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2022-04-25 07:24:47 By : Ms. Ann Shen

The Wolseley has long been the ultimate dining destination but its owners, Corbin & King, have lost control of their empire

On Friday morning, The Wolseley looked and sounded just like it always has. Stepping over the threshold out of the spring sunshine on Piccadilly, through the big doors and the dark curtain, you entered a thrilling and glamorous world, just as you have since it opened in 2003. In this art deco playground, all monochrome and gilt details, the cutlery still tinkled on china.

The espresso machine still hissed in the background. It was a full house, as usual, and the hubbub of the kitchen still mingled with the happy murmur of the guests’ conversation. The acoustics have always been strange here, simultaneously deafening and private. Some tables looked like business breakfasts, others like visitors fortifying themselves with bacon for Francis Bacon across the road at the Royal Academy. One or two customers sat alone, setting kedgeree against their hangovers. Nobody looked sad to be there.

If you had heard the news, however, something didn’t feel right. And Jeremy King – sitting at his usual table, in the far corner of the bar on the right as you go in, a plate of salmon in front of him, untouched – looked like he had seen a ghost.

Overnight, it had been announced that he and Chris Corbin had lost control of their restaurant company, Corbin & King, to their Thai-based shareholders, the Minor Group, after an auction that finished in the early hours of the morning and concluded with Minor paying more than £60m for the rest of the business. The company Corbin and King had founded, and steered through two decades of turmoil and glory, was no longer theirs, and neither were its restaurants, including The Wolseley, Brasserie Zedel, Colbert, Soutine, Fischers and Bellanger, which lie dotted across the capital, lighthouses of civilisation.

“I owe you an explanation,” King wrote in a newsletter, sent at 3.15 in the morning. “We took part in the auction to try and buy the business and assets of Corbin & King that we didn’t already own, including of course all the restaurants. Regrettably, that attempt failed and Minor Hotel Group was the successful bidder, buying the entire business.

“As a result, I no longer have any equity interest in the business, although for the time being, I remain an employee. I assume Minor will take immediate control of the restaurants.”

A selection of dishes available at The Wolseley in central London; photographed by Christopher Pledger

Observing the date, some wondered whether it might be an April Fool, but it wasn’t. The auction was the culmination of years of wrangling over the ownership. In 2017, King and Corbin sold a 74 per cent stake to Minor International for £58m, but King remained as CEO. Things came to a crisis earlier this year, when Minor put the company into administration, accusing King of mismanaging the business and failing to place it on a secure financial footing.

With a different restaurant group, these high level machinations would matter less. But what set Corbin and King’s restaurants apart were its founders, especially King, who has been the public presence of the company in recent years, as Corbin has suffered from ill health. 

King, who gave up a place at Cambridge to take a punt on hospitality after rolling a die, inspired by the cult novel The Dice Man, has never been a typical restaurateur. Practically every day, he could be found making his way around his restaurants, by bicycle or at the wheel of his vintage Bristol, meeting staff and greeting customers, checking everything was just so, sprinkling fairy-dust. This sense of hospitality, of attention to detail, spread out across the business. When I came for breakfast on New Year’s Day, at 9am, he was here, with his dog, while most of London was still in bed.

Corbin and King have always prided themselves on being democratic. Leave others to the £200 tasting menus and wine flights. Their restaurants drew on the European cafe and brasserie tradition, places for everyone to eat and drink and be ogled and conduct their affairs, of the heart and the briefcase. Food was important, but the atmosphere was the main thing.

You could have a grand bouffe of lobster, caviar and Puligny Montrachet at the Wolseley, or you could have a prix fixe carrot salad and steak haché at Zedel for £12.25. They were happy to see you either way. The Wolseley was the critic AA Gill’s favourite restaurant: he wrote a book, Breakfast at the Wolseley, about a room he described as a “thing of grand beauty.” When Bacon’s old rival Lucian Freud died, they lit a candle at his usual table. Once, at breakfast I found myself with Katie Price at a table to my left and Lord Browne, the former chairman of BP, on my right. Celebrities love these restaurants, not because they are given special treatment, but because everyone is.

Looking up from the torrent of messages on his phone yesterday, King was as polite as ever. He couldn’t comment, except to say it was a “tricky day.” He is a tall man, always dapper, who has presided over his empire with patrician grace. It was unthinkable that he would no longer be involved. At the time of writing, his future role in the business was unclear, but Minor’s press statement, which thanked Corbin and King for their contribution, read like a sacking. Minor’s apparent intention was to keep trading as Corbin & King, implicitly even without the presence of the founders. Defiant social media posts from Corbin & King posted a picture of the founders, saying “THIS is Corbin & King.”

Eating smoked salmon and scrambled eggs – the latter, it must be said, not quite as good as I remembered them – I wondered what Corbin & King’s travails meant for the industry. Their restaurants are beloved and famous and busy. If they couldn’t make it work, who could? It’s unclear what the future will hold for the restaurants under Minor’s ownership, but the suspicion is that they want to roll out the brand with more sites, too many for any individual to retain a close eye on.

The Wolseley has long been a favourite haunt of celebrities including Kate Moss and Bill Nighy 

As for King, he has been through ownership wrangling before. He started with the Ivy and the Caprice, before selling them to the mahogany hued tycoon Richard Caring. The Ivy’s 30 spin-offs around the country are dubbed ‘Cafe Vert’ by some, and raise the spectre of a Wolsley Lite on every high street. And he is 67. Does he have the energy to do it again?

At last, King emerged from the bar and started making his usual tour of the dining room. He joked and laughed and shook hands. Some looked like old friends, others he was meeting for the first time on what might be his last day. You might not have known anything was amiss, but not everyone was fooled.

“Is Jeremy all right?” the woman at the next table asked me, evidently noticing something in King’s demeanour. “He looks sad.” I explained the situation. She looked worried. “I used to come here with my father,” she said. It was one of Lucian Freud’s daughters. I asked which had been Lucian’s spot. She tapped the table in front of her. “I still try to come most Fridays,” she said. “Partly it’s in his memory, but also they treat you like a queen. The last time I was here, Stephen Fry, Nigel Slater, Ross Kemp and Frank Auerbach were all here, too. Where else is like that?

“I’m glad you told us,” she added. “Now I don’t want to leave.”

Neither, by the look of things, did King.

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