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Wheeler's dealers

Published 28 July 2002
Style Magazine
472nd article

From left: Anabel Conejero, Michael Winner and Marco Pierre White

I was a regular at Wheeler's in Old Compton Street during the war, when it only served cold food - incredible salmon and oysters. After the war, Bernard Walsh, the owner, acquired the services of Mr Song, a Chinese chef, and graduated to hot food. Twenty varieties of 16oz sole were on offer, including sole capri with chutney and a sauteed banana. All were fantastically good.

I worked for years in Soho. Every lunchtime, I'd sit at Wheeler's bar. Next to me were Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Lucian reminded me of it when we met recently. Behind the bar were Bernard's daughters, Carol and Gina, both outstanding beauties. Carol later married Ronnie, a Jewish boy who was selling toilet rolls from a barrow outside. Her Catholic family didn't mind. "My father drank a large gin and tonic and said, 'good luck'," said Carol. His family took longer to accept the situation.

Carol and Ronnie, together with their two grown-up children, now run the French Horn at Sonning. Ducks roast on the spit, and there's a lovely view of the gardens and the Thames. The food and service are the 1950s at their unbeatable best. I reminisce because Marco Pierre White and Robert Earl recently bought the name and premises of Wheeler's of St James's. This is one of 24 restaurants once owned by the Walsh family. They changed hands many times after they sold out in 1984. Marco uses some of the symbols of the old Wheeler's. There's the period oil painting, reproduced on the menu, of a man eating oysters and pouring champagne. There's a Walt Disney photo of the walrus and the oysters, with the original Disney signature copied as well.

But the new Wheeler's is very much Marco Pierre White. The menu offers only two soles, and they're much smaller than the ones I remember. There's lamb and steak for non-fishy types. Marco has mercifully dispensed with the services of David Collins and done the decoration himself. At first, I thought he'd achieved the impossible and done an even worse job than Mr Collins. The tiny, bijou, dinky premises, which appear to be old, are made naff by Marco's addition of coloured-glass circles in the windows and doors. It's like a horrid child's party gone wrong. But inside, Marco's done exceptionally well. There's green-flecked wallpaper, green leather banquettes, silk curtains and eccentrically framed photos bought from a picture library.

"It's like the Orient Express," explained Marco helpfully. "Except it isn't moving," I responded. "It might be by the end of lunch," said Marco.

The food is spectacular. Marco's invented and refined dishes with his No 2 chef from Belvedere, Brian Hughson. I lunched with Robert Earl and Marco in the narrow, first-floor room, which, mercifully, had nobody else in it. I've heard of tiny, but this is ridiculous. You shouldn't be put off. Carol Walsh, the girl I ogled over the bar at Wheeler's in the 1950s, said: "We never understood how Wheeler's of St James's took so much money." Obviously, many people don't mind minuscule surroundings.

I was shattered to see no sole capri on offer. "It's my all-time favourite. Why isn't it here, Marco?" I asked. "I thought I'd settle in before I became courageous," was the answer.

For my first course, I ordered lobster omelette, which was highly memorable. I tried tartare of mackerel, extremely good. Then wild smoked salmon, excellent. Then blinis a la russe, which is a thick, but not heavy, blini with cream and sevruga caviar. Almost historic. The dressed crab was also of outstanding quality.

My main course was sole colbert, fried with parsley butter inside. I don't know how they get it in, but then I don't know how they get ships in bottles. I tried the fish pie and some haddock gratinee. Both were terrific. When the fishcake arrived, we were all so stuffed, none of us could eat it.

The desserts took a tumble. I was looking forward to treacle tart but it was far too refined. It didn't ooze treacle. It was as if a treacle taste had been meagrely injected into a bland filling. The lemon tart was better. The crumble - I can't remember what fruit it offered - was first-rate.

The restaurant manager is the sister of Marco's wife, Mati, who was the greatest restaurant receptionist ever. She exhibited charm, style and charisma. Anabel is a very experienced girl, has a nice manner and does the job well. She called me "Michael" during the meal and Marco corrected her. "Mr Winner," he said quietly. There's a welcome, old-world style about Wheeler's of St James's, even though it's all newly done. It deserves to be very successful.


Gerry Dunn (July 14) complains about differing dress codes for men and women in clubs and restaurants. The rules are based on simple psychology: many women are enhanced by clothes that expose flesh, and mostly, the rest have the taste to cover up. Furthermore, female summer dress is unlikely to undermine the dignity of wearer or location. Most men, however, look unattractive, indeed risible, in casual summer clothing, but they are apparently unable to recognise this.
Amanda Hopkins, Rugby, Warks.

I am writing with reference to Mr Winner's recent lamentations about the demise of traditional British food. Here on the Enfys Ward of the North Wales Cancer Treatment Centre, where I am a patient, Mrs Iona Davies and her colleagues produce precisely the taste and texture sensations that Mr Winner so misses: creamy, oven-baked rice puddings, meltingly moist bread and butter puddings, juicy crumbles, leek and potato soup, succulent chicken in mushroom sauce. I assume Mr Winner is unable to come and sample these culinary delights for himself, but any good publicity for the centre would be much appreciated.
Mrs G A Borzykowski, North Wales

I can't agree with Michael Winner's recent remarks about the Savoy. Last month, my wife and I enjoyed a Sunday lunch there. The food was superb and beautifully presented, and the service impeccable. The only point on which Mr Winner and I concur is the difficulty in making the booking. I threatened to write to Michael Winner about it and, mirabile dictu, the problem disappeared. Mr Winner should try it next time - it really works.
David Miller, by e-mail

Mr Winner is not alone in finding the removal of dirty glassware and china somewhat slapdash at the Savoy (July 7). Arriving in the dingy Thames foyer to have tea with a client, we discovered that none of the tables had been cleared. We found the least crumb-covered, moved the offending dirty dishes and ordered our tea. When it arrived, 20 minutes later, we had to ask the waitress if she would first clean the table - and she asked us why. We did not have to pay for our tea, but will not be going back.
Jenny Dunster, by e-mail

I noted with amusement Julie Loft's letter (July 14) about "bygel" and couldn't help reflecting what she would expect if "bison" were on the menu? Shanks, perhaps?
Mel Evans, Birmingham

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