Jeremy King is one half of Corbin & King, the restaurateurs who have redefined dining in London over the last 30 years. Since reinvigorating Le Caprice and The Ivy in the 1990s, they have gone on to open a series of infectiously faithful reconstructions of European grand cafes across London, most famously the Wolseley, and a hotel, the Beaumont – each of which has a perfectly contrived history to it. Tank sat down with London’s greatest storyteller.
Interview: Masoud Golsorkhi / Portrait: Studio 88
Masoud Golsorkhi Maybe we can start with a little potted history of how you got to be doing this.
Jeremy King I was not a vocational restaurateur; I came from a family where food was almost alien. Growing up in a seaside town – Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset – I used to work in local cafes in the holidays and found it fascinating, but the catalyst was that I made the decision after I left school not to take up my place at university, because I felt I hadn’t got into the right university for me. And so I went to work in the City – I decided that because I was quite arithmetic, I would become very wealthy working there. But in 1973 that was £1,050 a year, which even then wasn’t a lot of money to start on. The guy I was staying with worked as a barman in Charco’s, one of the early wine bars, which were very influential at the time. You couldn’t open a bar in those days but you could open a wine bar, because the pubs had control over licensing. So I worked there and quite enjoyed it. Meanwhile I was working in the City, which I hated, and I read a book called The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart, which was a cult book at the time, about a man deciding his life on the throw of a dice. I used to do it for fun. Eventually, I thought I must go to university after all, and left the City to work full time at Charco’s in the interim. When my matriculation papers came through I wasn’t sure about going. By then I was going to be 21, I felt very mature, which I wasn’t, and I threw the dice on whether I went to university or not. Most of the throws were linked to going to university, or waiting another year, but one of them – which was on a complicated throw – was that if I became a manager of a wine-bar-restaurant within a month of my qualification for obtaining a licence, which was being 21, I would remain in the restaurant business for the rest of my life. And it came up, and that’s how it evolved. Many a time I have regretted it deeply.
There was something very special about the restaurant business. I was an incredibly shy person, strangely, not gregarious. I wasn’t cut out to be a restaurateur, but there was something I rather liked about it. When later I was getting downhearted and thinking about leaving catering, I was persuaded out of it by the front of house manager at Joe Allen, who was another misfit like me. John Maxwell: first-class degree from Harvard, first-class degree from Oxford, and there he was running the front of house at Joe Allen. Joe Allen caught my imagination because it transported me into a rather special world, the imaginary world of New York, and although I didn’t realise it at the time, I think it always had an impact. He said, “Come and work for us before you leave the business, come, let’s show you the real magic.” And it was; it did capture my imagination. Peter Langan, who was a legendary restaurateur – one of the most debauched, terrible role models you could ever hope for, but a genius talent – wanted me to open something for him even though at the time I was only about 24 or 25. That fell through, but I had met Chris Corbin, who was working at Langan’s, and together we opened Le Caprice. The great thing about Caprice is that it did have a history, but it had become the Arlington [Street] restaurant. When renaming it I suggested “Caprice”, because it harks back to another era, and at that point we found a book called Mario of the ‘Caprice’. Mario Gallati had originally worked at the Ivy – the Ivy is a restaurant I went to in 1977 and I thought, if ever I own a restaurant this would be the one, it would be the Ivy. For six years Chris and I attempted to acquire the Ivy and eventually it came to market in 1990, which began an era when it really was an extraordinary place. And then in 1998 we acquired Sheekey’s and the interesting thing is that Sheekey’s had a history, the Ivy had a history, Caprice had a history, although it has long been lost, and I suppose it’s fair to say that we were at that point reinventing old restaurants. When we subsequently sold and left in 2000, the future beckoned; we were still quite young.
