Possibly the only thing that will tempt you to eat out in public right now is a landmark occasion. At Smith’s of Wapping, a fancy fish restaurant close to Tower Bridge, there were many tables doing just that. The original Smith’s was established in 1958, as, apparently, were many of the clientele on this swelteringly hot Saturday, who were all having a merry old time, blowing out birthday candles for a friend or celebrating an anniversary.
It’s that type of place: a pristine tablecloths and crisp-shirted staff calling you sir or madam spot; there’s none of that waiters squatting on their haunches and calling you “guys” here, or dishes coming in any order “when they’re ready”. The restaurant world moves quickly, but Smith’s has stayed rooted, serving the same style of pescatarian offerings as its well-loved sister restaurant in Ongar, which, incidentally, is the perfect place for dinner after riding the exhilarating Epping-to-Ongar track, the longest heritage railway in Essex. Yes, I have done this. No, I didn’t realise that travelling 10.2km in a Class 205 Thumper DEMU could be so thrilling, but there you go.
Smith’s of Wapping, which opened in 2011, is similarly old-school yet pleasing. It’s proper, slightly posh, but without even a scraping of Michelin-star mimicry such as butter on rocks or bread in hessian sacks. You can, however, have scampi in a china basket. It’s served delicately, of course, and the basket is lined with a mocked-up sheet of newspaper, but still, no wag has attempted to call the scampi Dublin Bay prawns or arrange them into a fragile tower or dress them with a Jackson Pollock-inspired tartare sauce.
Similarly, a large, oval plate boasting theatrically large king prawns with a 280g sirloin of prime Scottish beef and a ramekin of garlic butter is called “surf and turf”, which is the sort of parlance to make the modern chef weep into his sous-vide. The same goes for for the menu note that reads, “All steaks are garnished with grilled tomato and field mushroom”.
Despite the Hungry Horse, fun pub-style fayre, prices at Smith’s are high enough to make it an occasional splurge type of place: a whole buttered native lobster will set you back £46, while the surf and turf is £50, which makes that one very expensive field mushroom.
Still, Smith’s is reliable and really very easy to spend three hours in, especially if Tower Bridge stops working so you have to linger with a glass of chablis premier cru and enjoy the mayhem. They’re also working jolly hard to keep everyone safe, allowing plenty of space between tables. Frankly, Covid-19 has obliterated one of the best things about my job: earwigging. And I regretted not bringing an ear trumpet to Smith’s to enjoy all the post-lockdown catch-up sessions. And although I’ve given up marking restaurants, I am grading complimentary hand sanitiser supplies, and the one at Smith’s I classed as “comfortingly vicious”. My new rule of thumb is, if nothing is hurting, is it really working?
We ate yellow fin tuna sashimi with Loch Duart salmon, daikon, soy and wasabi, which was pleasant enough, though it all felt a bit as if the chefs’ hearts weren’t really in it. A main of nicely judged monkfish with langoustine in a subtle, katsu-style sauce with steamed rice was instantly forgettable, while the side of “seasonal vegetables” was diced in a manner that reminded me of the stuff they used to foist on us at school dinner.
Charles had octopus in a rather delicious smoked chilli and garlic sauce, but then started telling me about a study in which five California two-spot octopuses were given ecstasy and then wanted to cuddle, which rather took the shine off eating it. Ordering things with a back story is Charles’s way of getting more of the dinner. He learned this during the Galician cow trend, when no meal was complete without a potted biography of Daisy.
We finished with a glazed Tiptree strawberry tart with clotted cream ice-cream, which was lovely if not exactly memorable. But the room was heaving with laughing, tipsy sixty-somethings having a nice time and enjoying their freedom. Smith’s doesn’t need to change a thing – it has found its winning formula.
• Smith’s of Wapping 22 Wapping High Street, London E1, 020-7488 3456. Open all week, lunch noon-2.30pm (3.30pm Sun), dinner 6-10pm (10.30pm Sat, closed Sun). About £45 a head a la carte; weekday set lunch £31.50, set dinner £34.50; all plus drinks and service.