It is no wonder this elegant gentleman of seventy-eight years old looks so serene – the picture of good health and contented refinement – he is Richard Barfoot, the noble proprietor of Sweetings restaurant in the City of London, my favourite place to eat fish for lunch. For Mr Barfoot, it is the culmination of a lifetime in the fish business to preside here at this temple of seafood. Immaculately shaved, in a well-cut suit with discreet cuff links and his Sweetings tie, he is a dignified figure who might present an austere impression if it were not for the evident twinkle in his eyes, indicative of the sheer pleasure it gives him to be here.
Opened in 1890, and unchanged today, Sweetings is a marvel. Occupying a triangular corner site, customers perch at counters in an interior lined with old panelling, mosaic, marble and mirrors, where the very finest fresh fish are served in season and oysters are a speciality. Over all these years, certain systems have been contrived which permit this operation to function with ease in its unusual space. On your right, is the marble slab where gleaming fresh salmon and lobsters are displayed and, on your left, is the first of several counters covered in plain white cloths and adorned with attractive old cutlery shining in the sunlight, each one supervised by a waitress standing behind and commanding her pitch with personal style and repartee to add to this lively theatre.
Yet before I ventured into the restaurant and took my eagerly anticipated place at a counter, I was able to enjoy the privilege of a quiet word with the venerable Mr Barfoot,who revealed himself to be a precise and emotional speaker, alive to the subtle ironies of life.
I love Sweetings, which I bought from the wife of my very best friend, Graham Needham, who, unfortunately, after a very successful spell running it from 1979, died in 1993. His wife took over ownership and she sold it to me in 2000. So here we are, really. It’s absolutely fantastic, I am the fifth owner in its history and we are an institution in the City of London. We’ve gone through two World Wars and several financial upsets that life has thrown at us, but because of our reputation customers have stayed loyal to Sweetings.
For our customers, it’s like school dinners, they sit next to each other during lunch, and most of them know each other and chat while they’re eating. It is a place which is loved by all in the City. I understood the institution, having come here since 1975 – never realising it would ever be mine – but since its mine I intend that it should stay in my family for the next hundred years so that the tradition of Sweeting can be maintained as, thankfully, I have tried to do.
I’m a fish merchant by trade, in the Billingsgate Market. I’ve been in the business since 1951, I think I’m celebrating sixy-one years in it this year, if you can call it celebrating. I’ve done it since I left school at fifteen and got a job with Macfisheries, in those days the biggest fishmonger with five hundred shops across the country and two fleets of trawlers. I worked in Leadenhall Market until the age of eighteen and did all sorts of jobs in the fish industry specialising in selling and management. This lasted until 1980 when I started out for myself and created Barfoot Ltd, a wholesale fish distribution centre in Rotherhithe where we did fish preparation for hotels. Then in 2000 when my son joined the company, I bought Sweetings restaurant and decided to run it myself.
I love it, to be involved in the day to day running and to meet old friends and old customers who appear on a regular basis, and generally to soak up the atmosphere of the place. To be honest, I’d had so many lunches and get togethers here that I felt I knew the place very well, therefore it was no surprise to me that I am able to take on the responsibility with so much ease, having been party to the place for twenty-five years already…
By now the lunchtime rush had begun and, awaiting their places, customers were gathering at the bar like wading birds at a lake.“No bookings, no coffees,” exclaimed Mr Barfoot, brimful with cheer, and observing my wonder at how they keep the crowds moving. “When I brought in credit card machines it was big news, “Sweetings have succumbed to modern day living!”‘ he jeered in amusement at his own fearless iconoclasm, “but it did stop the queue at the Halifax cash machine across the road.”
I find it such a treat to perch at the counter at Sweetings, feeling at the very centre of the world, and perusing the long bill of fare in the daylight reflected from the mirrors on either side, where the specials of the day are written in whitewash upon the glass. These same mirrors are used strategically by the staff to send messages between them, so that you might wonder how the orders get passed around – if you were not absorbed in the quaint steel tankards that drinks are served in, and wondering if you are occupying the same seat and seeing the same view as Toulouse Lautrec or Francis Bacon, who both came here in past days.
The cuisine at Sweetings is the model of simplicity with fish grilled or fried or poached, and accompanied by fresh vegetables – only around the corners of the menu are the subtlest inflections that reveal the origins of Head Chef Carlos Vasquez in Galicia. “My mother worked in the fishmarket at Arteixo,” he admitted to me later, when I made a foray into the kitchen,“She brought home all the different kinds of fish, and taught me how to prepare and cook them.”
When your fish arrives, you scrutinise it like a scientist, because the stool and counter configuration brings you closer to your plate than sitting at a table. It looks perfect and it tastes good, and there you are in your private moment of contemplation with your fish, curiously peaceful in the midst of the clattering drama of lunch at Sweetings, in this glinting prism of glass, with the City traffic roaring past outside.
Chaxi Lujan & Paula Martinez
Carlos Vasquez, Head Chef