James Innes-Smith

Do London’s oldest restaurants still cut the mustard?

They're the antithesis of finicky fine dining

  • From Spectator Life
Wiltons on Jermyn Street [Alamy]

When George William Wilton opened his shellfish-mongers close to Haymarket in 1742, he could never have imagined that his business would still be thriving 280 years later. The place has outlived ten monarchs and is as old as Handel’s MessiahBefore visiting, I imagined a typically Hogarthian scene with portly gentlemen in dandruff-flecked suits feasting on potted shrimp and vintage port. Perhaps they had dropped by for a ‘spot of luncheon’ before toddling off to their various clubs at nearby St James’s. 

Up until relatively recently you might well have witnessed just such a quintessentially English scene; sadly, the agreeable old buffers who would once have frequented places such as Wiltons no longer exist in quite the same way. Today’s ‘old buffers’ seem neither old nor particularly buffery, having grown up in the 1970s when the concept of ageing slowed down considerably. Nowadays you are just as likely to see a 70-year-old aristo prancing around at Glasto as buying a round at the Garrick. 

My fellow diners at Wiltons are a typically international crowd with yellow Porsches parked outside and second chalets in Gstaad. Globalist ‘anywheres’ see places like this as slightly kitsch but vital signifiers of success: the sort of heritage destination where one might take a client over from Frankfurt for the day. When I visited, Chinese tourists and power-haired businesswomen were also much in evidence – in other words the sort of generic high-flyers you’d find at any executive lounge… and not a ruddy cheeked blue-blood among them. 

Rules on Maiden Lane [Alamy]

London’s other famous 18th-century survivor, Rules, comes loaded with establishment-chic, including acres of dusty oil paintings and reassuringly creaky shag pile. Thomas Rule opened his Covent Garden oyster bar in 1798 and for anyone visiting today not much has changed. Only three families have taken ownership since its inception and, as at Wiltons, continuity is paramount, with a menu that harks back to a time when steak and kidney pudding and rhubarb crumble were British staples.

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