If I told you that birthday cakes would be banned forever and there would be no more Christmas, you might get a taste of how I felt when I heard about Jeremy King in his attempts to save his London restaurant, The Wolseley , Piccadilly was outbid. Hospitality group Minor International now has full control over it and eight sister restaurants of Corbin & King and will likely take the group in a different direction.
The place my father called “the best room in London” has woven itself into the rhythm of the way so many Londoners party. It’s a place that excelled at birthdays, anniversaries and moments of triumph, and has unparalleled merriment, a grand but informal theatrical glamour, a distinctly schnitzel-scented view of the old country (for those of us with emigrant blood) and a side nod on the land offered Hollywood’s golden age. Sitting at one of the tables, it wasn’t hard to imagine a starburst of Busby Berkeley chorus girls, framed in a pink bouquet, high-kicking their way through the heavy panel doors. Or Fred Astaire, noisily tapping on the floor above it, desperately asking for a tissue-paper-lined silver tub of hot fries.
The Wolseley quickly became the epitome of good days for me. There we took care of all our rites of passage, knowing that this ceremony would always continue in the best way with joy. The initial radiant greeting behind the counter set the tone: “Good evening, Miss Boyt!”, the choreography of the waiters’ dips and swerves that inspired confidence, the impossibly high vaulted ceiling, the usual reliable food, the zigzag pattern in the marble floor so wild and austere – a furnishing style that could be described as highly monastic jazz. Of course, Jeremy King’s elegant figure – Cary Grantish in perfect tailoring like that magically perceptive uncle you never had – with sincere concern asking how you were doing didn’t hurt. To me, The Wolseley was like that fabled land envisioned by the wistful Dorothy stranded in gray Kansas: “A place where there are no problems . . . ”
Now it feels like the end of that era.
The Wolseley was not only a place to celebrate triumphs, but also a place of great comfort. However abandoned you may be feeling, this restaurant on Piccadilly could turn your mood in half an hour. When falling out of favor with teenagers – “Mom, all you care about are books and grilled fish” – or with editors or with oneself, the comforts available there were second to none. To be treated like a queen is royalty by definition. Now and then I’ve had a banana split in a pout there. What chance does resentment have in the face of caramelized bananas, whipped cream pyramids and raspberry sauce?
The Wolseley was also an escape to elegance after uncertain beginnings. Two fingers for the teacher who once compared me to a barrel in front of the whole class, or a school friend’s lanky mother who told me next to her George III rocking horse, “If you talked to yourself, you wouldn’t notice anyone coming out of a broken one.” Home.” When someone recently suggested that I “maybe could have made it as a hand model,” I headed to The Wolseley and thought of Churchill’s famous saying about champagne: In victory I deserve it. If I lose, I need it.
Of course, big changes in luxury restaurants don’t count for much to many in today’s cost-of-living crisis, but it’s worth remembering that a three-course meal at Zédel, Corbin & King’s huge Parisian brasserie on Sherwood Street is awesome might be available for £16. When I interviewed King eight years ago, he said that the people who spend the least are usually the most interesting. It is a fact that the group treated the staff exceptionally well.
My most treasured memories of The Wolseley are the times I spent with my father. In the last years of his life he walked six out of seven nights, usually accompanied by one of his children, sitting at the right-hand corner table, “like a postage stamp”. We never lived together and for me the restaurant has taken on the character of our home. We had our table, our routines, our shiny jars of shrimp. After all, we knew how to do it.
People joined us – it was a bit like at court – friends and acquaintances with their best anecdotes. I remember the milliner Philip Treacy telling us he brought Elizabeth Taylor hats to Claridges and said she could keep the one she liked best and she said she liked them all. Once the historian Antonia Fraser came up and asked my father, “Who would you say is your favorite child?” It was a piping hot reversal of for a moment King Lear. In a flash, he replied, “The one I’m with, of course.” Phew!
Then songs were sung. Even in his senior year, his ability to memorize lyrics was exceptional. We sang softly at the table as if it were normal, usually from the Great American Songbook, about love gone wrong. Perhaps most poignant of all, we’d try Cole Porter’s “I’ve Still Got My Health” (“so what do I care”) with its extraordinarily wacky opening: “I wasn’t born to stately halls of alabaster / I have ‘I didn’t give Mrs. Astor many eggs.’
After that, an eighty-year-old cab driver named David Goldsmith would often be waiting. He’d been picking my father up since the 1950s and he’d happily name every street he’d ever lived on: Delamere, Clifton, Gloucester, Thorngate, Clarendon. . .
I was having breakfast at The Wolseley on Friday morning when I heard the news. I walked out into the Piccadilly sun and immediately it started snowing.
Susie Boyt’s latest novel is ‘Loved and Missed’ (Virago)
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https://www.ft.com/content/587ad37a-9641-40df-bc21-75c02aae7c85 A love letter to The Wolseley