It’s lunchtime in London’s financial district, and men in dark suits share a joke over a drink while a woman stands at a linen-clothed counter, awaiting orders for the oysters displayed on an antique marble slab in the window.
In the next room, with a high ceiling and nicotine-cream walls, more men at communal tables help themselves to the bread and butter as they examine the “Bill of Fare”.
If time hasn’t exactly stood still at Sweetings, which describes itself as probably the oldest fish and oyster restaurant in London, neither has it moved very quickly. The restaurant only opens at lunchtime, five days a week, and there are no reservations. Just show up and wait your turn.
Starters range from a £7 (Dh36) lobster bisque to £20.75 dressed crab, as well as potted shrimps, prawn cocktail and smoked eel.
The 14 mains, costing from £15 to £45, feature Dover sole, Cornish brill and other seafood specialities. The menu advises: “All Fish can be fried, grilled or poached, please ask a member of staff for the best way to order.”
Sweetings opened on its present site on Queen Victoria Street in 1889, though the company’s history dates to the 1830s, when it was called John S Sweetings, Fish and Oyster Merchant. It supplied fish and ice to country houses.
Women started showing up to eat only 20 to 30 years ago, and credit cards were accepted for the first time some 15 years ago. Otherwise, little has changed since Sweetings was a favourite restaurant of the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Before a computer system arrived in recent months, orders were written on paper and placed in the dumbwaiter down to the kitchen. Dishes would travel back up, only waiters didn’t necessarily know in what order, which made the process a little confusing. There are still no plans to take reservations.
“People like it the way it is,” says Richard Barfoot, who bought Sweetings in 2001.
q&a only gentlemen allowed
Richard Vines expands on the history behind a City of London institution:
Who did Mr Barfoot buy the restaurant from?
From the widow of his friend Graham Needham, a chef and host whose hospitality meant many lunches extended into the evenings. “I had an interest in Sweetings when Graham bought it (around 1980) because he was an old friend,” says Mr Barfoot, who is the fifth owner. “His clientele in those days was fantastic. They came in from Fleet Street, they came in from the Stock Exchange. They had long lunches and he made them even longer.”
I’ve heard not all the clientele qualify for the status of gentleman.
Mr Barfoot says the restaurant also used to attract “some undesirables”, who he refers to as “crooks of the highest quality”. He adds: “There was one, George Francis, he was a South London boy, he used to come in with his henchmen. He was a very charming fellow, but a real tough guy. One time he said to Graham, ‘How much do you want for this place? How about a million pounds?’ Graham said he wasn’t interested, and he wasn’t even going to discuss it. Then he said to one of his henchmen, ‘Go out and get the suitcase and show him what a million pounds look like.’ And they brought in the case with all the notes in it.” Mr Needham declined the offer.
What’s in store in the future?
Mr Barfoot, set to turn 80 this year, says his daughters will take over. “But I don’t think the reservation side will change,” he adds.
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter