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Café royalty: Corbin and King

With The Wolseley and Zédel to their name, Chris Corbin and Jeremy King are the kings of all-day dining, but the pair still have big ambitions.

While you may not have heard of Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, you almost certainly have dined at one of their restaurants. The dynamic duo go way back, having first joined forces in 1981 to buy Le Caprice in St James’s. Prior to that, Corbin was manager of Langan’s Brasserie in Mayfair and the 6’4’’ King was maître d’ at American restaurant Joe Allen in Covent Garden, having first dipped his toe in the worlds of wine and investment banking.

The pair’s acquisition of Le Caprice, which they decorated with black and white photographs by David Bailey, helped propel the restaurant to fame, turning it into a star-studded hangout frequented by the likes of Harold Pinter and Jeffrey Archer. The pair have the patience of saints — for every restaurant they open, they eye up around 100 potential sites.

The Wolseley

It took them six years to seal the deal on The Ivy, which they snapped up in 1990, hanging works by Howard Hodgkin and Peter Blake on the walls and imbuing it with an all-important sprinkling of stardust that led the restaurant to be the Chiltern Firehouse of the ‘90s: packed to the rafters with celebrities, from models to rock royalty, and nigh on impossible to score a table at unless you had the maître d’ on speed dial.

Having netted fashionable fish restaurant J Sheekey in 1997, a year later Corbin and King sold their burgeoning restaurant empire, Caprice Holdings, which is now owned by billionaire businessman Richard Caring, to Belgo Limited.

With dreams of opening a boutique hotel, their grand plan took a detour in 2003 when they opened what could be described as London’s first successful Grand Café – The Wolseley – in a Grade II listed vintage car showroom- turned-bank on Piccadilly. Designed by architect William Curtis Green in 1921, who also put his hand to The Dorchester, Corbin and King kept many of the original features, including the black and cream geometric marble floors, Baroque ironwork and Doric and Corinthian columns.

Inspired by the grand cafés of Paris, Vienna and Budapest, the Wolseley’s all- day dining approach broke the mould and it soon became a favourite haunt of London’s intelligentsia. PRs would woo journalists over Champagne breakfasts, while food critic A.A.

Gill became so fond of the eggs benedict that he wrote a book – Breakfast at The Wolseley – in their honour. Artist Lucien Freud was such a regular he was given his own table. The day he died (20 July 2011) management paid its respects by covering his table with a black cloth and a solitary candle. 

The highest grossing restaurant in Corbin and King’s five-strong mini empire, the 140-seater venue is able to cater to a hungry diner’s every whim, serving breakfast, snacks, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and lashings of cake. “The best restaurants aren’t the ones with the snotty maître d’. The best restaurants are proprietor-led,” King told The Independent in 2012.

It was to be eight years before The Wolseley got a sister in the form of The Delaunay in Aldwych, which opened amid much fanfare in November 2011.

The 150-cover restaurant specialises in mittel-European dishes such as dumplings, kedgeree and a selection of schnitzels and wurst. It also offers Viennese afternoon tea served alongside Sachertorte and Salzburg Soufflé. “There’s no reason why The Delaunay shouldn’t have a Michelin star since the food there is as good as the food at many a Michelin-star place; it’s just we don’t fancy it up,” King told The Independent.

Having received a healthy £21 million cash injection from private equity firm Graphite Capital, breaking from their European café model, in June 2012 Corbin and King opened the expansive, elaborate, Art Deco-inspired Brasserie Zédel on the cavernous site of the Atlantic Bar in Piccadilly, which, in addition to a 220-cover basement restaurant, boasts classic cocktail joint Bar Américain and cabaret lounge The Crazy Coqs.

Brasserie Zédel

The space originally served as the Grill Room of the 1,000-room Regent Palace Hotel built in 1900, which was given an Art Deco makeover in 1930 by West End set designer Oliver Percy Bernard.

Corbin and King’s designer, David Collins, has painstakingly restored the site to its former glory down to the marble tabletops, mirrors and even the original wallpaper, with the help of Bernard’s original sketches.

To add a splash of theatre to proceedings, some of the wines by the glass offerings are served out of magnums and Jeroboams, which take pride of place in the middle of the restaurant.

Among Zédel’s signature dishes are steak haché in a pepper sauce, fish soup, a Zédel take on choucroute Alsacienne served with ham hock and garlic sausage, and whiting goujons and tartar sauce.

Serving some of the best value food in London given its glamourous setting – starters begin at just £2.75 and the prix fixe menu costs £8.95 for two courses and £11.75 for three – the buzzy all-day restaurant deservedly scooped a Michelin Bib Gourmand last year.

“Londoners haven’t lost their taste for style and glamour but they are looking for a more relaxed experience offering value for money and a brasserie delivers just that. Sadly, traditional brasseries are fast disappearing in Paris because of the constraints of working time legislation,” says Corbin & King’s operations director, Robert Holland.

Bitten by the acquisition bug, four months after opening Zédel, in October 2012 the pair opened neighbourhood café Colbert next to the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square on the former site of Oriel, fending off competition form 75 ravenous restaurateurs.

An instant hit, with its Art Nouveau arches, Victorian tiling and vintage posters, the duo aimed to quietly slot into Sloane Square with a Parisian pavement café that looked like it had been there for the last three-quarters of a century. Seating 118 inside and 20 al fresco, dishes include the likes of eggs royale (which seems fitting given the general manager is called Daniel Craig), snails Bourguignon, moules marinières, minute steak and lobster thermidor.