I think it was André Gide who said every man should have three careers. So I’d done the banking; I’d done the restaurateuring; now what am I going to do? In the end I actually discovered I did want to be a restaurateur, but perhaps more importantly an hotelier, and so we set out to find a hotel. The problem with that is we kept missing out on the target hotels; we were being gazumped or pushed out of the way by cash purchases and so on. It’s a totally different scale from restaurants; really, really capital-intensive. Although in those days the prices were comparatively tiny. I remember missing out on the Cavendish hotel for £22 million, then it went again for, I think, £29 million, and then we offered £60 million. This was all in a comparatively short period and the vendors said, “No, you have to pay £80 million.” I told them, “That’s ridiculous, we’d never make any money,” and then they sold it for £100 million to the Barclay brothers! And within a few years it was being offered to me at a discount of £140 million and it was getting more ridiculous. So we went back into the restaurant business because our agent offered us what was then called China House. I took Chris down and said, “What do you think,” and he said, “Well, this could be the grand cafe that you’ve always dreamed of,” and I concurred.
MG But this country has never really had a tradition of Brasseries and grand cafes.
JK Not in the way that Paris has. Brasseries happened when the brasseurs, or brewers, in Alsace were so fed up with Germany and France fighting over Alsace that a lot of them left and went to Paris. As brasseurs they sold their beer, and then they started to offer food to accompany it, and thus became brasseries. In fact, the place we’re doing in Islington later this year is very much in the Alsace tradition.
I think the breakthrough was on two counts. The British had a fear of restaurants, even a suspicion of restaurants. Restaurants were imbued with the class system. It’s really interesting – you either had working men’s cafes or respectable middle-class restaurants, a bit like you get in Brief Encounter, and then you had the high-class restaurants. I remember when Chris and I would see things in the very high-class restaurants and think, “Oh, we can do that,” and the staff would go, “No, no, no.” A survey was done not long after we opened Caprice, when it was asked throughout the country how often people ate out in a proper restaurant. In the early 1980s, it was less than once a year to a tablecloth restaurant. Now, of course, it’s far more, but we’re still a little bit intimidated, it’s still a special occasion, as opposed to New Yorkers, who will spend maybe an hour and a quarter and just use it as a facility before moving on. I think we often dream of New York speakeasies, or romantic Parisian cafes with Robert Doisneau kisses happening outside. The notion that you could go into a place and have a coffee or a steak in the afternoon, and sit next to someone who’s having high tea, next to someone who’s having plateau de fruits de mer, next to someone who’s just having a cup of tea, I think was fun for people. Because Chris and I are great believers in egalitarian dining, we feel very strongly that a lot of the most interesting people who go to restaurants are the least affluent. The affluent people almost have to subsidise the “creatives”. If you only have rich people it’s a ghetto, and it’s not interesting. The real life comes through younger, yet-to-become-affluent people. Again, it’s in the brasserie tradition that the entry level must be quite cheap – you give people the opportunity to spend but you don’t make it mandatory, unlike most scary, “proper” restaurants where it’s a given. But my attitude when we started was, we’d keep an eye on how much Caffè Nero would charge for a coffee, so you could weigh it up and think, “For an extra pound or something I can sit in the Wolseley rather than sit in a chain.” I think it made the difference. The other thing with the Wolseley, which took a long time to teach our clientele, is that we kept many of our tables unreserved, the idea being you could think, “Let’s just pop in and see if we can get a table.” And that, again, is much more interesting, much more spontaneous. Because otherwise restaurants become very starched and too formal.
MG The Wolseley always has that hubbub going on. Where do you get your sense of theatre? I took Austrian business clients to Fischer’s about a month ago and they were so amazed that English people liked such an old-fashioned Austrian restaurant.
JK It’s pretty authentic, Fischer’s, in many ways. It takes us back to storytelling, really. What I find now is a lot of restaurateurs try to impose the idea of a restaurant on a space. When Chris and I stood in the Wolseley, we looked at it and thought, “What would it be?” Well, it’s partly Viennese coffee house, a bit like Vienna’s Café Central, and it’s part French brasserie, and it went from there. Because the interior was already established, all we needed to do was reinstate; it didn’t require a story. We once opened a restaurant where we had lots of ideas about what we wanted to do, it was called St Alban, and we closed it because while the elements were interesting there wasn’t a really clear idea as to what it was. And I learned from that.
