In Conversation With London's Restaurant Kings

They're the restauranteurs with the midas touch, the people behind The Wolseley and several other of London's most famous and successful restaurants. But how did they do it? And what are the secrets of their success? Esquire sat down with Chris Corbin and Jeremy King to hear how they built a culinary empire

Most Popular

1 The Wolseley
European café/restaurant, W1. 2003

Jeremy King: The Wolseley was our first restaurant. Having sold Caprice Holdings, and while we were looking for a hotel, The Wolseley was on the market. At the time it was called China House. The owners had conspired against the building: the ceilings had been painted brown and red, with big palm trees. But it was such a magnificent room. When I took Chris [Corbin] down there and asked him what he thought, he said, “Well, you always wanted to do a grand café. This, surely, is the place.” It talked immediately of a Viennese coffee house – look at Café Central or somewhere like that. But at the same time it’s generically quite akin to a French brasserie. It’s a hybrid. David Collins designed this for us, and he taught me a big lesson: if you look at his original designs, they bear no resemblance to how the place looks now. Designers often feel that they need to impose themselves on a place. The maxim I have is that great design does not shout for attention, but should withstand scrutiny.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Chris Corbin: It was the very hot summer of 2003, and I can remember working with a small team of consultants and a workforce of ten. It was pressurised and challenging... but, looking back now, the sense of achievement is immense.

JK: Of all our restaurants, The Wolseley has, perhaps, the most breathtaking interior. And we were keen to work with the building. We did a clever thing with the pillars. They were bright red and fought with the room, but English Heritage said that we had to keep them. So they’ve been clad in black gesso [a chalk paint], with the original red paint safely retained underneath. It’s almost impossible to tell what dates from 1921, when it was built as a showroom for Wolseley cars, and 1926, when it was refurbished as a bank. The distinctive U-shaped counter that runs around the restaurant was part of the bank. It’s listed, but we were happy to use it because it gave the room definition. Also, one of the biggest problems in a space like this is air conditioning, and most of the cool air comes out through the counter. The colour scheme is very strong. The dash of colour comes from the Japanese lacquer panelling.

Most Popular

The original architect, William Curtis Green, had been working for years on housing in the London suburbs, and was bored. Then this opportunity came up. He tried to incorporate almost every architectural device: the exterior is somewhat Palladian and there are Romeo-and-Juliet balconies. But because he was a great architect, it didn’t become a cacophony. We wanted The Wolseley to look as though it had been there since the Twenties. A year ago, we spent more than £1m refurbishing the building, but people haven’t really noticed. And that’s the whole idea – it’s been upgraded for longevity.

This was the first restaurant where we fully implemented a policy where we keep 17 tables unreserved, to encourage people to walk in off the street. I think that’s a really important thing.

thewolseley.com
 

2 The Beaumont

Five-star luxury hotel, W1, 2014

CC: We were looking for a hotel venue in 2002 when we were introduced to 160 Piccadilly, which became The Wolseley. It is always about finding the perfect site; the site tells us if it’s right for us.

JK: This opportunity came up in 2008, although we didn’t open until 2014. Yes, we had a beautiful art-deco building from 1926, but it was built as a full-service garage, effectively serving Selfridges. I was lying in bed at 4am on the day I had to brief the architects and landlord thinking: what’s it going to be? I worried the building didn’t have a history to feed off other than it being a garage.

So, I thought: let’s make up a history. London, pretty depressed in 1926. Why would somebody build a hotel? And I was transported to New York, and imagined a very good hotel general manager, lamenting to two of his wealthy guests that Prohibition had made being a hotelier impossible, and that he was getting out of the business. They persuaded him not to, and they said: why don’t you go somewhere else? And they talked about London, where he’d been in World War I, attached to the American Embassy around the corner. They said: why don’t you go there and we’ll finance you to open a medium-sized hotel? Immediately, I knew what it looked like. The porte-cochère, entering by the revolving doors, through the double doors and into the American Bar – or Jimmy’s Bar, because I’d named this man James Beaumont. And then going through two more doors into the sort of restaurant that Jimmy would have opened in the Twenties – because he would have been heavily influenced by the speakeasies of New York: Stork Club, 21, The Colony and others.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

So, on the walls of the Colony Grill, San Francisco, artist John Mattos has produced murals. They relate to cities and places that would have been very poignant for Jimmy because he’s left them behind. And he loves sport. So the murals evoke different regions: swimming in New York, speedboat racing on Lake Tahoe, skiing in Aspen, and so it goes on. Underneath these is a selection of caricatures; people who Jimmy would have known in New York: Sherman Billingsley from the Stork Club, people from literature and the arts. Many are signed “To Jimmy” to complete the subterfuge. Unlike some hotels, there’s no repetition of images and they stretch to the back of the house – even where customers can’t see, there are paintings, photographs, prints from the same period, some 1,700 in total.

