If I told you birthday cake was banned forever and there wasn’t going to be Christmas any more, you might get a flavour of what I felt when I heard that Jeremy King had been outbid in his attempts to rescue his restaurant The Wolseley on London’s Piccadilly. Hospitality group Minor International now has full control of it and eight Corbin & King sister restaurants and is likely to 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 celebrate. It’s a place that excelled at birthdays, anniversaries and moments of triumph, providing unrivalled cheer, a grand yet informal theatrical glamour, a distinct Schnitzel-scented glance to the old country (for those of us with émigré blood) and a sideways nod towards the Golden Age of Hollywood. It wasn’t hard, sitting at one of its tables, to imagine a starburst of Busby Berkeley chorus girls framed in pink ostrich, high-kicking their way through the heavy plate doors. Or Fred Astaire tap-dancing loudly on the floor above, desperate for a tissue-paper-lined silver beaker of hot chips.
The Wolseley soon became a byword for high days with me. We tended to all our rites of passage there, knowing that ceremony would always be stood on, in the best way, with delight. The initial beaming welcome from behind the desk set the tone: “Good evening Miss Boyt!”, the choreography of the waiters’ dips and swerves inspiring confidence, the impossibly high vaulted ceiling, the familiar reliable food, the zigzag pattern in the marble floor so wild and strict — an interior design style that you might term high monastic jazz. Of course the elegant figure of Jeremy King — Cary Grantish in perfect tailoring like the magically attentive uncle you never had — asking with genuine concern how you were, didn’t hurt. For me, The Wolseley has been like that fabled land imagined by yearning Dorothy stuck in grey Kansas, “Some place where there isn’t any trouble . . . ”
It feels like the end of that era now.
As well as a place to celebrate triumphs, The Wolseley has also been a site of great solace. However forlorn you felt, the restaurant on Piccadilly could turn around your mood in half an hour. When in disgrace with teenagers — “Mum, all you care about is books and grilled fish” — or with editors, or with oneself, the comfort available there was unmatched. Being treated like a queen, by definition, is ennobling. Now and then I have had a banana split there in a sulk. What chance does any grudge stand in the face of caramelised bananas, pyramids of whipped cream and raspberry sauce?
The Wolseley also represented an escape to elegance after uncertain beginnings. Two fingers to the teacher who once compared me in front of the whole class to a barrel, or the rangy mother of a school friend who told me next to their George III rocking horse, “Talking to you, no one would guess you’re from a broken home.” Recently when someone suggested that I could “maybe have made it as a hand model”, I made a beeline for The Wolseley thinking of Churchill’s famous pronouncement on champagne: in victory I deserve it. In defeat I need it.
Of course with today’s cost-of-living crisis, big changes at luxurious restaurants might not count for much with many, but it’s worth remembering that at Zédel, Corbin & King’s enormous Parisian brasserie in Sherwood Street, a slap-up three course meal could be had for £16. When I interviewed King eight years ago, he said the people who spent the least were usually the most interesting. It’s a fact that the group treated staff exceptionally well.
My most precious memories of The Wolseley are times spent with my father. In his last couple of years he went six nights out of seven, usually accompanied by one of his children, sitting at the right-hand corner table, “like a stamp”. We never lived together and for me the restaurant took on the character of our home. We had our table, our routines, our gleaming tankards of prawns. We did know how to do it after all.
People joined us — it was a bit like court life — friends and acquaintances bringing their best anecdotes. I remember the milliner Philip Treacy telling us he’d taken hats to Elizabeth Taylor at Claridges, saying she could keep the one she most liked and she said she’d like them all. Once the historian Antonia Fraser came and asked my father, “Who would you say is your favourite child?” It was a scalding inversion, for a moment, of King Lear. Quick as a flash, he replied: “The one I’m with of course.” Phew!
Then there was the singing of songs. Even in his last year, his capacity for remembering lyrics was exceptional. We sang away quietly at the table, as though it were normal, usually from the Great American Songbook, about love gone awry. Perhaps most poignantly of all we’d attempt Cole Porter’s “I’ve Still Got My Health” (“so what do I care”) with its extraordinarily mad opening: “I wasn’t born to stately halls of alabaster / I haven’t given many balls for Mrs Astor.”
Afterwards an octogenarian taxi driver called David Goldsmith would often be waiting. He’d been picking up my father since the 1950s and liked to recite the names of every street he’d ever lived: Delamere, Clifton, Gloucester, Thorngate, Clarendon . . .
I was at The Wolseley on Friday morning having breakfast when I heard the news. I walked out into the Piccadilly sunshine and instantly it began to snow.
Susie Boyt’s latest novel is ‘Loved and Missed’ (Virago)
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