I have agonised over this Christmas review. I ate the Christmas lunch at Harveys Nichols 5th Floor Restaurant, Knightsbridge, next to a roof garden sponsored by Nutella chocolate spread. (The review of that restaurant is 17 words long: don’t go there, especially if you like Nutella chocolate spread, because it will ruin it for you.) The stunt critic dies hard in any writer, for it is easy work laughing at roof gardens. I considered eating in a plastic igloo — an igloo that is not an igloo, but a tent — by Tower Bridge. I even considered visiting whichever Winter Wonderland (‘Blunderland’) that the Daily Mail — the arbiter of such things — considered the worst Wonderland (‘Blunderland’) of 2016, which was in Bakewell, Derbyshire: ‘Visitors to a Christmas market described it as a “shambles”, saying they were greeted with gridlocked traffic, a boggy field and a two-hour wait to see Santa — who didn’t even have a grotto.’
I decide to review a proper restaurant: Wiltons in Jermyn Street, St James’s. You deserve it; it is Christmas.
Jermyn Street is a kind of theme park, it is true; a London of the imagination, for I suspect this London never really existed beyond the dreams of dandies who wander about looking for the statue of Beau Brummel by the Piccadilly Arcade and buying alarming socks. But the street clings hard to this fantasy, with windows full of bathrobes that look like exploded country gardens, and A.A. Gill tribute smoking jackets, and red trousers and Hooded Claw hats. (He — Mr Claw — is the antagonist of the Penelope Pitstop cartoons and he looks like an anti-Semitic stereotype. He is even a lawyer.) Only in St James’s — and Stamford Hill — do you find men dressed as the Hooded Claw without irony, but I think the red trousers are more frightening.
To the east, Fortnum & Mason re-create the British Empire in cakes and biscuits, which do no real damage. At the western end of this street of the imagination is Wiltons. Its logo is a lobster wearing a top hat. I like this lobster very much. I suspect — and I do not think that much about it, so do not worry — it has a sense of humour. It holds a cane and a glass of champagne. It is, in my mind, a lobster Benjamin Disraeli. I admire it; I almost want to be it. I want to sit inside the Wiltons sign on Jermyn Street tempting hungry diners with familiar food and relative silence. Among other things, I need the work.
Wiltons made a thinly disguised appearance in Jeffrey Archer’s political novel A Matter of Honour, as Walton’s. (As a novelist Archer is definitely a trier.). Charles, who is a dodgy MP, and Amanda, who is a kleptomaniac slut, have ‘an unhurried dinner’ in Walton’s (Wiltons) before retiring to Eaton Square for an unhurried bonk and a bad marriage. This does not stop Charles from becoming Foreign Secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s government. He is, therefore, Francis Pym, Lord Carrington or Geoffrey Howe. I really want to believe he is Geoffrey Howe.
Wiltons was, in reality, an oyster stall on the Haymarket from 1742. It became a restaurant on Ryder Street in 1840; it received its first royal warrant in 1884. In 1942, on the day that a bomb fell on St James’s Church, it was owned by Mrs Leal. The legend is this: Mrs Leal folded up her tea towel and remarked to Olaf Hambro, who was sitting at the bar, that Wiltons was for sale. He requested that the sale price be added to his bill; that is, he impulse-bought the restaurant he was sitting in. I am still not sure if this is thrilling or appalling; even so, the Hambros still own it. It moved to this site in 1984.
Wiltons is beautiful but it is not dramatic; it borrows nothing from the crazy sock shops. It has pale golden walls and green velvet chairs. The carpets are decorated with a curling ‘W’. This is as much self-worship as it allows itself but there is an enormous painting of a parrot, a peacock and a pigeon by an artist obsessed with alliteration in bird names. It is obviously a sanctuary for its regular customers, who are rich, and sometimes aristocratic, males, refugees from nearby clubs. They have specialised one-person tables at the front, opposite the bar, where they can howl for claret; at the back, from the booths, they howl in pairs. Rules in Covent Garden — red and gold, with a topless Britannia — is what tourists think is a posh English restaurant; it guest-starred in Downton Abbey as itself. Wiltons really is a posh English restaurant, and it has the confidence — the subtlety and the authenticity — not to dress as a Christmas cracker. It only allows itself to go wild with the cheese trolley. It holds a Stilton the size of a cushion, which shrinks through the night.
The menu is familiar to the aristocratic male, even soothing: seafood; terrines; plain soups; meats; sugary puddings. It would be dull if it were not so well-cooked; Wiltons is not a hostage to fashion, or seasoning. A silver carving trolley trundles through the restaurant. It holds a turkey: a vast headless thing served with stuffing, dark boned leg, pigs in blankets, bread sauce and a solitary roast potato, seared and sliced like a packet of crisps; one must not be distracted from the meat. It is all excellent. The Christmas pudding is surprisingly soft and delicate; it does not appear lumbering on the horizon like my jokes.
My only complaint — and it is desultory — is the clothing. The waiters are dressed as wedding guests and the women as maids. The dresses are high-necked, and the hemlines are low, but they are definitely maids’ dresses. A friend, who is posh, says, ‘the maids’ costumes are only to get Nicholas Soames going’, but that is no reason for dressing women who are not maids as maids, since presumably Mr Soames would find them as exciting wearing red mini-skirts, or nothing at all. Or perhaps he wouldn’t. It is not my genre; everything I know about the lusts of Tory grandees I learnt from Jeffrey Archer’s A Matter of Honour, which is quite a shameful thing to admit in these pages.
Otherwise — and there is no higher praise from a critic — I would spend my own money here, if I had any. Merry Christmas.
Wiltons, 55 Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6LX; tel 020 7629 9955