Wiltons is not a London institution – it is the London institution. There are old and venerable restaurants (Rules, Simpsons-in-the-Strand, Le Caprice) who can rightly claim to occupy a few amino acids in the DNA of London. But Wiltons has an entire double helix to itself (not that this is a metaphor its founding fathers would get on board with – the Secret of Life was only discovered by Crick and Watson in 1953, and is still considered dubiously nouveau by the restaurant’s dustier patrons.)
The history of Wiltons
You’ll have filed Wiltons in your mental library under “restaurants you can still acceptably take your grandfather to”, “places where round, red men go to nap”, and “things older than America”. It is that last point which is most telling. Wiltons turned 275 this month, and it’s fair to say that its dining room has done a fat lot more good for the world’s cultural and economic prosperity in those years than the teenaged nation across the pond.
Indeed, it’s a not-very-well-kept secret that Wiltons was, for many years, the proxy financial centre for the real dealmakers of London, back in an age before email addresses and compliance lawyers, when due diligence amounted to little more than “was he a good scrum half at prep school” and “where does he buy his shirts” (just across the street at Turnbull & Asser, presumably). In fact, Michael Heseltine, the former Deputy Prime Minister and co-founder of the publishing behemoth Haymarket, memorably described Wiltons as his company’s “work canteen”.
How is the food at Wiltons?
The menu here is tailored to its clientele like a double-breasted waistcoat, and would have sounded deeply traditional even at the 75th and 175th birthdays. Lobsters and oysters are the main characters (almost literally – the logo for Wiltons is a playful, winking lobster holding a cane and a glass of champagne), and they’re backed ably by caviar, omelettes, sticky puddings and a rumbling, gamey carvery trolley. Pop in right now, in fact, and you’ll find a special menu that pairs some very good whiskeys with smoked fish – a Caol Ila from 2001, for example, alongside a smoked sea trout.
All this would sound faintly leaden and unexcited were it not so exquisitely and expertly cooked and prepared. This is comfort food par excellence, in that it doesn’t so much placate you with a tender “there, there”, but cajole you with a hearty pat on the back and a magnum of claret. The seafood, meanwhile, feels as fresh and vital as it might have done in 1742, when Wiltons was little more than an oyster cart shimmering amongst the world’s first men of leisure.
Since those backstreet days, the restaurant has jumped around a bit and shifted between owners, wiggling through the twists and turns of the intervening centuries largely unscathed. In 1942, on the evening that a bomb fell on the nearby St James’s Church, the then owner Mrs Leal announced the place was up for sale. Olaf Hambro, son of the Hambros banking dynasty, who happened to be sitting at the bar, finished up his Lobster Thermidor and asked that the price of the restaurant be added to his bill.
The decor is elegant and enveloping without straying into the tinselled and chintzy. The famous, cricket outfield-green banquettes are matched by a champagne-pale yellow walls and rich mahogany, while the starched white napery and green carpets cloak the place in silence and intimacy, like freshly fallen snow. There are single seater tables for Grand Old Boys to sit in and brood (and maybe, later, why not, a little nap), and double booths for businessmen to impress potential clients of every stripe.
The final, joyfully unfashionable bauble on the tree is the restaurant’s livery: while the waiters here are dressed smart and sharp, with not a little nod to Jermyn street outside, the waitresses come packaged like 1920s maids, with high-necked dresses and pinafores. They’re affectionately called ‘“nannies”, and exist, depending on who you believe, largely to get the likes of Nicholas Soames going.
The 275th celebration
To celebrate such a historic milestone (and to usher in, hopefully, another 275 years of success) Wiltons is putting on an intimate masterclass series that harks back to its oyster shucking youth. Guests can learn the ins-and-outs of this notoriously tricky food, led ably from the podium of the famous Oyster Bar by the dashing Tomasso Sicuro. Best of all, perhaps – participants leave with their very own embroidered Wiltons apron: your very own piece of history, to be sure, and a trusty guard against spurting fats, unruly béchamels, or the horrors of modernity.