Susan Hill

My love affair with the Wolseley

My love affair with the Wolseley
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I was sitting alone at a small table in the Wolseley, Piccadilly, waiting for my supper and feeling a sense of absolute contentment. The evening buzz in that theatre-set of a restaurant has always been slightly more subdued than the lunchtime one. The lighting is lower; there are candles, there is calm. On my right, a duke dined with his family; on the left, two celebrated actors next to a young rising star. There were elderly couples from New York who believed in dressing for dinner in glitter and diamonds; there were discreet lovers, old friends. The waiter was perfectly attentive – not too little, nor, importantly, too much. Wolseley waiters do not gush.

My smoked salmon arrived, with thin brown bread and butter, half a lemon wrapped in gauze. I sighed.

‘You cannot,’ a friend once said to me, ‘be in love with a restaurant.’ But I could. I have loved breakfasts there, for quite serious work conversations over a silver pot of good coffee and French toast as nowhere else can make it, and watching hipster ad men arrive, man-bags cross-body, talking nonstop. I have lunched with my daughters, publishers, agents, film producers and people who work backstage in palaces.

A delightful memory bubbles up, of a celebratory lunch table with my family after an investiture, when my granddaughter smiled flirtatiously at every waiter. Naturally, as she was only six months old, they smiled flirtatiously back. I had not thought that anyone knew what occasion this was, but a bottle of champagne appeared at our table with congratulations from the management.

I have never been miserable in the Wolseley and if I was ever out of sorts on arrival, the mood dissolved as I stepped through the doors and met the smile of whoever was on duty. You can’t be in love with a restaurant?

But now the lights dim. Although a Wolseley is still open, the one we loved died last week, when its founding owner Jeremy King lost a battle for control to a Thai conglomerate. On Friday, he had his laptop and phone confiscated and was escorted from the building in front of horrified staff. The employees were summoned to a meeting with their new masters, to be told that they would become part of a global brand, with little Wolseleys cloned all over the world. A chef asked when this would begin. ‘Very soon.’ ‘Where first?’ ‘Russia.’ The silence that followed takes little imagining.

My experience of dining there alone that evening showed me that a good restaurant cares for the experience every single customer has on every single visit: for whether they have felt comfortable, well served, well fed; never out of place or compared unfavourably with others in designer clothes or better diamonds. You could eat whatever you wanted – three lavish courses or, as their most famous regular, the painter Lucian Freud, enjoyed so often of an evening, just a pint of prawns. Being a good host is an art, no matter if the guest is paying, and Jeremy King was the best. He made everyone in that spectacular room feel as important as any dukes and media stars, and he trained his staff to do likewise.

He will be back and I daresay I will come to love wherever that is, but never as much as I have loved the Wolseley. Every memory I have of it is entirely happy. Of where else can I say that?