Food & Drink London

Drake's at the Table: Lunch at Sweetings

By Max Halley

Apr 3, 2023

Drake's at the Table: Lunch at Sweetings

‘There is nothing yet contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced, as by a good inn or tavern.’ Dr. Johnson, 1776.

It is often said that only the humans and the dolphins have sex for pleasure, rather than for purely procreative porpoises. Sorry. Purposes. We all must eat or we shall die, and a good restaurant takes the mere, boring, biological function of consuming food for energy, and turns it into a joy.

As reasons to exist go, few industries have anything this fundamental. Drake’s, and arguably all clothing companies, certainly do too, albeit with differing levels of style. They allow us to go to work, to live out our lives and to walk the streets without fear of arrest or causing offence, and the best of them, Drake’s included, make us feel great while we do it. And so, herewith, a series of articles where Michael Hill, Joe and I go to a restaurant for lunch, and I tell you about it.

I have no interest in reviewing restaurants in the traditional manner – owning one, I could do without my petard hoisting any further. I do not believe my opinion of a place determines its merits, affects the chances of you visiting, or indeed, matters at all. I am in this for the lunch, and nothing more.  

Naughtier than dinner, especially when lubricated, lunch is one of life’s great, simple, achievable joys. At home, on holiday, on a blanket, under a beating sun or beneath the sheltering sky, it is at its finest, in a restaurant.

It’s 11:27am (they open at 11:30am) and a serious man with kind eyes looks at me through the glass. Taking a pocket watch from his jacket, he considers it, opens the door and beckons me in. Dark wood and pale marble abound, it’s warm, high ceilinged, old and homely, but smart. Dearest lovely everyone, welcome to Sweetings.

It sounds ridiculous but many people, restaurant owners in particular, seem to forget that this is the hospitality industry and letting me in early, even if only by a few minutes, is the first great act of it encountered today. As they don’t take bookings (and only open for lunch), enthusiasm is rewarded when it comes to the choosing of seats. We sit down at the bar where Joe (my friend and the photographer) has to duck his lanky frame under a saloon-esque bar and sit to eat facing Michael and I as if at a table. It’s fun already.

The first thing to hit our lips (as it does nearly everyone’s here) is half a pint of black velvet (50/50 Guinness & Champagne), served in a shiny silver tankard. A chugger’s drink, sanguine and iron-y from the off, when drunk by the pint, the second half tends toward flatness, warmth and a lack of any fun at all.

Similarly to Sweetings, opened in Islington in 1830 and relocated here in 1889, the black velvet is steeped in history. A respectable beverage, it was invented at Brooks’s club in 1861, to mourn Queen Victoria’s beloved Albert. And it found itself namechecked by Fleming in Diamonds are Forever: ‘I’ll take you to Scott’s’, Bond says, ‘and we’ll have some of their dressed crab and a pint of black velvet.’ As foolish a drinks order as his ridiculous watery martini. 

There’s a rush of activity behind us and brown bread, butter, and a requested flagon of tartare sauce arrive. We plunge in bread first, slathering both thickly and fondly. ‘Are you ready to order?’ the waitress asks rhetorically. We think so. ‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Specials. Today it’s pan-fried roes on hot buttered toast’. Magic. But my companions are miffed. The special is listed as a dish on the menus they have been given. ‘Oh sorry,’ she blushes, with a nudge and a wink. ‘You’ve got yesterday’s menus.’

I love this place. All restaurants are to some extent a deceit, and here, rather than being duped by it, we’re in on it.  Treated right, any mistake provides an opportunity to make the customer happier than if it had never happened at all.

To think the primary allure of this place is the food, is like buying a suit for its pockets. Any restaurant claiming food is the only thing that matters to them, is no restaurant at all, it’s a canteen. One is for the provision of hospitality, the other, sustenance alone. 

Believing in a cold starter, I plump for a well-sauced prawn cocktail and enjoy it enormously. The other two, hell for leather, go for the roes. They turn out just as described and are bang for their buck. As is our wine (Pouilly-Fuissé).

Clean plates are cleared and soon our mains arrive.  Michael and Joe have ‘Turbot with Mustard Sauce’ and ‘Halibut with Mustard Sauce’ respectively. Plated identically, with chips on the side, they are declared delicious by both. Mine, isn’t quite as good. ‘Smoked Haddock with Poached Eggs’ has been on the menu for 100 years, which I suspect is around the time my fish went into the milk, and my eggs were put on to poach.

Mustard sauce winking at me, and carried away by the Chardonnay, I pompously explain Escoffier’s theory of the mother sauces. Begun by Carême, and completed by Escoffier with the publication of his Le Guide Culinaire in 1903, in classical French cookery there are five mother sauces – velouté, béchamel, espagnole, hollandaise and tomato - from which, Escoffier claimed, all other sauces derived. Much well-credited inspiration to Fergus Henderson and his seminal St. JOHN, Sweetings is undoubtedly one of London’s mother sauce restaurants.

You do not come here to genuflect at the altar of some Picasso in the kitchen, you come here for lunch, to enjoy yourself, break bread together and share the pleasures of the table. The food might not be perfect, nor the service flawless, but with ‘Steamed Syrup Sponge’, not a sweetcorn rib in sight and time at the oche to prove it, it is without doubt, should you ever require one, a perfect example of all a restaurant should be. 

 

Photos by Joseph Beeching.

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