Old eateries have been in the news a fair bit recently, after Soho’s The Gay Hussar and sister restaurant Elena’s L’etoile were put up for sale. Both seem likely to close, despite action by MPs to try and keep The Gay Hussar open. Founded 60 years ago in 1953, the Hungarian institution on Greek Street has certainly had a good innings compared to most venues, but it’s just a youngster compared to many in the capital. We dug around to find 10 places to eat and drink in London which are much older than that and which are still going strong now.
Note that we haven’t included pubs in this list as they are a massive and history-drenched subject in their own right.
Wiltons - opened 1742 (271 years old)
You could think of Wiltons as one of the oldest restaurants in London, but it has moved around too much to properly achieve that title. You could certainly think of it as the original street food residency, though. It all started on a stall selling oysters, shrimps and cockles on Haymarket; as business prospered, owner George William Wilton opened up a fishmonger shop with a sit-in oyster room on Cockspur Street by Trafalgar Square in 1805. The first fully-fledged Wiltons seafood restaurant then opened in Ryder Street (just off St. James’ Street) in 1840. Over the next 150 years, the restaurant moved location several times, but never left the area. It was in 1964 that it moved into its current site in Jermyn Street where it still serves simple, fresh seafood with flair.
Simpson’s Tavern - opened 1757 (256 years old)
This City restaurant claims to be London’s first Chophouse, and it’s easy to believe. It was established by Thomas Simpson after the demolition of his first restaurant Fish Ordinary Restaurant near Old Billingsgate Market. It wasn’t until 1916 that ladies were admitted here, but nowadays all are welcome for distinctly mediocre but quintessentially British pub-style food.
Rules - opened 1798 (215 years old)
Rules in Covent Garden is very commonly cited as the oldest restaurant in London, though according to our calculations that just isn’t the case. This confusion is almost certainly down to the definition of where a pub ends and a restaurant begins (thus Simpson’s Tavern isn’t included). Since its opening, Rules has had a fondness for serving game. This was strengthened during World War II when non-rationed food such as rabbits, pheasants and grouse were a big luxury, and to this day Rules is always among the first restaurants in the UK to serve game when the new season begins on the glorious 12th August. Customers over the years have included Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin.
Simpsons-in-the-Strand - opened 1828 (185 years old)
Completely unrelated to Simpson’s Tavern, this Strand venue opened as a smoking room and coffee house before becoming well known around 20 years later as a destination for the finest traditional English food. It simultaneously also gained renown as the country’s most important venue for chess. The game is no longer played here, but its legacy lives on in the way that waiters here place large joints of meat on silver-domed trolleys and wheel them to guests' tables rather than carry dishes individually, which was originally done to avoid disturbing the games. Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw have all eaten here, and P.G. Wodehouse called it “a restful temple of food”.
The Newman Arms Pie Room - opened 1863 (150 years old)
OK, so this one’s a pub. But with an upstairs space dedicated to pies, it still very much warrants inclusion. If you pop in here, you will see the walls littered with historic artefacts from its younger years and newspaper cuttings from days gone by. The wood-beamed upstairs dining room feels as old as it is, and the pies served are as traditional as ever, even if it is now quite an up-to-date, slick operation. Dylan Thomas and George Orwell are among those who have enjoyed numerous pies and pints here in the past.
Kettner’s - opened 1867 (146 years old)
This Soho staple comes with impressive heritage, being founded by Auguste Kettner who was formerly chef to Napoleon III of France. It opened when French cuisine was only just emerging in London and quickly became famous for serving what was at the time exciting and exotic food. The Grade II listed building and the food served within it have barely changed over the years, though it’s now far from cutting edge; Kettner’s is still a decent mid-price restaurant and one of the West End’s most popular pre-theatre spots.
Criterion - opened 1873 (140 years old)
This opulent, ballroom-esque venue attached to the theatre of the same name at Piccadilly Circus gained an early reputation as one of the very best restaurants in London for its (at the time modern) British and European food. It was frequented by Arthur Conan-Doyle along with many other royal and notable names. More recently, the underground theatre was a predictably big draw during the bomb attacks of World War II, but not long after the war ended, a dip in popularity saw the whole complex marked for demolition; it was saved only due to high-profile opposition from actors and directors involved with the theatre. The restaurant has changed hands a few time since, including being owned by Marco Pierre White for eight years prior to being bought by a Georgian entrepreneur who still owns it now. Criterion again serves modern European food, and receives very mixed reviews.
Sweetings - opened 1889 (124 years ago)
Open from Monday to Friday for lunch only, Sweetings has been a busy City institution for well over 100 years, standing as a constant in its Grade II listed building on Queen Victoria Street while skyscrapers, stock markets and bombs have varyingly risen and fallen around it. It serves fried, grilled or poached fish of many kinds, along with a small selection of traditional starters and desserts. In all its time, Sweetings has been owned by only six different groups of people, the most recent taking over in 2001.
Gordon’s Wine Bar - opened 1890 (123 years old)
Gordon’s is one of London’s best known and most atmospheric bars; it’s also one of the busiest and most touristy. It’s widely thought to be the oldest wine bar in the city, and it’s quite likely that it’s the oldest in the world, too. It’s set in the vaults of demolished Georgian houses, one of which used to be occupied by Samuel Pepys, and is still run by the Gordon family who founded it. The bar still serves its famous buffet of meats, cheeses and pies, although they have begrudging had to change their set-up due to increasing health and safety rules.
Veeraswamy - opened in 1926 (87 years old)
It’s a big leap forward in time to Veeraswamy’s opening, but as the first Indian restaurant in the UK it’s no less significant for it. In imperialist times, it was opened by the grandson of an English general and an Indian princess; it soon became a fashionable destination among the wealthy, not least for its prestigious spot overlooking Regent Street. In a city now filled with Indian restaurants of all levels, Veeraswamy still holds its own as an opulent dining option and serves modernised food while still exuding regal history.
This article is part of our Best of London Food and Drink series. Visit the page for more recommendations of where to enjoy the capital's top food and drink, categorised by cuisine, food type and more.