After we acquired the Beaumont in 2011, I was having to present how the ground floor was laid out and I had no real idea, and I had to talk to Chris about it and he was saying, “You’re on your own, it’s your idea, you do it!” It’s really difficult not knowing where to put the restaurant, on the ground floor, or is it below, where is the bar, where’s the reception desk, where are the loos? And I was lying in bed at 4am on Sunday morning fretting as the next morning was the presentation. I don’t fret a lot but I did then, because I thought I was going to look stupid tomorrow. I was saying to myself that it is so much easier when you work from an existing building history. So I thought, why not invent a history? The Art Deco original building was constructed as a garage in 1926, so I contemplated what was happening in 1926 for inspiration. England was not much fun – general strikes, etc. But New York: now hang on, that was really interesting. Prohibition, Great Gatsby. And somehow, I don’t know how my brain got there, but I saw the general manager of somewhere like the Carlyle bemoaning to two of his favourite guests that it’s miserable in New York as a hotelier: how you can’t serve a drink, how the hotel’s empty, the only people who are having fun are at speakeasies, and it’s already getting violent, and him saying, “I’m sick of it, I’m getting out.” They say, “No, don’t – go somewhere else – the Caribbean or Paris. How about London?” He says, “OK, I quite like London.” After the war he’d been seconded to the American embassy. And they said, “You’re such a good hotelier,” and offered to bankroll him to open a medium-sized hotel in this area. And suddenly I knew what the hotel looked like – I knew that drive in, the porte-cochère, arriving through a revolving door into the lobby, and I could see how it was laid out. I eventually named him James Beaumont: I could see him going through those double doors into “Jimmy’s Bar” and then through more double doors into a speakeasy-type restaurant, the Colony. So I wrote the full history – suddenly I had the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald as guests. I’d read a book by Lynne Olson called Citizens of London about how Averell Harriman, John Gilbert Winant the ambassador and Ed Murrow the broadcaster saved Europe by persuading Roosevelt to come into the war. And so this whole thing was developing in my mind, suddenly my imagination is going, and I thought, “When did he finish, maybe 1950-something, and then maybe it got taken over by someone like Hilton while they built on Park Lane, and then the CIA, who were housed in what was the U.S. Admiralty building next door, would have used it as a hostel. And then when the CIA left (although it is whispered we still have them on the other side of this wall) we discovered it as an Art Deco jewel, which had been all messed up and we have only restored it to its former glory.” Truth is, the building was demolished behind the façade!
MG Have you considered commissioning a writer and just writing it, or are you already doing that?
JK I’ve been deliberating because the Jimmy Beaumont story has been alluded to and talked about but is not written down. Antonia Fraser playfully says, “I’ll write it,” which would be a lot of fun to do with her. I’m actually just in the process of creating a book with Victoria Coren-Mitchell of Jimmy Beaumont’s card games, because we give away playing cards in the rooms. And it’s where fact and fiction combine. But I have to be careful, because there is a “Jimmy bites back” story. As well as my wife Lauren finding many of the paintings for the Beaumont, I bought one painting from someone else that looked like a bit of an Oliver Messel still life and was done by a P. Bray. I kept looking at this painting and I went back and asked, “Weren’t there a couple more?” She said yes. I looked at them and I said, “I’ll have them, can you get any more?” She then started to get access to the estate and I asked, “Could you find out who this P. Bray is?” She said, “P. Bray is actually Phyllis Bray, born in 1911, perfect timing for you. Married a bit of a scoundrel who formed the East London Group, affiliated with the London Group, which was big in the late 1920s and early 1930s.” I said, “Can you find out more?” She said, “Why are you doing this, why do you want so many?” I said, “I don’t know, I just sort of like them.” I’ve now got into it my head that this was a painter who Jimmy started collecting as a bit of a patron. She told me of a book coming out called From Bow to Biennale, about the London and East London Groups, and their history. By then I had bought 17 of these paintings; she thought I was mad. She phones me up one day and she says, “Jeremy, you’re not going to believe this.” I said, “What?” So she came over with the book, and it talks about this group and how Phyllis Bray had done the murals at the People’s Palace near Hackney. Then she separated from her husband and was only able to survive and carry on painting thanks to the philanthropy of a local businessman, a Mr. J Beaumont. I said, “No!” Now, it was actually John Beaumont, not Jimmy Beaumont, but there it was. I thought this is fascinating, almost dangerous, actually. I don’t want to become Walter Mitty. §
Corbin & King’s latest venture, Bellanger, in Islington, London, opens in November.