Out of Soho: Sweetings

I journey from Soho to a favourite restaurant not many people know outside the City.  This is an ancient place, sufficiently so to have been referred to in John Buchan’s Greenmantle whence a barrel of oysters was ordered.  Open only at lunchtime, and situated between Bank and St Paul’s Tube stations on Great Victoria Street, you cannot make a reservation and if you want to find a table it is essential to go at 12 or 2.  It is populated in the main by traders up working at 6, so in the main it is a bit laddish.  I saw only one woman today in the front section until two took the seats that Nigel and I were leaving.  It’s all worth it: the lack of booking facility, etc…

Of course, if you didn’t know its past it would not make sense, but it used to be next to Billingsgate, now demolished and moved, and so it is a fish restaurant, but one with a big difference.

There is the back room with a long table, like at school, and a front section with crabs, lobster salad, and smoked salmon in the window. In the front you either stand at the bar and drink Petit Chablis, St Veran or champagne, or alternately Guinness in a polished half or pint tankard.  The ambience is everything, save for the fish, which is also everything.  There is nowhere like it in London, a piece of Edwardian life fully preserved and functioning.  It is a strange layout; perhaps the front was always a bar area or perhaps a fish shop.

I go regularly with Nigel, who also (sometimes) seems to be a piece of Edwardian life fully preserved and functioning.  He drank Sauvignon Blanc in the absence of Chablis, and I drank the Guinness.  For an island race we seem to have little regard for the fruits of the sea and fish restaurants are few and far between.  Sweetings does not aspire to be a Scott’s or a Sheekey but is far above  Geales and The Sea Shell.  Sitting on one of the bar stools, dishes float by and the daily specials on the wall induce regret making you envious of other dishes no matter what you’ve ordered.  The menu is old school: Lobster or Crab Bisque, Oysters and Crab Salad.  I was tempted by the Home Made Gravadlax, Smoked Eel, and Smoked Cod Roe but luxuriated in the Deep Fried Sprats with Tartar Sauce and Nigel scoffed the Potted Shrimps, served properly with toast.

Under the Fish List is a note, “all fish can be Fried, Grilled, or Poached, Please ask a member of staff for the best way to order”.  The staff are a mixture of ageing men you would assume had worked there their whole lives and much younger smiling women. They all know their fish.  Nigel had the Home Made Salmon Cake and I had Grilled Brill; we shared a portion of hand cut real chips, some steamed spinach, and, of course in an English restaurant, peas.  We eschewed Smoked Haddock with Poached Eggs, Halibut, Fish Pie, Turbot with Mustard Sauce, Skate, and Sea Bass.  The men beside us had Grilled Bacon and (huge) Prawns.  When I finished I wanted to start over again.

Puddings include Spotted Dick, Baked Jam Roll and Bread and Butter Pudding.  The men on the other side of us had, respectively, Buck and Welsh Rarebit.

There is no pretension here; you will leave happy and with a wistful sense of having enjoyed part of a lost world. You will wonder that there are not more places like it. But, God forbid it should become the cornerstone of a VC funded chain.


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