In one corner of Sweetings, the ghost of Toulouse Lautrec tucks into skate wings in black butter; in another, Anthony Bourdain discovers the rustic delights of mushy peas.
Hungry patrons have dangled their legs from the stools of this wood-panelled City fish restaurant since 1889 — a time when ambassadors and politicians fresh off the boat from America got a shave next door, knocked back half a dozen of West Mersea’s best, then retired to their rooms upstairs for some shut-eye.
The industrious John Sweeting opened a series of eponymous restaurants — first in Islington, then on Cheapside — offering the “best native oysters 6s a barrel”. An 1846 ad for the Cheapside joint boasts “Very Superior Oyster Rooms, in one of which may be seen that magnificent Painting and Work of Art representing the several Battles of Napoleon Bonaparte.” The establishments were wildly popular, and led to a third; this one situated on the ground floor of the Flatiron-shaped Albert Buildings on Queen Victoria Street.
This is the only Sweetings that survives, today dwarfed by the rust-coloured Bloomberg building opposite, which might bring in a slew of fresh punters, were it not conspicuously emptied thanks to the pandemic.
“He was a fascinating character,” says Sue Knowler, a former architect who now manages Sweetings with the same homey demeanour as her father, and former owner, Dick Barfoot, who passed away in 2018. “Sweeting had to deliver to a lot of hotels and private houses. He designed pretty much the first mobile ice delivery system.”
To say this place hasn’t changed one bit since Sweeting’s day isn’t quite right. Sawdust is no longer sprinkled on the mosaic floor. Freddie Flintoff’s bat didn’t always hang on the wall. Neither did the oil paintings depicting cheeses and dusty port bottles, by North Carolinian painter Les Brown. The shining marble slab at the front of house is no longer used for hawking fresh fillets to passers-by, either.
Still, there’s a stubborn timelessness to Sweetings — the chairs with the decorative ‘S’ carved into their backs. The pewter tankards of black velvet (a cocktail that might’ve been served here not long after it was invented at Brook’s Gentlemen’s club, to boozily mourn the death of Prince Albert). The immaculately set places with silver wine coolers on each table. The slices of buttered bread placed in front of you the moment you sit down.
But it’s the customers who’ve been dining here for decades, who are are Sweetings’ most important fixture.
“There’s a gentleman there comes in on his own and has the same thing,” says Knowler, surreptitiously pointing him out, “You ask ‘what would you like?’, but you’ve already written it down!”
Traditionally, Sweetings was a place for bankers and businessmen to hang up their bowlers and partake in a good lunch. There used to be a dress code, which former owner Graham Needham turned to his advantage: “The reason we had Sweetings ties was because everyone wore a suit,” says Knowler, “but if they came in with a suit but no tie, Graham would say ‘you can’t come in without a tie’. So he’d sell them a tie!”
Angelo, a waiter who’s served at Sweetings for almost 30 years, recalls the recession of the early 1990s. The place was packed with bankers as usual one lunchtime, when everything suddenly went berserk. “As soon as they heard the news: ‘Bill! ‘Bill! ‘Bill!'” laughs Angelo. The restaurant emptied in minutes, as bankers abandoned their fish, and returned to their desks.
In the following weeks, cheques started to bounce. “We put them in the window. People would see them and say ‘That is my friend there!'” Sure enough, soon after, the guilty party would skulk in, tail between their legs, and pay up. “They couldn’t escape,” grins Angelo.
These days, the banking clientele is far more international — Swiss, Chinese, Japanese — plus a fair whack of international tourists in the know. Sweetings is a gem, but hardly a hidden one.
Opening hours are still based on the City cycle; lunchtimes Monday to Friday — just 13 hours a week. That may seem restricted but it’s a formula that’s always worked, and as Knowler points out, in today’s climate, restaurants often can’t find the staff to open seven days a week anyway.
“When the Olympics was on, one of my customers put us in the British Airways in-flight magazine,” says Knowler. “We had the families of people that were going to be competing that night. To meet the parents of people in the Paralympics… honestly it was amazing.”
That’s the beauty of working here, she says: “You never know who’s going to come in, which is always nice.”
A favourite visitor of Knowler’s was punk fashion designer Vivienne Westwood: “She had on clothes that were the colour of the rainbow, and she’d drawn glasses on her face with red lipstick.”
One guest Sweetings knows to expect every November is the newly-ordained Lord Mayor of London. On the day of the Lord Mayor’s Show, a little-known City of London tradition sees the new incumbent pause outside Sweetings in their glittering coach, and handed a much-needed slug of champagne.
There’s lots of mutual love from those in the industry, too. Jeremy Lee from Quo Vadis had his last birthday here, and offal evangelist Fergus Henderson is a regular.
Talking of Henderson, what did Anthony Bourdain think when he brought him here?
“Fergus said to him ‘you must have mushy peas!'” says Knowler. “He was like ‘Mushy peas? What the hell is mushy peas?! They’re just squished peas!‘ Then has tasted them and went ‘Ohh… now I understand!'”
That ended up being a ‘tipsy’ episode, Knowler recalls, as did an impromptu visit from the England cricket team; passing by Sweetings as they celebrated winning the Ashes, they came in to polish off a decent amount of seafood and wine, ending up ‘absolutely larruped’.
“We used to call these the ‘three steps to doom’,” says Sue Knowler, motioning to the steps that lead from the front of the restaurant to the back. “If you came down here and went out the back, you’d lose all track of time, and concept of anything!”
Under the influence or not, a rare communal bonhomie can be found at Sweetings. Customers — often dining alone — tune into others’ conversations, chipping in with their own opinions and memories. It’s a cross between a swish restaurant and a local pub.
By the way, how did Flintoff’s session end? “I don’t think he remembered leaving,” says Knowler.
There are so many liquid lunch stories about Sweetings, we almost forget to talk about the fish.
One glance at the menu, which is printed out daily, tells you that this establishment thrives on good, simple food; there’s fried whitebait, fish pie, baby turbot in mustard sauce, and the perennially popular smoked haddock with poached eggs. All delicious, but nothing too showy.
“People from overseas like skate, as they often don’t get it,” says Knowler. “The only fish we take off the bone is the Dover sole. People look it at and go ‘Ohh! I don’t know what to do!’ It’s quite a surgical process.”
The same Colchester oysters advertised by John Sweeting in the late 19th century, are still served now — with a great big pot of shallot vinegar on the side. In the 1980s there was an oyster epidemic, and Dick Barfoot, along with chefs and restaurant owners teamed up, to set up new oyster beds. It’s taken 40 years to get back to where they were, but in that time, Sweetings has never stopped serving the delicacies.
Still, like Sweetings itself, the menu is far from static.
“When you have a fish business, you have to be so aware of sustainability and source,” says Knowler, “We don’t have any fish on our menu that’s long line or trawler caught. It’s weather dependant so if you have a really mad winter day with loads of wind, you know there’s not going to be any flatfish, because flatfish bury themselves at the bottom when it’s windy.
“Today on the menu we have some lovely stone bass. Monkfish is very good at the moment.
“Salmon — that’s really gone through the roof. Pricing is very, very tricky at the moment.”
Some items have bitten the dust for good; you’ll no longer, thank goodness, find the steaming bowls of real turtle soup, which were lapped up by customers as recently as the 1960s.
There have been countless offers to buy the establishment over the years — including allegedly, by the gangster George Francis, who offered one million in readies. But the owners know just how priceless Sweetings is.
“I think it’s so important to keep places like this going,” says Sue Knowler.
Sweetings, 39 Queen Victoria Street