WHEN in 1980 Graham Needham took over Sweetings, the 104-year-old City of London fish and oyster restaurant, he 'pulled it up', said a regular. With his 'mine host' role and his infectious enthusiasm, he delighted customers. He welcomed them at the door, with a slap on the back, a handshake, even a glass of champagne. He was an alchemist who turned inquisitive newcomers into regulars.
The idiosyncratic decor of the old restaurant remained: the faded yellow walls are still adorned with prints and posters and an array of exposed heating-pipes; mahogany counters are spread with white tablecloths, where pin-striped lunchers drink Black Velvet out of pewter tankards and, perched high on bar- stools, eat grilled fish.
An octogenarian devotee, who first ate at Sweetings in 1926 and has lunched there four times a week for the last 30 years, believes that Needham's skill lay in the interest he took in all his customers and in his abundant generosity. For the privileged few, special bottles of wine were magically produced from the cellar and later appeared on the bill listed simply as 'house wine'. Needham was like an old-style publican, always in the right place at the right time, chatting to customers while he opened an oyster or searched for a pot of homemade anchovy sauce.
He had a talent for employing people. A friend supplied him with fresh fish daily, from Billingsgate Market. He had popular chefs, whose judgement he rarely questioned, and was good at choosing friendly and loyal staff whom he could trust to get on with the running of the restaurant. George Walters, one of his longest-serving waiters, was known for his rejoinders - 'Some more oysters while you are waiting?', or 'A little brandy to liven your port?' - and was not averse to helping clients finish their jam roly-poly.
Needham described himself as 'a chef who happens to own a restaurant'. He referred to Sweetings as his 'dugout' and he and his wife, who looks after the book-keeping, were more often than not on the premises. The key to his success as a restaurateur, apart from a natural rumbustiousness and warmth of personality, may have lain in his knowledge of the business both sides of the serving hatch.
Born in Welling, east London, in 1934, he took a catering course at Westminster College. After spending time in the kitchens of Claridges he became head chef of the Institute of Directors in Belgrave Square. He then gained banqueting experience at the Park Lane Hotel, from 1958 to 1960. Aged 31 he took up a lecturing post in classical cooking at the South East Technical College. It was not until 1970 that he returned to cooking, as head chef of Scott's in Mount Street, where he worked in the kitchen and also front-of-house. When he realised his dream in 1980 and bought Sweetings, he had no difficulty in persuading several old pupils from the technical college to help him out.
Sweetings has the timeless character of all City institutions. Faithful regulars among the predominantly male clientele were allowed by Needham to hold an account which was settled quarterly. A City Liveryman who was afforded such a privilege said, 'I felt as if I had arrived.'