Their latest plaything is Fischer’s, an all-day café and patisserie on Marylebone High Street inspired by early 20th-century Vienna that has already charmed novelist Salman Rushdie and wronged domestic goddess Nigella Lawson. Having opened in June, the breakfast offering of Austrian Gröstl – paprika fried potatoes, bacon, onion and a fried hen’s egg – has already become something of an institution.

Austrian Grostl at Fischer’s

Lunch and dinner delights meanwhile include smoked herring with pickled vegetables, oak smoked salmon with horseradish cream, beef broth with cheese dumplings, soft black pudding with apple christened Himmel und Erde (heaven on earth), lamb goulash and cherry strudel.

As you’d hope, the wine list shines a light on mittel-Europe, flagging up Alsace, Austria, Germany, Alto Adige and Hungary with the majority of wines available by the glass.

Wine across the Corbin & King group has a decidedly French accent. Both Zédel and Colbert only sell French wines, while The Wolseley and The Delaunay have an all-European list.

Shunning the current trend for natural wines, there isn’t a single orange wine across the five restaurants and if a wine happens to be organic or biodynamic, it was chosen due to the merit of the producer rather than a quest to be seen as a specialist.

“We’re all about approachability and a lot of natural wines just aren’t fun to drink,” says wine buyer for the group Tom Pridham, who tailors the wine lists to each of the restaurants’ personalities. “We try to avoid repetition with the lists. Some of the wines crop up at more than one place but the majority are unique to the five different sites,” says Pridham.

Among the producers on pour across the group are Pol Roger, Domaines Ott, Alois Legader, Paul Jaboulet Aîne, Domaine Ponsot, Aldo Conterno, Château Pichon-Longueville, Marqués de Murrieta, Pieropan and Domaine Albert Mann. The 2009 vintage of Château Margaux’s third wine, Margaux de Château Margaux, is also on offer for £59 at Brasserie Zédel and £65 at Colbert.

Later this year, Corbin and King will embark upon their most ambitious venture yet – a boutique hotel called The Beaumont on a quiet garden square in Mayfair, which will boast 100-seater brasserie the Colony Grill Room, an American Bar and private lounge The Club Room.

Antony Gormley’s giant geometric inhabitable sculpture, Room, at The Beaumont hotel

Housed in an Art Deco listed building designed by Wimperis & Simpson in 1926, Holland describes The Beaumont as “a grand hotel at heart but with an intimate feel.” Twenty-two of the hotel’s 73 rooms are suites with prices ranging from £395 to £2,500 a night, though the talking point will surely be Antony Gormley’s giant geometric inhabitable sculpture, Room, on the hotel’s façade.

Containing nothing but a bed, on entering the sculpture, guests will be plunged guests into total darkness. “This has given me the first opportunity in my life to sculpt darkness. It will be closer to the experience of being in the primal space of a cave, something that is removed from the city entirely,” Gormley told The Telegraph in June, adding, “I hope that people leave not only the world behind when they enter that bedroom but also all their clothes.” Keen to keep a close eye on their fledgling venture, Corbin and King will be heavily involved in the day to day running of the hotel.

The opening of The Beaumont hotel this autumn will offer the opportunity for the group to embrace New World wines for the first time, with American wines due to take up a large chunk of the list. “We plan to flag up a few key producers each season and sell five of their wines by the glass.

We’ve been talking to Ridge in California about stocking older vintages of Monte Bello, I hope it comes off,” says group wine buyer Tom Pridham, who has no interest in trying to list cult wine Screaming Eagle.

“Having Screaming Eagle on our list would smack of window dressing,” he says. At over 100 bins, The Beaumont’s list will be the largest in the group. While its five restaurants rely on the likes of Liberty and Les Caves de Pyrène for their wines, Pridham will be working with Fields, Morris & Verdin and Roberson on The Beaumont’s American offering.

While both Corbin and King trust the buyers to get on with their job, King takes an active interest in wine. “Jeremy is a big wine lover,” says Pridham, adding, “He used to sell it in the ‘70s so he likes to get involved in the tastings when we’re choosing new wines for the group.”

Designed by David Collins, all of Corbin and King’s restaurants have a familiar feel while retaining their own identity. With an eye for beauty and a love of antiques, what sets their restaurants apart is their ability to successfully transport you to another era. The pair are fond of creating a mood via their interiors, which almost feel like film sets, such is the attention to detail.

A select few dishes, from choucroute L’Alsacienne to moules frites, pop up across a number of the venues, though the Wiener schnitzel is the only dish to appear at all five. “The restaurants have a versatility of purpose and are a catalyst for what the customer wants to make of the experience. Our menus are intended to be equally versatile, allowing our customers to come in for everything from a three-course meal or a soup and salad to just a cake and a glass of Champagne” says Holland.

With insatiable appetites for expansion, the grand plan is to increase the group’s tally of neighbourhood restaurants in the model of Colbert and Fischer’s in other desirable parts of London, though given their perfectionist nature with regards to site, we may be kept waiting a while. Having helped to reshape London’s restaurant landscape over the last 33 years, Corbin and King’s work ethic is admirable, and they don’t seem keen to throw in the napkin anytime soon.

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