The world’s oldest restaurant is generally acknowledged as Madrid´s Restaurante Sobrino de Botín, in operation since 1725 and still roasting meats in an oven now almost 300 years old. Not far behind, however, lie a number of restaurants in London.
The city may have had a dining revolution in the past couple of decades as exciting young chefs open new ventures, but they’re only the latest to follow in a lot of footsteps since the mid-18th century in England.
Here are six of the city´s finest and most renowned culinary centenarians:
Wiltons’ story begins in 1742 when founder George Wilton opened a shellfish-monger stall inside the 18th-century Haymarket – the go-to place for hay and fresh produce.
A respected oyster salesman, Wilton soon counted the British royal family among his loyal customers. Over the next few generations, the stall evolved into Wiltons Oyster Rooms, changing locations and ownership several times.
During the bombing of London in WWII, then-owner Bessie Leal was so shaken by a nearby bomb – landing on St James’ Church – that she hung up her apron and announced her intention to sell Wiltons.
One of her regulars promptly agreed to buy the place, famously asking Leal to put the restaurant on his check. Now 275 years old, the seafood eatery is the oldest restaurant in London (although others also lay claim to the title).
Oysters remain on the menu – from Loch Ryan in Scotland and West Mersea in Essex – while Rhug Estate beef or Dover Sole offer a taste of British produce. Today, Wiltons feels like a private gentleman’s club – at least in the British sense of the phrase – unsurprising, given the old-school atmosphere of St. James’ district in Central London.
Wiltons, 55 Jermyn Street, St. James’s, London; +44 20 7629 9955
When Thomas Rule opened his Covent Garden oyster bar in 1798, Napoleon was just beginning the French campaign in Egypt. The bar quickly became known for “porter [a type of dark beer], pies and oysters.”
Rules calls itself the “oldest restaurant in London,” openly contesting Wiltons’ claim to the title. During its 219 years in business, just three families have owned Rules.
This is a resolutely British operation. Photos and paintings of Queen Elizabeth II and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher look down from the walls to drive the point home. Regular customers have included literary Brits, such as authors Graham Greene, H.G. Wells and Charles Dickens, as well as celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable and King Edward VII.
On the menu, travelers can expect produce sourced from the British Isles, especially in game season when birds such as grouse and woodcock grace the plates.
Rules, Covent Garden, 34-35 Maiden Ln, London; +44 20 7836 5314
3. The Ivy
It’s not the oldest restaurant in London, but The Ivy is a dining institution. The restaurant opened in 1917 as an Italian café, but its modest paper napkins quickly morphed into fine linens, as The Ivy became one of the capital’s see-and-be-seen dining rooms.
Located in the heart of theaterland, near Covent Garden, The Ivy became popular with actors and performers – while owner Abel Giandellini would even send meals to dressing rooms between performances.
Back then, if a customer wanted an alcoholic drink, waitresses would have to visit the nearest pub to pick it up. That’s certainly not the case anymore. Today Champagne, wine and cocktails flow day and night, lubricating conversation amongst a veritable who’s who of London.
Paparazzi frequently camp outside waiting for celebrities to exit. Recently refurbished in honor of the centennial, the restaurant will celebrate with special menus, cocktails and even an intimate performance by Australian singer Kylie Minogue.
Favorite dishes include the shepherd’s pie and Executive Chef Gary Lee’s “A Window to The Ivy” dessert, inspired by the restaurant’s stained glass windows.
The Ivy, 5 West St, London; +44 20 7836 4751
Another London old-timer owes its beginnings to bivalves.
Opened in 1830, Sweetings started as John S. Sweetings, Fish and Oyster Merchant, in the north London neighborhood of Islington. Advertised as “very superior oyster rooms,” Sweetings served a mix of Dover soles and salmon, lobsters and oysters.
After several moves, the current location – simply named Sweetings, in the heart City of London financial district – has been occupied for more than a century. The vintage interiors are refreshingly untouched by modernity, save for framed cricket bats and chalkboards to outline the daily specials.
No prizes for guessing that British seafood is still the hero – best sampled in dishes such as potted shrimps, smoked eel or chef’s fish pie. To follow, save room for steamed syrup pudding or brilliant Welsh rarebit, which takes cheese on toast to new heights.
Sweetings, 39 Queen Victoria St, London; +44 20 7248 3062
5. Simpson’s in the Strand
With high ceilings and huge chandeliers, Simpson’s in the Strand feels like an 18th-century private club. The atmosphere is appropriate, given the restaurant’s 189th birthday this year and high-profile clientele.
Over the past three centuries, Simpson’s in the Strand has welcomed a stream of notable regulars, including Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and even his fictional character, Sherlock Holmes.
A historic landmark since 1828, when it opened as a chess club and coffee house, Simpson’s in the Strand pioneered the use of carving trolleys. Joints of British beef, lamb and pork would be silently wheeled and served tableside so as to not distract the chess players.
One of the original chefs stipulated that everything in the restaurant should be British. To this day, the menu remains largely focused on UK culinary traditions and ingredients, including a roast beef carved tableside.
Simpson’s in the Strand, 100 Strand, London; +44 20 7836 9112
6. F Cooke
London’s dining scene is nothing if not varied, and 155-year-old F Cooke’s pie and mash shop shows how home-style, great-value food still draws customers in droves. Back in 1862, Robert Cooke opened this humble shop, serving simple dishes such as pie, mash and parsley sauce.
To this day, the unique London dining institution continues to use the original recipes and the shop is remarkably still run by the Cooke family – now in their fourth generation.
Such is its status, the modest address draws a following from celebrity chefs, such as Heston Blumenthal from the three-Michelin-starred Fat Duck in Maidenhead, west of the city.
The secret to centuries of success? Only Scotch beef goes into their pies, which make for a hearty meal when combined with mashed potato and sauce – all for just £4.30, or $5.
Another popular dish, to the surprise of many, is eels. Traditionally served in a cold jelly, F Cooke’s eels are available for takeaway so travelers can enjoy a slippery taste of culinary history on-the-go.
F Cooke, 150 Hoxton St, London; +44 20 7729 7718
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Chris Dwyer is a Hong Kong-based food and travel writer and communications consultant. Follow him on Twitter at @chrismdwyer or visit www.finefooddude.com.