The word ‘sweeting’ means ‘moneyer’. In today’s deflated City, the name seems a trifle optimistic. But when I arrive at midday and ask for a table for three, Nigel the manager is so confident they’ll be full for lunch, he refuses to seat me until the other two turn up. Actually, this silliness is standard practice at Sweetings, like its ‘quaint’ no-bookings rule, its ‘Monday to Friday, lunch only’ policy, and the fact that credit cards were anathema here well into the new millennium. I’m left standing at the old oak bar, which at least gives me a chance to remark on the décor.
Under the glare of striplights, the room is a sallow beige. Spy caricatures of gaunt Victorian men peer down. A cricket bat is on the wall, bearing the faded autographs of men who long ago qualified for free bus passes. A plastic Christmas wreath, c. 1972, sags dustily. Although a couple of normal tables cluster in the back, most customers eat from one side of long desks, and from behind this, a lady distributes drinks, ketchup and a portion of surliness.
Slate-haired pinstripes start to fill the room, with noses the colour of red cabbage. They smell faintly of Old Spice and port. They’ve come to this ‘institution’ because, as the Earl of Bradford points out in an article noteworthy more for the assumptions it makes than for its value as a restaurant recommendation, ‘many customers first went to dine there before they even started at their chosen public school’. The great R. W. Apple hymned its praises in a New York Times feature aimed at American tourists, and Fergus Henderson himself has declared it to be his favourite restaurant.
Good God, Fergus – why? Admittedly, it’s a piece of history: the Stock Exchange was established in Sweetings Alley in 1773, and the restaurant opened in 1889. Seafood is its sensible speciality: apart from the odd stew, fish rarely needs that long on the stove. Yet this attention to speed rather than detail characterises the Sweetings experience. As well as the refusal to accept reservations or to let customers sit down until the full party has arrived, the restaurant won’t serve coffee. Perhaps this is to be expected somewhere that only opens for weekday lunch, but since that itself is an idiosyncratic quirk, I’m less inclined to think so.
I’m staring in wonder as a woman slops out mayonnaise from a cash-and-carry tub, when T and R arrive. Nigel commands us to sit at the corner of one the long desks. Thin, floppy brown bread has been waiting for an indeterminate time, pre-buttered (or pre-margarined?) so as not to go stale. We order quickly. Potted prawns look like an ice hockey puck, a granite layer of near-frozen butter clamping twelve crustaceans the size of fingernail clippings. R’s bisque is likely based out of a tin, and whatever ingredients were added to it, they’ve been blitzed to a tepid fishy mush.
Smoked haddock with poached eggs is just the sort of old English fare I love: robust, gutsy, unadorned. But these eggs weren’t properly drained, so the serving lady has to take a sheaf of kitchen paper and wipe away the water splashing around the plate. Yeech. Creamed spinach is old, cold and dry, though chips are decent enough. A well-browned fish pie is reminiscent of R’s soup: hugger-mugger scraps and leftovers, earlier blended as bisque, now potato-topped as pie. ‘Edible, with ketchup,’ is T’s withering verdict. Grilled salmon for R is an iridescent pink, suggesting it was farmed.
One virtually indistinguishable pudding each: syrup sponge, bread and butter pudding, and spotted dick. Each comes smothered in a custard I truly haven’t encountered since my salad days in a cold Scottish dining hall: custard the colour of ripe pus, opaquely skinned, unperfumed, tasting thinly of egg derivative, sugar and preservatives. The ‘dick’ is a claggy slab of flour and fat, its raisin ‘spots’ shrivelled nuggets of tastelessness. T seems content with what he terms a ‘stodgy’ bread and butter effort; R finishes his sponge to the crumb and, garrulous as ever, pronounces it ‘good’.
The bill, with a couple of glasses of house wine and a jug of tap water, tops £150.
Nostalgia can be a good thing. As Rowley Leigh has said, ‘what is English cooking if not seasonal local ingredients, simply prepared?’ Such is the mantra of St. John, and of the slew of restaurants it spawned. Such, indeed, is now the mantra of J. Sheekey, another old-timer fish restaurant, and to Sweetings what fresh crème anglaise is to a sachet of Birds Eye stirred into boiling water. Sweetings, for all its ambling down Amnesia Lane, is all too reminiscent of the reasons British restaurants developed such a dire reputation in the first place: overpriced, mediocre food served by schoolmarmish, uncaring staff. Its eccentricities might be faintly endearing, but I’m willing to bet that a new generation of London restaurant-goers, reared in a post-Jamie Oliver world, will fail to be satisfied by its unironic school food. Sweetings serves only to point out how far the London restaurant scene has come. For the sake of tradition, you wouldn’t want to see it die. But its ‘institution’ status doesn’t rescue its disappointingly institutional food.
Sweetings, 39 Queen Victoria Street, London EC4N
Tel. +44 (0)844 567 2326
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