Of all the cunning ploys a restaurant can come up with to retain the loyalty of its regular customers, perhaps the most effective is to persuade them that no one else knows about it. I'm amazed at the number of people who describe J Sheekey as "an undiscovered gem" when, in fact, it's about as undiscovered as the United States of America. Situated slap bang in the middle of London's West End, with a liveried doorman standing outside, J Sheekey is packed to the rafters every night. I've bumped into German tourists straight from central casting in Leicester Square who've asked me directions to "zat feesh restaurant". Yet its regular patrons insist on calling it "London's best-kept secret". What's going on?
Perhaps the explanation is that it's not quite as well known as the Ivy and Le Caprice when, by any measure, it should be. Owned by the Belgo Group, and with the same unmistakable stamp of old-fashioned quality, J Sheekey deserves to be mentioned in exactly the same breath as the other two and yet, for some reason, it isn't. It's the culinary equivalent of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice: its virtues may not be as obvious as those of its two sisters but, actually, it's the most worthwhile of the three. Fortunately, you don't need an estate in Derbyshire to get a reservation.
Another factor that contributes to its mystique is its location. Situated down an allyway that links Lower St Martin's Lane to Charring Cross Road, it has a faintly Dickensian air. From the outside it looks a bit like one of those Ye Olde Publik Houses on Fleet Street and you half-expect to find sawdust beneath your feet and a "carvery" on the first floor. However, it's clear from the moment the doorman ushers you in that only those with lavish expense accounts can afford to eat here. If you happen to go in on a weeknight after 10.30pm this impression is confirmed by the presence of several theatre critics. I'm a theatre critic myself and for those of us who don't have nightly deadlines J Sheekey is the perfect place to recuperate. If you're lucky, you might even spot the actors you've just seen on stage. I remember one occasion when I saw Gywneth Paltrow and Madonna dining at a corner table. (They both had plays running in the West End at the time.) It doesn't get much more glamorous than that.
To the cognoscenti, it's known as Sheekey's and one of the things its renowned for is its fish. (I was going to say "famous for" but then I remembered that it's still one of the capital's "best-kept secrets".) According to both the Zagat Guide and Haden's, J Sheeky is London's number one seafood restaurant and I can recommend the fish pie. It's right up there with the Ocean Pie in the Marks & Spencer food hall, a dish I practically lived on in my bachelor days. However, it also caters to non-fish eaters which means I can still live off the same dish even though I'm now married and my wife's a vegetarian. The headwaiter made a friend for life when he presented her with a special vegetarian menu. As far as I know, it's the only smart restaurant in London to provide such a service.
Perhaps the most delightful thing about Sheekey's are the people-watching opportunities. It bills itself as a theatre restaurant, but the show at Sheekey's is often better than the one you've just seen. I don't think I've ever been to a restaurant in which I've witnessed more sugar daddies dining with their mistresses. Every other table contains some fat old plutocrat spoon-feeding a gorgeous bimbo dripping in jewellery. (The trick is to get the caviar into her mouth without spilling any down her cleavage.) I suppose this is a by-product of Sheekey's being an "undiscovered gem". So long as it remains a "undiscovered", these Bufton Tufton-types can tell themselves they're being "discreet" while wining and dining their secretaries in style. So do me a favour and don't tell anyone about it. The longer Sheekey's remains a "secret", the better.