Everything needs to be compact, comfortable and self-contained. Although the chairs were made in Europe from a classic Thonet model, those are very much American bar-room chairs. Have you ever been in restaurants where you keep getting your chair kicked? It’s because it splays out at the bottom. The extent of the chair on the top, where the person is sitting, should be the same as the base. Large chairs are not convivial in restaurants. You want a small chair, which leads to intimacy. The ideal thing in a restaurant is that you’re never more than 35 to 40 inches away from the person you’re trying to talk to.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

thebeaumont.com

 

3 Colbert

French café/bistro, SW1, 2012

CC: This ended up being our third venture to open in the same year… the best laid plans! The Sloane Square site had always been one we had coveted and it happened to come along at the same time as some others were offered to us.

JK: There are three rooms at Colbert [the Old Room, the New Room and the bar]. The landlord wanted it to be similar to The Wolseley, but actually, after talking to people, it became clear that what they enjoy about this area is the idea of having a French boulevard café / restaurant, which you can use all day. And then the story of Pierre came to me. I imagined him running something like the Café de Flore, but being chased out of Paris after seducing the owner’s daughter. So, he came to London and wanted to open somewhere. Chelsea, before the war, was cheap, so he opened this as a bar, serving a bit of food. And because he did really well, because he was a good operator, he acquired the next shop along – which is what we call the Old Room. There’s a canvas at the back with old French characters. And the fictional Pierre is there, too. It’s also full of photographs of Chelsea, the Royal Court Theatre and actors. And in the Old Room, the floor, cornicing and ceiling are all different because, if the place had grown over a period of five or ten years, the styles would have changed. And then I wanted it to be that the New Room also had different panelling and light fittings. The walls here are dedicated to French cinema of the Forties and Fifties. Because I imagined that by then Pierre’s son had got involved and he would have been obsessed with film – as they all were.

Most Popular

Why did Pierre call it Colbert? There’s a well-known restaurant in Paris called Le Grand Colbert – it’s not so good now – and Jean-Baptiste Colbert was Louis XIV’s finance minister. There is also the Comité Colbert, which protects French history. Deep down I think Pierre just fancied Claudette Colbert, so her photograph’s here, too.

There’s a lot of design and art involved, even down to the cutlery and glasses we use – people are not going to stop and say, “This is nice cutlery,” but they’ll feel it. If you drink wine from a thick-rimmed goblet, it doesn’t taste as good as if you taste it from a thinner one.

colbertchelsea.com
 

4 Brasserie Zédel

Brasserie/bar/cafe/cabaret, W1, 2012

CC: The idea was to offer great value for money without compromising on a high level of service, all served in a luxurious setting.

JK: It seats 240 in the main dining room. Alongside the restaurant is the Bar Américain, a cabaret and a café. Everybody thought I was crazy when I returned from viewing the site, previously better known as [notorious Nineties celebrity haunt] the Atlantic Bar & Grill. It was thought of as being a rather murky, decadent club. I must admit I was reluctant even to view it. Everybody rolled their eyes and said, “People won’t go downstairs for that sort of restaurant” and, “It’s too close to The Wolseley”. To which I said, “Yes, but we’re not recreating The Wolseley. We’re recreating Chartier in Paris.”

Chris understood because we’d often talked about Le Bouillon Chartier brasserie, and there’s quite a strong homage to it here. They pack in the tables and often make you share. So you might have the artist sitting down with the clerk or with the housewife, because it’s incredibly affordable.

When I saw the amount of money my growing kids were paying in chain restaurants, I thought, “We can do that. But we don’t have to have paper napkins. We can do it properly. We’ll have linen ones.”

