasn’t gone out of style yet, and we don’t think the best British dishes are going anywhere – even if there are always twists on the traditional fare in even the oldest traditional British restaurants.