A rare medium, well done: The enduring brilliance of The Wolseley

You half expected to see a mountain of flowers blockading Piccadilly, or at the very least a skywriter in full Mach-5 mourning. The first Tweets and Instagram stories went out before breakfast. And by lunchtime, the panic was in full voice. Movie stars, restaurateurs, food critics, minor royals, influencers, socialites, millionaires, supermodels, hacks — everyone was falling over themselves to show their adoration for Jeremy King and their beloved Wolseley, which was under, it was rapidly becoming clear, some grave but vague threat. My father texted me around elevenses. “The Wolseley’s in trouble. What are you doing about it?” He meant this in an editorial way (and has often tried to claim commission on my editorial ideas). But the call to action was universal. Where were you when the time came to stand up and be counted? What did you do to help? Your favourite corner table; your beloved veal holstein; your weekly dose of Billy Nighy. All were now endangered by the corrupting forces of corporate capitalism. And as the weeks have rolled on and the financial wranglings continue, London’s Café Society remains up in arms — voting, where it can, with its stomach and its tweets. Some things we can let slip. Governmental dishonesty. Skyrocketing energy prices. The return of Sex in the City. But the future of Wolseley? Now that is a hill worth dying on.

First, the facts. The fracas in question focuses on a £38 million loan, which Corbin & King’s majority investors — the Thai hotel group Minor International — called in rapidly and unexpectedly last year amid a fiery dispute over management styles. King, your favourite-restaurateur-favourite-restaurateurwho, alongside partner Chris Corbin, has helmed the company for almost twenty years — believes in an altogether more civilised pace of growth. He is much more tablecloths than spreadsheet, if you see what I mean. When the pandemic hit, Minor demanded that King sack a good chunk of his staff, but King — who knows that excellent, experienced team members are the absolute lifeblood of any dining room — was having none of it. The financiers also wanted, it has been alleged, to slap the Wolseley name on all sorts of new locations internationally (chiefly, one hears, in the Middle East), and risk losing the personal touch and quality control that comes with Corbin & King’s closely curated crop.

Soon, they’d demanded the loan back in a ploy to pull the rug out from under the restaurateurs, and to seize control of this most priceless of assets. (King, they said, could stay on as a sort of puppet figure at the helm — the restaurant equivalent of gutting a stately townhouse, filling it with ghastly lounges and underground pools and panic rooms, but maintaining just the thinnest veneer of grandeur on the exterior to keep up with the neighbourhood.) Cue the wailing and flailing from London’s dining classes, and the righteous backlash against any sort of corporate takeover of this sacred ground. It would be like Exxon-Mobil enacting a leveraged buyout of Stonehenge, one felt.

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