Economically, Zédel would have been impossible if it wasn’t for the fact that this was the site of the old Regent Palace Hotel, which was refurbished by the Crown Estate; the brasserie was the hotel’s grill room, the American Bar was its residents’ bar and the Crazy Coqs Cabaret was an early-evening cocktail bar. Part of the condition of demolishing the hotel was that the interiors had to be retained, so a lot was taken out and then put back. So you have the sublime delight of an extraordinarily expensive fit-out interior with an extraordinarily good-value restaurant.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Before we opened, I was asked, “What are you hoping to achieve here?” I said, “A treat for the student and a canteen for the affluent.” It’s an ethos that Chris and I have always had. We feel strongly that a lot of the most interesting people who go into restaurants in London are the least affluent, and so you have to cater for both. Although you might give people the opportunity to spend, it mustn’t be mandatory.

brasseriezedel.com
 

5 Fischer’s

Viennese café, W1, 2014

JK : We never know what form a restaurant will take until we’ve stood in it. I like to feel the room. I always coveted the site of Fischer’s, but it was only when I was standing there that the thought came to me: this is exactly the sort of restaurant I love visiting in middle Europe. Suddenly I was transported to Vienna and very much influenced by one of my favourite restaurants there, Zum Schwarzen Kameel.

Fischer’s was the first restaurant Shayne Brady did for us. Great designers take the kernel of an idea and grow it, and this is what he has done here. I was helped by my wife, who trawled the websites of Europe to find paintings. She would find 30 potential pictures, and I’d choose four or five. Her greatest find was the portrait of Richard Tauber that dominates the far end of the restaurant. He was Europe’s greatest tenor in early-20th-century Vienna, and he actually ended up in London, which fitted with the story that I’d created.

The most important thing in a restaurant is to send out a clear message of what it’s trying to be, so it helps if there’s a backstory. The story of Fischer’s is that of Otto and Maria Fischer, one Jewish,  the other Catholic, escaping Vienna before the war. As immigrants to London they ended up in Whitechapel or north-west London on the Finchley Road. So this is a story of them opening a restaurant, very much in the style of ones they’d worked at in Vienna.

Clocks feature in all our restaurants. They are in the tradition of grand cafés, and often to be found in brasseries near train stations or in city-centre meeting places. Everybody is in a hurry, everybody is looking at their watch. The beauty of having a clock in a restaurant is that it’s not just a cultural reference, but it also offers a practical use — the host can check the time and whether the appointment needs to be bought to a close without rudely looking at their wrist.

CC: Location is very important to the type of restaurant. We take an organic approach and ask ourselves questions when entering a new neighbourhood: will we fit in? Will people like us? Do people want us? It’s important to work that way round; we are careful not to impose ourselves on an area. Being welcomed by a new neighbourhood is a wonderful thing for a restaurateur.

fischers.co.uk
 

6 The Delaunay


European restaurant/cafe, WC2, 2012

JK: We acquired this as a concrete shell – it was a building that had been demolished and rebuilt behind a façade. But there was another element included, a 2,000sq ft space at the front. When I asked the agent what it was for, he explained that it came with A1 use, which means a takeaway café such as Pret A Manger. To Chris’s horror I said, “We’ll do that!” So, it gave birth to The Counter at The Delaunay.

CC: We felt that we could add something new to the takeaway genre, providing quality and original dishes served with a high level of customer care. A cut above the many choices available on the high street.

JK: The restaurant was designed by David Collins. He and I would always fight and then make up. I remember saying to him, “You have to stop trying to impress people.” He was trying to give us perforated-metal lampshades and so on, which was very Brooklyn at the time.

Restaurants are the heart and soul of culture throughout Europe – particularly the grand cafés, where you find the genesis of art and creativity, or even revolution. A great restaurant is a catalyst for whatever you want. If you ask people, “Why did you go to a restaurant the last time?”, they’ll say they went with their partner for a quiet dinner, they met friends, they met business colleagues. They went to celebrate, they went to commiserate. They maybe went on a first date, or to settle a divorce. The great establishments facilitate all those things, whether you’re young or old.

The best restaurants have tables next to each other: one with 20-year-olds, one with 70-year-olds. One is eating a hamburger and a beer, the other champagne and caviar. One’s in jeans and a sweater, the other is in black tie. And if it’s the 20-year-olds in black tie eating caviar and the 70-year-olds in sweaters eating hamburgers, then you’ve got an interesting mix. Restaurants should never dominate: you don’t want the music to be too loud; you don’t want the staff to be overbearing; you don’t want the prices to be too high. Show me a restaurant with a fantastic view and I’ll show you a boring restaurant. Because a third of the people are looking out of the window, and the other two-thirds are hacked off because they didn’t get a window seat. There’s no atmosphere.  

***
MORE FOOD & DRINK:

The Best Tapas Joints In London
The Best Steak Restaurants In London
Britain's 10 Greatest Gourmet Sandwiches
***