Food & Drink

Clattering Fish Knives and Scraping Stool Legs

A visit to City stalwart Sweetings


I’d heard lots about Sweetings over the years, but it wasn’t until I called to make a reservation that I learned it was walk-in only. So I decided to get there early, to guarantee myself a seat and feel this Victorian seafood restaurant’s atmosphere grow.

I arrived at a wildly corniced four-storey building, paint peeling beautifully from the signage at its base. Sweetings has occupied this patch of the Square Mile since 1889, back when the traffic around here was horse drawn and “eating out” meant at fish and oyster bars like this.

I pushed through the restaurant’s ancient doors; it was 11.29am and I was the first customer of the day. As I descended a few steps, the floor-to-ceiling windows rose up around me, before the silent dining room swallowed me whole. I drifted towards its edges, where I was shown to a cobalt blue cushion on four wooden legs.

Then came the suits. All around me new arrivals in gilets and pale blue collars took their stools, sitting like me with their backs to the room. Except one guy, who greeted a waiter by name and knowingly ducked underneath the counter, before swivelling round and grabbing a stool on the window side, so that he and his friend could sit face to face. Apparently, Sweetings’ waiting staff used to occupy these same enclosures, trapped like the bartender in Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’.

The bill of fare here is similarly eccentric because it is old. There’s no turtle soup anymore, but you can still enjoy Welsh rarebit, potted shrimps and the skate wing in black butter Toulouse-Lautrec wrote to his mother about. Then there’s the place’s signature drink: a perspiring silver tankard of black velvet (pictured), a mixture of Guinness and champagne.

After my own prawns, chips, samphire and skate wing, someone crept up behind me with a perfect bowl of steamed pudding and custard. Without turning around, I could sense the room was now entirely full. All those bankers, insurers and consultants were perched on the same wraparound counter, yet somehow ensconced in their distinct little groups. Silence had been exchanged for the rumble of voices, supplemented by the odd laugh, clattering fish knife and scraping stool leg.


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