Recognisable by its vibrant canopies and centuries-old signage, J Sheekey is a London institution famed for its scintillating seafood dishes. It is to be found a mere clam's throw away from London’s lively Theatreland and is a pocket of old worldly sophistication amid the chaotic razzamataz of the West End. The Covent Garden stalwart is made up of three parts: the original restaurant, the buzzy Atlantic Bar and an al fresco terrace.
I visit to test out the newly revamped terrace but owing to the British weather, I decamp inside to a cosy corner of the Atlantic Bar. No matter – there is no bad seat at J Sheekey.
The mood-lit Atlantic Bar was subtly spruced up in 2016 and features a central, marble-topped oyster bar and bustling backroom of tables, alongside an air of old worldly glamour. Renowned cartoonist Kipper Williams has produced a charming series of illustrations for the restaurant, which line the walls and make the menu feel more like a storybook.
The Atlantic Bar specialises in small plates of superb seafood and shellfish, with a few contemporary surprises thrown in. My evening starts sweetly with champagne and Jersey Pearl oysters, followed by stone bass ceviche, bathing in a vibrant citrus dressing and served with plantain crisps.
Then there is slippery, seared octopus, piquant with paprika and Isle of Mull scallops, glistening with garlic butter. Smoked eel and ham croquettes are fat, crispy and delicious while plump tiger prawns are fiery with flavour, served with a generous dollop of lemon yoghurt.
J Sheekey draws an international crowd of well-heeled tourists and Londoners, plus a smattering of celebrities – on the evening I dine, playwright Christopher Hampton is at the neighbouring table.
Elsewhere, fathers and sons tuck into iced tiers of plateau de fruits de mer, while pin-sharp waiters zip past balancing whole crabs and cocktails, and couples pop by for a pre-theatre flute and oysters. I felt like leaning over and suggesting that they skipped the play – for a night at J Sheekey makes for an unforgettable show.
28-32 St Martin's Court, London WC2N 4AL, www.j-sheekey.co.uk