That was 40-odd years ago. Today, King is perhaps the most beloved and revered restaurateur in London – ‘the capital’s maitre d’, as he is affectionately called – and the mastermind behind some of the most miraculous dining rooms in town: The Delaunay in Aldwych, Colbert on Sloane Square, Bellanger in Islington, Soutine in St John’s Wood, Fischer’s on Marylebone High Street and Brasserie Zédel in Piccadilly. He is not so much a presence in a room as an apparition – materialising at precisely the right moment to say hello to a tottering dowager or a six-year- old elbow-deep in a birthday Battenberg. Giles Coren marvels at the physics-defying way in which he seems to be in every single one of his restaurants all at once (Soutine at one moment, where Petronella Wyatt is at the bar with her dog, and Colbert the next, with a Cadogan taking coffee), as if he had discovered the art of teleportation, but deployed it simply so as not to be impolite. Describing The Wolseley, Nigel Slater says it is a ‘sort of amazing magic trick’ that King and Corbin have managed to create the grandest dining room in London and yet somehow make it so unintimidating at the same time. When it first opened back in 2003, AA Gill noted in his classic review that The Wolseley placed a sort of spell on you, conjuring a mythic history out of thin air. ‘[It’s] so authentically ancient, you’d think your grandfather ate there,’ he wrote. But most people just throw around the same adjectives: ‘spellbinding’, ‘otherworldly’, ‘enchanting’, ‘impossible’.
At Fischer’s, it’s a riot of famous faces: look out for Jemima Khan, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Eric Fellner or even the former England football manager Roy Hodgson having a leisurely lunch. They’ve got aristocrats up there, too, such as Lady Anne Lambton. The Delaunay draws a theatre crowd – Lady Gladstone goes with Jessica Zambeletti before a show – while Bellanger is where aspirational Labour folk hang out, as well as the Queen’s cousin Francesca D’Abreu. Soutine feels more old-school, despite it being the newest in the group: Nicholas Hytner’s mother, Joyce Hytner (herself theatrical, of course), dines there, as does Lynn Barber. And then there’s Brasserie Zédel, housed in the basement of what was once the Regent Palace Hotel. With its cabaret nights and subterranean charm, it pulls in an eclectic crowd, the ex-Sotheby’s chairman and renowned auctioneer Henry Wyndham among them.
Recent months had brought rumours of a tactical bid to wrest power from King and Corbin themselves, following a distinct clash in management styles. For one thing, the financiers, according to King, had hoped that they might franchise the Wolseley name to various territories, with an emphasis on emerging markets like Saudi Arabia.
This had echoes of Richard Caring’s national rollout of The Ivy – which, as it happens, King and Corbin had run during its 1990s pomp – and it left a distinctly bitter taste in the mouth when it was alleged that Caring (also the proprietor of Sexy Fish and Annabel’s, among others) had been in talks with Minor to help finance that pesky debt. His proposal, I have been told, was all arms-length benevolence: an offer to bolster Corbin & King’s liquidity without changing a single thing about its operation, which seems a bit like a fox insisting he’s simply interested in keeping the hens safe from predators. (Some say Caring was surprised by the backlash against his potential involvement – several Wolseley ultras told me they’d never set foot in a Caring version, for example – and days later, he removed his hat from the ring, saying he did not intend to pursue a deal ‘at this moment’.)