The Wolseley is closed, long live The Wolseley


We’re having a bit of a Wolseley moment. The owners have been given New Year OBEs, it’s just celebrated a 10th birthday and, um, the doors have just closed (for a three week kitchen refurbishment). Derek Guthrie asks – is this smooth crooner of London’s restaurant world more Robbie Williams than Frank Sinatra, and does it still merit a standing ovation?

The Wolseley, London

The first I was aware of the Wolseley’s 10th anniversary I was sitting at a table awaiting a companion at 1pm on the actual day, doing a last minute email/Twitter check while staff brought me warm bread sticks and cool French butter in silver dishes, with a glass of tap water. There may have been a party the previous night, some kind of svelte, sophisticated soiree, but my invitation had gotten lost in the Christmas post. All I had was a 140 character message from a chef somewhere offering congrats LOL. I’m still waiting for the actual invite.

The Wolseley is a class act, but like the business of show, hospitality can be a pitiless flash in the pan; one minute you’re The Spice Girls, the next you’re a packet of spicy poppadoms

But I have no hesitation in my praise. There’s no free meal, no favoured table, no table in fact sometimes, in exchange for publicity, or puffery. I’ve been going for a decade and I don’t get special treatment. Or rather I do. I get the same special treatment as everyone else.

Oh look – there’s Giles Brandreth, Joan Collins, Tim Burton, Keanu Reaves – we all know this is sleb central on a good day, but there are also elderly ladies having birthday teas, and there’s Jeremy King, the owner, quietly padding around the tables, nodding and smiling and making sure everything is just so for the 100+ people enjoying themselves in David Collins’ glammed up salon.

Perched between The Ritz and some caviar joint, the former Wolseley car showroom (the company went bust in the 1920’s, the marque lived on under Morris), then banking hall, was never a classic in the making. It was too big, too noisy, too New York – despite its faux-European heritage. But a decade on it continues to welcome all and sundry, all day every day. It’s swank, it’s democratic, it’s atmospheric. It’s never really been the coolest place in town, but then again, it’s never really been not cool, if you see what I mean.

It’s never really been the coolest place in town, but then again, it’s never really been not cool, if you see what I mean

Restaurant historians already know that Jeremy and partner Chris Corbin created The Ivy, Le Caprice and J Sheekey, taking over and transforming all three from humbler beginnings. They get star chefs before they become stars and get A.A. Gill to write the books. Before selling up to Richard Caring they were already London’s pre-eminent restaurateurs and as far as I can tell their only miss thus far has been St Alban on Lower Regent Street which closed its doors quietly after struggling to entice regulars into its carpeted cocoon. Too quiet, you see; too posh. The key to Chris and Jeremy’s success is, despite what you may think, democracy. They may be doing it their way, but that happens to be the way we want it.

The Wolseley can be cacophonous, especially up in the gods at the little balcony tables perched overlooking the melee below. Don’t ever be tempted by these little alcoves – the racket’s akin to living under a West London flightpath. You need to be down, centre circle, eavesdropping on Sir Roger Moore, Helena Bonham Carter, Doctor Who, Vivienne Westwood and the ghosts of Michael Winner and Lucian Freud, all sitting within the horseshoe, the apparent inner circle, a veritable VIP area without the velvet rope.

The Wolseley, London

I don’t actually care where I sit. The table beside the loos may be Siberia but frankly I’ve had more conversations at that table with friends passing by than anywhere else. The bar has great seats at windows to watch the world go by on Piccadilly, the tables beside the pass are energised, the animated area over to the right is forever populated by suits. Tables are just large enough, well spaced, furnished with no-nonsense linen and elegant but perfectly functional silverware which can all be bought online so you don’t need to, ahem, slip any of it into your handbag on the way out. Only the salon, designed for afternoon tea, is a no-no, unless you are actually having afternoon tea. I always excuse myself on the basis of being too tall for the tiny tables. And you can always walk in to The Wolseley – all restaurants are finite remember, they really do get full sometimes – but on a quiet night the little door-side seats are ideal for grazing and relaxed people spotting.

I’ve never had a problem waiting for a table when I’m a no-reservation “walk in” – currently de rigueur around Soho – because in the bar they’ve got hard boiled eggs and newspapers in an atmosphere that just shouts DRY MARTINI, straight up, with a lemon twist. Temptation to be resisted, perhaps, but nice to know it’s there.

The food is easy. Not comfort, not average, not grey. The omelette aux fines herbs, moved off the tea menu back to the savoury starters on the main menu, is done perfectly every time, as is the spicy little steak tartar topped with a wobbly little quail egg yolk and some crumbly, fresh melba toast straight off the grill (ask for more as soon as the dish arrives, you’ll need it). I have these two dishes day after day after day, with chips. I never tire of them for lunch. Boring? Possibly, but they’re simple, well made, and proper tasty. I’m at The Wolseley for the same reason as everyone else, to eat and talk and talk and eat and make merry. If it was bland, I wouldn’t go back; too fancy schmancy and it would detract from the conversation.

At night, when the stars come out after the theatre, a dozen oysters and a wiener schnitzel with a glass of the fruitily sharp house wine would have suited Sir Larry or Noel Coward just fine. And Frank too, had he been in town.

I’m too fickle for Robbie Williams, his bad boy days were enough for me. But I can listen to Mr Sinatra forever.  Sat back, with a dry martini. And possibly a hard boiled egg. C


The Wolseley, 160 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EB
020-7499 6996;