There are many places to gauge the mood of the City of London: the Stock Exchange perhaps, the Bank of England, even Monument Tube station.But the most agreeable place to view its fortunes is from a bar stool in Sweetings Restaurant. The restaurant opened in 1889, 12 years after the Stock Exchange launched in Sweetings Alley. The money business had started in the area long before that; the word "sweeting" means "physical maker of money".
"Walking the other day in Cheapside I saw some turtles in Mr Sweeting's window, and was tempted to stay and look at them," wrote Samuel Butler in the 1890s. More than 100 years later the window is still there, although turtle is no longer on the menu.You can chart the health and independence of the City by the length and quality of its lunches. When I first covered the Square Mile in the 1990s you could be assured of robust and hearty fare at Morgan Grenfell, then one of the finest merchant banks. The afternoon would disappear in a haze of roast beef, summer pudding, stilton, port and cigars, and you were lucky if you were back at your desk by four o'clock.
Then the Germans bought the bank and frankfurters and sauerkraut were on the menu. Soon afterwards Deutsche Morgan Grenfell became Deutsche Bank, and lunch was cancelled.The Americans had already shown scant regard for the square meal: in my view, the entire financial collapse of the past year, the sub-prime crisis and much more besides, can be ascribed to the fact that bankers no longer stop for lunch.
If only everybody had followed the lead of the French, who after all, created the Statue of Liberty with an ice cream cone in her right hand, the crisis probably would never have happened. Bad trading decisions are made when blood sugar levels are low, or artificially high. The French understand the importance of the lunch hour. The soul is replenished with a plate of oysters, the mind refreshed with a slice of fresh fish. It was Jeeves, the cleverest butler of all, who owed his acuity to regular and large doses of fish. (It makes no difference at all that he was only a character in PG Wodehouse's stories.)
As I settled into my stool at Sweetings, with old Spy cartoons hanging on the beige walls and a cricket bat signed by players whose fielding days are over and who no doubt view Twenty20 cricket as an appalling pyjama circus, I looked around at my fellow diners.The place was heaving; their plan was clearly to eat their way out of the downturn: pinstriped, occasionally red-nosed, they looked pleasantly well fed, some as plump as a Whitstable oyster.
You cannot chalk up the bill on a slate; nor until very recently could you even pay by credit card. Cash was king, and if you wanted gull's eggs or asparagus you had to pay almost as soon as you had consumed them.This is not a place for idling; it doesn't even serve coffee. You are hurried through and once you've eaten, expected to leave. It is a fast-food restaurant, the McDonald's of toffs and city slickers. It is open neither in the evening nor at weekends.
If I were running a bank I should insist that all my staff abandon their workstations at 12.30 and step outside for fresh air and fillets of fish. The recipe for success at Sweetings is clear: nothing fancy, no strange continental concoctions, no derivatives.It is hardly surprising that the hedge fund boys have run into so much trouble in the past few months. They are all based in Mayfair and get used to Marco Pierre White's fine concoctions or Gordon Ramsay's fancy fare.
Mr Ramsay himself has picked up some of the practices of the financiers and now finds himself in a fine pickle. "We went over our overdraft limit and we did not hit revenue targets," he told The Daily Telegraph. He was forced to sell his flame-red Ferrari. I have long maintained that cooks should be in the kitchen, not on the television, charging around the streets in fast cars, nor dispensing financial advice.
They should be like George Walters, one of Sweetings' longest-serving waiters, sadly now retired, who was known for his polite inquiries - "Some more oysters while you are waiting?" or "A drop more brandy to liven your port?" - and was not averse to helping clients finish their jam roly-poly or their tankards.Regulars were allowed by a previous owner to hold an account to be settled quarterly. This was a credit rating as prized as a "triple-A" from Moody's or Standard & Poor's, and probably more relevant. A City Liveryman who was afforded such a privilege told me, "I felt as if I had arrived".
My bankers would be charged with getting hold of that list. The City of London will be fine as long as it remembers what it is good at. Nothing fancy, and always insist on cash however creditworthy people may appear. In John Buchan's Greenmantle, the hero is asked at the beginning of the novel to bring his friend "a barrel of oysters from Sweetings". Nearly 100 years later and the exhortation remains sound.
The only sour note was when the bill came and there was no friendly banker on hand to pay it. I shall just have to follow the lead of all those honourable British members of parliament and put it on email@example.com