Wiltons isn’t just home to immaculately prepared fish and game, it’s the restaurant where Britain does its business, too.
One of the best and perhaps most telling stories from Wiltons’ storied past concerns the way it came to be in the hands of its current owners. One evening during World War II, which counts as ‘recent’ for an establishment with a history that stretches back to 1742, the restaurant’s foundations were shaken by a German bomb that landed on the nearby St James’s Church. For then-owner Bessie Leal it was the last straw. As the story goes, she put down her tea towel, unbuttoned her apron and announced her intention to shut up shop and move to the countryside in order to escape the worst of the war. At this, one of her regular customers looked up from his oysters and simply said, ‘Put this place on the bill.’
The purchaser that evening was Olaf Hambro, scion of the Hambro banking dynasty. Today, the same family still owns Wiltons, but there have been a few changes under the stewardship of Olaf’s heirs. The most obvious is the location. The current site, opposite Turnbull & Asser on Jermyn Street, has been the restaurant’s home since 1984 and was refurbished a couple of years ago when the bar area was opened up to allow customers to drop in for champagne or half-a-dozen oysters, rather than have to commit to a full, sit-down meal.
These days, in keeping with these slightly less formal times, gentlemen are no longer required to wear a tie – although most still do – and the velvet curtain that used to cosset and conceal diners from the outside world has been removed from the threshold. Many things, however, have stayed the same.
The house manager Michael Stokes proudly tells me that despite hosting royalty and countless public figures during his 18 years of service, he has only ever known two occasions when the paparazzi have set up camp on the kerbside. This is not the type of place where tip-offs are sent by staff, fellow diners or celebrities themselves. (Yes, that does happen elsewhere.)
And, as you might expect, that affinity with the twin values of privacy and discretion is not just attractive to blue bloods and boldface names.
Michael explains that the green velvet-lined booths along the left-hand side of the main dining room are highly prized by those booking tables for business lunches, largely because of the privacy they afford their inhabitants. But these prime spots are often reserved by regulars. On the day I visit, Michael tells me that he has just seated ‘two captains of industry’ in the quieter right-hand half of the restaurant, where ‘most people only see or hear you when you arrive and when you leave.’
If the pair shake hands today, they will join a long line of dealmakers to have signed more than just the bill after a lunch at Wiltons. Michael Heseltine, the former Deputy Prime Minister and co-founder of the publishing house Haymarket, once said Wiltons was almost like ‘our work canteen’ thanks to the number of clients that were entertained here on the company account. Happily, having been fed and watered in such rarefied surrounds, these clients would usually strike the kind of deals that made it ‘a justifiable expense’. Lord [Jacob] Rothschild described one visit shortly after he and Mark Weinburg had bought Hambros Bank’s interest in Hambro Life for £123 million. Having manfully ploughed through a good portion of the carte des vins, he and his business partner were pleased to spot the counterparty to the transaction dining at another table. When the bill arrived, instead of paying up, they wrote: ‘Payable by Rupert Hambro, in receipt of £123 million.’ Unfortunately for Lord Rothschild, Mr Hambro returned the compliment.
Indeed, those eye-watering bills have been another feature of Wiltons to have stood the test of time. The restaurant was unofficially excused from wartime legislation that limited the cost of three-course meals to five shillings. This may have had something to do with the custom of Winston Churchill, although getting Winny to settle his account was apparently far more difficult than flouting the law in his presence. Seven decades later, prices remain reassuringly expensive. The Dover sole à la meunière, a Wiltons favourite, is an austerity-busting £48 – without side dishes.
But then, it is utterly exquisite. And it is served by some of the best and nicest waitresses in the business. Wiltons’ ‘nannies’, as they’re called, still endure a similarly unflattering uniform to the one their predecessors wore years ago. One Englishman entertaining a foreign guest is said to have explained that their manner and dress were ‘a conscious attempt to introduce memories of the nursery into a club-like atmosphere – thus combining two great institutions in an Englishman’s life.’
As the nannies clear our plates and, reluctantly, I steel myself for what’s left of the afternoon, I have one last question for Michael: what’s the biggest business deal to have been struck here? He suspects it is the £7 billion merger between Boots and Allied Unichem, which was preceded by several occasions when the two CEOs came in together to thrash out the details, before finally putting pen to paper.
‘If I had been a bit more astute,’ Michael adds, ‘I could have made a fortune.’ But he’s joking; that would have been the most ‘un-Wiltons’ thing imaginable. Which is why, I suspect, business will be done over the restaurant’s perfectly starched linen for many more years to come.
This article was taken from our May/June issue. Subscribe here.