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All hail King and Corbin, rulers of the restaurant world

Published 2 November 2003
News Review
538th article

From left: King, Winner, Corbin and Loewi at the Wolseley (Kevin Rowlands)

I've been round the block a few times but never seen any restaurant operation as successful and excellent as that mounted by Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin.

I remember El Cubano, "the" 1950s place in the Brompton Road with rare tropical birds in cages. The Caprice in the 1950s where, before it sank, we gathered in evening dress after theatrical first nights. The Trattoria Terraza in Soho in the 1960s . . . I could go on listing fashionable restaurants that came and went. Some famous ones are currently teetering on the edge, their suppliers demanding cash on delivery after being unpaid for months.

For readers in the Outer Hebrides I'll explain that King and Corbin took over, and made historic, Le Caprice in 1981, the Ivy in 1990 and J Sheekey in 1998. They offered marvellous comfort food, devoid of plate decoration, attracting glitterati and gawpers in unprecedented numbers. It's said the Ivy still gets 1,000 reservation requests a day.

For reasons I don't understand K&C sold in 1998 to Luke Johnson of the Belgo group. Luke behaved with admirable restraint and let the Ivy, Caprice and Sheekey managers run things much as before, minus the personal charm King and Corbin dispensed walking round the tables. They are true gentlemen. A rarity, indeed. Many restaurateurs think because they dress like gentlemen, they are gentlemen. This is not so.

The old K&C restaurants remain superb, although I recently suffered unbelievable incompetence regarding a reservation at Le Caprice. This is not the best time for the Caprice bosses to take their eye off the ball. Because soon will flower, just yards away, the eagerly awaited new venture by the champions, Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin - the Wolseley.

Initially there will be a 50% discount on all food. It's one of London's most stunning rooms. A 1920s high vaulted ceiling, exquisite chinoiserie designs and fantastic chandeliers dripping mini period lampposts. In 1922 it was a Wolseley car showroom. Barclays took over and added the tasteful glitter.

"We all got very bored waiting for you, Jeremy," I observed, "but this is worth waiting for." It will unquestionably be an instant hit.

It seats 180 people. K&C are expecting 700 covers (meal servings to you) a day, including 450 main meals. Many rickety London restaurants will keel over. The Wolseley 700 aren't being bused in from Outer Mongolia. They're people who'd otherwise have eaten elsewhere.

Add my friend Arrigo Cipriani opening a real Venetian-style Harry's Bar a few blocks north of the Wolseley and we can expect to be deafened by collapsing eating houses. K&C plan to leave some 30% of their tables open to passers-by and not available for reservation. Very odd, that, but they should know.

The food sounds terrific. Sadly, when I toured the kitchens there were only welders and heavy-duty workmen in evidence. No chefs. I'll be able to eat from breakfast to dinner at the Wolseley. Everything: waffles and milkshakes to steak and kidney pie, boiled beef and carrots, Hungarian goulash, moules frites. I can hardly continue. My mouth is watering.

They've got doorman Sean McDermott from the Ivy. A newspaper reported he was being paid £70,000 a year. "That can't be true?" I asked Jeremy.

"No. He's getting £200,000," was the reply. A joke, in case you didn't get it.

Robert Holland from J Sheekey is general manager. Chris Galvin, from the Conran group, executive chef. David Loewi, who was number two to Sir Terence, has also joined. "Are you an equal partner?" I asked. David nodded "Yes." Chris Corbin nodded too, thus anointing the title.

"Okay, fellows," I said, "let's deal with important matters. Where's my table?" "We don't know yet," said Jeremy. "Where do you think the best table is?" I asked.

"In New York the best tables are closest to the door. In London they tend to be furthest from the door," explained Jeremy. "The best table's an objective thing," added Chris. But we figured something out. Jeremy requested I use the photograph with his hand outstretched."

"What did that mean?" I asked. "No photos allowed," he explained.

I hear you saying. "You've reviewed a restaurant without eating anything. That's odd." Good! Who wants to be normal?

I did eat well elsewhere last week. My oompty-eighth birthday dinner was at the chefs table in the Connaught kitchen. Ten of my best friends scoffed Angela Hartnett's wonderful spaghetti with lobster, a roast suckling pig and other goodies. Guests included the wondrous Sir Michael and Lady Shakira Caine. We came from Terry O'Neill's party for his photo-book Celebrity.

"You only look 48," said Helena Hell, restaurant manager of the Connaught. She'll go far. Even if she does need spectacles.

Winner's letters

I've written to Juan Mari and Elena Arzak to apologise for your narrow-minded and ignorant review last week. It does not reflect experiences and sentiments enjoyed by myself and many others who have dined at Arzak. Poor you, with your overriding concerns about Spanish eating hours, glitzy locations and car parks. You missed the point!
Charles Irving, Surrey

With your worldwide knowledge, how could you go beyond Biarritz to San Sebastian (Winner's Dinners, last week). Once and only once have we done this. I likened it to what could be called the end of the world. "Very ugly" was a good description. Never again!
Rebecca Holliday, Kent

Outside a cafe in Dunkerque specialising in mussels (moules) the following item was on the English menu: mould soap.
John Shaw, Berkshire

My stay at the Compleat Angler hotel in Marlow made Fawlty Towers look like the Ritz. My bedroom had peeling paint on the window frame, cigarette burns on the furniture and broken light fittings. I ordered two rounds of sandwiches and the waiter dropped the tray on the floor. The breakfast orange juice was "off", so was the replacement tomato juice. Poached eggs arrived cold. The Earl Grey tea was undrinkable. The toast was like leather. The replacement toast came when breakfast was finished. £213 a night is the going rate!
Stephanie Biber, London

During Sunday lunch at the Royal Bath hotel in Bournemouth a jug of water, arrived quite tepid. We asked for ice and the waitress returned to inform us there was no ice in the hotel. When we said this was unusual she said ice had nothing to do with food. So we left, but before doing so reported this to the duty manager. He made no comment.
Kathleen Bennis, East Sussex

In Wales we much appreciate your comments. Your column gets wittier by the week and casts a tinkle into the world. Are you sure you don't have Celtic blood? I suggest a trip to the Indian takeaway in Llandyssul high street. You can sit by the river and enjoy the Welsh countryside. You may even be lucky enough to hear the beautiful sing-song rhythm of the Welsh language being spoken.
Bill Fear, Penarth

Send letters to Winners Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michaei.winner@sunday-times.co.uk