Beneath Soho’s newly pedestrianised, spritz-soaked streets is St. Moritz.
Home to London’s longest running one-nighter club, Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues, the cave-like-venue is an institution. Forget gut-wrenching small plates and over-priced Aperols. Here’s a place where heavy-drinks flow into late night. Where hedonic-history extends back for more than a half-a-century.
As host to seminal nights like Britpop party Blow Up and punk and glam-rock night Decadance, everyone from Lou Reed to Rocco Ritchie to Meghan Markle has blasted through St Moritz’s subterranean rooms. Joe Strummer, Iron Maiden, Lee Scratch Perry and pretty much every front-page rockstar has torn up its cramped stage.
In charge is Armin Loetscher, AKA Sweety, St. Moritz’s charming, dapper owner (and chef at the restaurant upstairs). On a typical weekend at St. Moritz, you can find him flashing his mega-watt grin until the early hours, making sure the crowd of metalheads, club kids and tattooed models merge on the dancefloor, all warmed-up on a ton of booze.
Much like the club itself, Sweety’s backstory is steeped in “old” London lore. Now in his early eighties, he’s witnessed Soho morph from sleazy backstreet to streetwear destination, to Michelin-starred tourist spot. But throughout the transitions, Sweety’s St. Moritz continues to thrive.
After steam-rolling into pandemic-related obstacles throughout COVID, the club reopened last month to sweat-soaked fanfare. As rockabilly trio The Runawayz played a midnight set, the dancefloor consisted of Jimothy Lacoste, seminal hip hop photographer Eddie Otchere and a guy who described himself as a former bank robber turned horse breeder.
I caught up with Sweety, to chat about historic Soho, the club’s celeb-studded history and its future.
VICE: For those who haven’t met you, let's go back to the beginning. How did it all start?
Sweety: I moved to London in 1958 as a pastry cook. My first job was at the renowned Madame Floris bakery. While I was there, I helped work on the cake for Winston Churchill's 89th birthday and met him personally. I made cakes for the royal family and sometimes worked at Mister Floris, who was a chocolatier on Windmill Street.
Where did your nickname come from? Would you say you were a ladies man?
Ha! I was a bit naughty, yes. But I got my nickname because I would bring cakes to all the girls in Soho, and the au pair girls who came into the club on Wednesday nights in the 60s. It stuck!
How did you go from a pastry chef to the owner of St. Moritz?
I used to drink at the club. Then, one day, the owner asked me to work. I still worked as a patisserie chef in the day, then I'd be at St. Moritz at night. By 1961, the club started getting busier, so the owner asked me to work full-time. Soon it was too much for him, so I bought the club... then I changed it.
What was St. Moritz like when you took over?
In the beginning, it was a members bar, because back then you had to be for people to drink until 3:30AM. You had to be recommended by two people who had one to get a membership, and it cost £5. The crowd was very European. We had a Swiss carnival, we did fondue parties, we had nights where you paid £5 for all the beer you could drink from 6 to 9PM, après-ski-themed nights. Over the years, the club has had its own newspaper, The St Moritz News. We had a football club, F.C Moritz. The main thing is that there was always live music. When the rock’n’roll crowd started coming in, we had a cartoon in the Evening Standard about all the metalheads, punks and rockers from the night before.
Who booked the bands?
I auditioned all the groups on Monday and Tuesday. If they were good, they would get one night a week for four weeks.
St.Moritz had a cult-following of roadies. What were those guys like?
All the roadies came here from The Rainbow Room in Los Angeles and many of the British roadies from St. Moritz went there. We were famous for that. A lot of them joked you could find the same people at both places.
You became fast friends with Motörhead frontman Lemmy and became penpals when he was on tour. How?
Lemmy started coming here to drink, like everyone did after [the iconic Soho venue] the Marquee closed. When he toured America, he started sending me and the other guys postcards. I used to have them all over the walls down at the club, but most got stolen over the years. Everyone at St. Moritz liked him, especially me. Some people say he bartended here – but he didn't. Sometimes he would pour pints and you could always find him at the fruit machine. Motörhead didn't play here, but Lemmy would jump on stage with the bands sometimes.
Who were some of the rock’n’roll greats who played at St Moritz?
