Sally Lunn's Restaurant is in the centre of the city of Bath, just a stone's throw from the Abbey and Roman Baths, and just as popular with visitors. The building is said to date from the 15th century and the famous Sally Lunn bun from the 17th century. The restaurant is open all day serving a wide variety of dishes from breakfast to supper, and a small shop and museum is in the original kitchen in the basement.
Sally Lunn's has long been on the main tourist trail in Bath and is usually up there in the lists of Top Ten things to do in Bath. Queues can often form out of the door and down the street as it is such a popular spot for visitors, particularly the day trippers. Not only is it in the centre of Bath and close to all the other attractions in this lovely Georgian city, but it is believed to be the site of the oldest house in Bath, built in 1482.
The History of Sally Lunns
The claim to be the oldest house in Bath may not strictly be true, although there is no doubting the heritage of the site. Excavations have shown evidence of Roman occupation, quite possibly as an inn for the travellers using the nearby baths. In later years, the site was once part of the Abbey, with the masonry oven from the refectory's kitchens in the basement dating to the 12th century, when the Abbey was reconstructed after a huge fire; in fact it rests on rubble of burnt pink stone.
The site was part of the Duke of Kingston's House in 1482 and changed hands several times until 1662, when the house was leased to a builder who built the house you see there today, on the remains of the Abbey building.
What is now the basement was once the ground floor of the house as in 1750 the ground level of North Parade Passage was raised. The house also once faced the Abbey and the shopfront window was added around 1800 as well as some extensive re-modelling. The basement and a timber-framed rear wall is a part of the original house, but little of the rest of it can really claim to be from 1482.
That being said, it is still a medieval building and gives a good glimpse into Bath before the Georgians, when it was confined within city walls with narrow lanes and gabled roofs. The Georgians opened up the city and introduced the wide parades, terraces and squares which we are so familiar with today, but this building shows us a very different side to the city.
As with all origin stories, there is also some debate over Sally Lunn and her buns. The restaurant firmly claims that Sally Lunn was a Huguenot, Solange Luyon, who fled persecution in France in 1680. She found work in a bakery in the street and soon began producing her buns, which are similar to French brioche. Her name was anglicised to Sally Lunn and her buns became hugely popular in Bath and further afield.
The other side of the story is that Sally Lunn is an anglicisation of "Soleil et lune" (French for "sun and moon"), meant to be the golden crust and white interior of the bun. There seems to be no historical record of a Sally Lunn, but then there wouldn't necessarily be one, so it seems that their origin will be forever a mystery. Whichever it is, Sally Lunn buns passed into popular culture and were soon being referred to by Dickens, Trollope, the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan and famous 20th century cookery writer, Elizabeth David.
Inside the ground floor of the restaurant
The building went through several uses in the subsequent years including as a bakers and a Post Office. The recipe for Sally Lunn's buns was a strictly guarded secret, which was conveniently found in the 1930s in a secret cupboard within the wooden panelling by a woman who opened a tea shop on the site.
Eating at Sally Lunns
Today the Historic Eating House is part restaurant, part museum. It serves meals throughout the day, many based around the bun. Evening meals are served 'trencher style', with your food served on half of a bun as a plate (although fortunately they do also give you a plate).
There is a decent choice of food on the menu and a mix of savoury and sweet - the bun can adapt to both depending on what is served with it. The bun is light and airy and seems to be a mix of bread and cake. You do not need to book to eat there during the day, but it is advisable for evening meals.
If you want to eat there it is less crowded for an evening meal when most of the day trippers have gone. I recently ate there in August at 5.30pm and we nearly had the ground floor to ourselves - I did hear the waitress saying how the queues earlier in the day had been out of the building and round the corner, so early evening was definitely a good time to eat, even in peak season.
Sally Lunn's Museum
The museum is tiny, no more than a single room in the basement, but it is free to enter and is well worth a look.
The museum can be accessed through the outside left hand door - just head down the narrow passageway and down the stairs to your left. You will see a small shop selling the buns, as well as part of the original kitchen.
They have set it out with Sally Lunn baking her buns; firewood bundled up ready to heat the ovens, sacks of flour, dough proving, buns waiting to be cooked and some just out of the oven. You can see the old ovens, the hotchpotch of features from the previous incarnations of the building, and through a door into what looks like a such an old outdoor space that there are thin stalactites and stalagmites present.
On the other side of the basement behind a glass wall is evidence of minor excavations showing the ages of the building and some finds from them - everything from Roman shards to medieval cutlery and a Woodbine cigarette packet.
A trip to Bath is not complete without at least a visit to the museum, and many would insist that you should try a Sally Lunn bun too. You can buy these from the shop so it's not necessary to eat in the restaurant, but it does make for a good, complete experience. If it's peak season, get to the museum as it opens and eat in the restaurant early evening to avoid the worst of the crowds.