A few years ago, when Joanne and I were in the Spitalfields area of London near St Paul’s Cathedral, we stumbled on a piece of history – a dining icon called SWEETINGS.
This hidden gem of a seafood restaurant has been around for over 100 years – since 1889 to be exact (when Queen Victoria reigned) and has survived two world wars intact.
Why’s this place off the radar for most visitors? For one thing, it’s in the financial district, in “The City of London.” It’s only open for lunch. It takes no reservations. And the space is crammed with business-y “city swells” in dark suits. But let me tell you: It’s worth seeking out.
The custom seems to be to start your lunch with a chilled pewter tankard of BLACK VELVET, a mixture of Guinness and Champagne that I’d never encountered anywhere else (and didn’t particularly enjoy, although Joanne downed hers in a hurry). The dining layout is basically a series of counters, each with a server behind the counter who never leaves his or her station; one server for every 5-6 places. There are two communal tables as well. Joanne and I were fortunate to capture the only window table. I asked our waiter for the table number so that I could pass on the information to you. He said, “It doesn’t have a table number. We just call it the ‘window table.’”
Walking into the restaurant, we were intrigued by the number of photos we saw featuring rock-star London chefs who’ve given Sweetings their blessing. There was Jamie Oliver with longtime waitress Lee Marshal, and snout-to-tail-dining pioneer Fergus Henderson hoisting a Black Velvet. I’m told that he actually proposed to his wife at Sweetings.
The tabletops are all pre-set with Sarson’s malt vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, ketchup and a large boat of homemade tartare sauce. And beside the condiments: a stack of thinly sliced brown bread, each slice pre-buttered.
A few observations……
All seafood is fresh…IMPECCABLY FRESH !!!!!! And the preparations are very simple, with your choice of grilled, broiled, poached, sautéed or deep fried. It’s not cheap; expect to pay about $ 40 US dollars per person without wine, beer or your tankard of Black Velvet.
Tom Parker Bowles, the London food critic for The Daily Mail, loves the simplicity of the place and writes that he is so damn tired of “prissy”restaurants where the server asks “if sir understands the concept ?” and he answers, “Yes…I come in….I sit down….I eat….I pay. Now go FUCK OFF!”
At SWEETINGS the servers are seasoned, professional, knowledgeable and friendly, but not intrusive. Our most recent server celebrated his 40th year at the restaurant. That’s seasoned.
On to our meals……
Appetizers on our visits have included the Crab Meat Cocktail with a perky “Marie Rose” sauce – basically their version of cocktail sauce. The shrimp in your Prawn Cocktail come lolling on a bed of crisp lettuce topped with more Marie Rose Sauce. Both appetizers run about $16.
Other appetizers we liked: The Jumbo Head-On Peel & Eat Shrimp; a variation on mustardy Welsh Rarebit, topped with a poached egg (they call it Buck Rarebit); and Seared Scallops with Bacon – a treat, though it was large enough to be a main course (for just $16).
You also can’t go wrong with the raw oysters, which are fat and briny – simply the best. I “power gorged” on the Deep-Fried Whitebait as well – about $10. It was so good I forgot to take a photo until the plate was completely empty. I think it was just before the Whitebait arrived that I said to Joanne, “I don’t know if this is the wine talking…but I think I need more wine.”
Among the appetizers, the only disconnect from the concept were the Crab Cakes – which were fine but accompanied by a passable “Thai Dipping Sauce” that was utterly off-message.
The main courses were uniformly very good. The Salmon Steak was generously portioned and bore the pedigree of being locally caught at Burwick on Tweed (in Scotland in the Tweed River). Fish & Chips were fashioned with a large filet of deep-fried haddock. I’ve heard some complaints that folks don’t like the idea of the skin being left on the fish, but I didn’t mind.
Poached Cod is wonderfully simple, and is completed by a tiny crock of Hollandaise. Sweetings’ signature dish, Chef’s Pie, is loaded with chunks of fish – the type varies depending on the daily catch. It makes a quick trip to the broiler and comes to your table crowned with buttery-crusty mashed potatoes. A tummy-satisfying bargain at about $16.
I’m in a minority when it comes to Finnin Haddie (smoked haddock). Joanne won’t go near it, yet I often order it for breakfast at our hotel, always topped with a poached egg. Sweetings’ version is equal to or better than any that I’ve ever had….and I’ve had a lot. It’s about $25.
Finally, if you want to splurge, London is only 76 miles from Dover, and Sweetings offers an outstanding Poached Dover Sole. It’s about $40 and worth every shilling.
I think it takes a quick pass under the broiler, then your server cleanly de-bones it before your eyes, artfully re-plates it, and serves you all of its melty buttery goodness.
As for dessert: Sweetings is known for two: It’s Bread Pudding and its Spotted Dick. As you know from my previous posts, I’m a Dick man.
So here’s the deal: Sweetings is located near St. Paul’s Cathedral at 39 Queen Victoria Street. Do not plan on going in the evening or on Saturday or Sunday, as it’ll be closed. They’re only open for 3-1/2 hours a day – 11:30 AM to 3:00 PM, Monday thru Friday. They do not take reservations (or “bookings” as the English say). And for some reason, they don’t serve coffee. No one cares, though. Sweetings fills instantly, so get there at 11:30 – otherwise you’ll be f****d.