Everybody was here. Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel and U2. The Bay City Rollers. Metallica, AC/DC, Slayer, Status Quo and Guns and Roses all used to come and drink here. Iron Maiden had their first gig after their European tour down here. Joe Strummer played down here with his first band The 101ers. Two of the members from Deep Purple started out playing down at St. Moritz in a group called Episode Six – they were my favourite band that played here.
Speaking of Joe Strummer, didn't he write a song about you?
That's true. I didn't know he'd written a record about me until one of the boys who worked in the club told me. Joe had played a few times down at the club, but I always had trouble with the manager. We never met eye to eye. If you read the lyrics, it's not very nice about me. That might be because the night of his first gig down here, Joe took a look at the stage and how small it was and said, "How am I gonna play here?" I replied, "Well, the Kinks did it!"
You’re known for keeping very few photos of the memories. Why keep things so private?
If I made pictures of all the rockstars who played and visited the club over the years, I could have a music museum. In a way, I'm sorry for that now. But I've always believed in people's privacy. I think that's why many famous people came down here. The wives of Iron Maiden used to come down here a lot when they were on tour for that reason. If they wanted to be seen, they'd go to other clubs. If people wanted to drink and dance, they came to St.Moritz. On one of the first fliers we ever made for the club, I wrote, "Here you can let your hair down; no one will mind." That's still my attitude.
Looking back on six decades, what was your favourite era of Soho?
We always had good years, right up until now. But the best years for me were the 70s, 80s and 90s. I partied a lot in those years. Soho was a happy place. The people were happy – it was a happy time. On Berwick Street, there was a market on both sides selling vegetables and fruits, so I used to buy many things there. There were lots of clubs all around. Everyone supported each other.
In 1974, you took over the St. Moritz restaurant upstairs and began serving a locally, critically hyped cheese fondue that's still unbeatable five decades on. What’s your background as a chef?
I became one of the first TV chefs in the UK. It was all about the cheese. I was on Food and Drink on BBC 2, and on Six O'Clock Live with Danny Baker and a few different ones in Switzerland too. I was also on Breakfast Television cooking live, and I worked for the same company as Jamie Oliver eventually did. I could've done a lot more TV but I didn't have time to go. I missed my chance because I had to come back here to the restaurant and cook all the time. There’s a film about me from few years ago, where you can see all of that.
Not many Soho club owners split their time as head chef's upstairs. How does a typical day look?
I get up at 7AM. I come into Soho and have breakfast at My Place on Berwick Street, then I go and do the shopping for the restaurant. I used to go to Spitalfields for the meat once a week, but now I get it delivered. So I'll come back for lunch and help out in the kitchen. Some days I'm still the chef, or I stay and make sure things are running smoothly. I'll do some paperwork upstairs in the afternoon, then go home and take a shower or have a nap and be back at the restaurant at 6PM for dinner to do the same. Around 11PM, after we close the restaurant, I’ll go down and manage the club. In the end, I go home around 4:30AM to my place near Charlotte Street, down the road.
What does Soho feel like to you now? How hard was this past year for you?
It was tough being on Wardour Street, with all the restrictions. Really tough. Friends of mine who could have outdoor space were packed with born-again hedonists flocking to Soho to down Aperols and Prosecco at whatever cost to feel alive again. But my street couldn't be pedestrianised like other places, so we couldn't put tables outside for the restaurant. The club was closed over a year.
What does Soho feel like to me now? It's a modern time. Everything has changed. In the old days, there were many small clubs around and family-run restaurants, like me. There are big places in Soho now, so we have a lot of competition. The big places are very modern places and St. Moritz is very old fashioned. Lucky for me, some people still like the old fashioned Soho.
Nightlife was put on pause, but the rent wasn't. Were you worried that the club might not be able to open back up? Unlike many other Soho institutions in the area, you weren't interested in starting a GoFundMe page for St. Moritz, or taking any offers from people who wanted to help.
I don't believe in that. Many people offered to start a page for me, but I've never thought that was fair. This is my business. For the other people that did that, that's fine and good luck to them. But I've always done it on my own, and that's how I'll always continue to do it.
Why is it so crucial that St. Moritz sticks around?
There are lots of memories and history in this club, and I think it's important to keep that part of Soho alive. I think we should keep going because we still have more memories and history to make.