Jeremy King, one of Britain’s most celebrated restaurateurs, sits among piles of dusty crockery at a makeshift plastic table at Le Caprice.
Once one of London’s most iconic restaurants, a lively meeting place for rock stars and royalty, the St James’s institution now has the feel of the morning after a party.
Having been closed for more than three years since the first Covid lockdown, the art deco glass chandeliers are broken, the walls are bare and the corner where Princess Diana used to dine with her closest companions is covered in sacks of rubbish. and cardboard.
“It’s pretty sad,” King admits, pointing to a wheelbarrow full of empty bottles of expensive Burgundy parked in reception. “But it’s still atmospheric.”
Entrepreneurial gentleman: Jeremy King wears a tailored suit, even when surrounded by dust and trash
Sitting at Le Caprice, tucked away on a side street in St James’s behind The Ritz London hotel, is a trip down memory lane for King, 69.
He ran it and then owned it for 17 years from 1981 with Chris Corbin, his business partner, as the duo built a restaurant empire whose brightest stars were The Ivy in Covent Garden and The Wolseley in Piccadilly.
He has now returned to Le Caprice for the second time after taking over the lease in August from previous owner Richard Caring.
After being ousted from his Corbin & King restaurant group last year, King plans to revive the restaurant’s legendary pizzazz as part of his return to the central London hospitality scene.
‘A few months ago, I went downstairs [at Le Caprice] for the first time in over 20 years and it was very emotional,” he says.
‘You know, I was 27 when we opened and life was going on at Caprice Holdings. So it’s incredibly emotionally important and I think it’s also a historically important restaurant.”
Le Caprice’s celebrity cast during its glittering heyday in the 1980s and 1990s included Sir Laurence Olivier, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins, Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, Princess Margaret and Jeffrey Archer, who received a package of its cakes from salmon in prison.
King plans to adapt old menu favorites (bang bang chicken and tomato basil galette) for 21st-century tastes, along with the monochrome art deco interior.
He will also reset the mirrors behind the bar, so diners seated there can watch the people’s theatrics in the main restaurant behind without turning their heads.
Heyday: Princess Diana leaves Le Caprice
“This restaurant only works if the bar is full,” he says. “Otherwise it looks a little flat, a little two-dimensional.”
The bill to renovate Le Caprice will be “considerably higher” than the £30,000 he spent on its refurbishment in 1982, says King.
It will follow an investment of up to £8 million in a New York-inspired ‘Grand Café’ called The Park, due to open next spring in the new Park Modern building in Bayswater.
King will then raise about the same sum again to open a third restaurant in central London. Rumors that he plans to set up his headquarters at the former NatWest bank, opposite The Wolseley, are false, he claims. But his location is still a secret.
King interrupts to take a call from the lawyers about the lease. He says: ‘It’s a great restaurant. I am limited. So I can’t tell where it is.
The three projects are part of his new business group called Jeremy King Restaurants, a solo venture since Corbin has long stopped working due to health problems.
It is King’s third act in the hospitality sector after selling Caprice Holdings to businessman Luke Johnson in 1998 and losing the Corbin & King business (which owns The Wolseley and seven other restaurants) to Thai hotel group Minor International last April. Minor used his majority stake to put the group into administration and then took control by beating a bid from Corbin & King.
The episode was so distressing that King has called it a duel. He has not set foot in The Wolseley since. “It wouldn’t be fair to anyone,” he says. “It would be uncomfortable”.
The bruising boardroom fight appears to have burned King. Perhaps to avoid similar surprises at his three new restaurants, each will be financed by a “club” of up to 20 smaller investors, with King’s group retaining a substantial stake.
The park will be structured as a business investment plan, which limits individual stakes to 30 percent.
King is still talking to US investment firm Knighthead Capital Management, the company that financed his failed bid for Corbin & King. But he plans to raise most of the needed funds from family offices and individuals.
“If I know them, I’m interested in talking,” he says. ‘Many of them [the investors] they are friends. It would be wrong for me to name them yet.
It is clear from interactions with the Le Caprice project team that King is still held in high regard in the restaurant industry.
Despite the dust, he wears the tailored suit and signature Turnbull & Asser tie that have earned him the reputation as an enterprising gentleman in a world of tough commerce.
Restaurants are at the heart of any country’s culture and economy.
Restaurants, he says, are an art form, noting that Harold Pinter wrote a play called Celebration inspired by The Ivy. He despairs of rivals who open heartless chains.
He says: ‘Unfortunately, a lot of people see it as finding a building, setting up a kitchen, hiring staff, seating people and taking orders. ‘It’s really functional. The problem is that there is still a feeling of serfdom in the UK, which people don’t like.
Before the pandemic, the hospitality sector contributed almost £60 billion to the economy, with restaurants accounting for between 3 and 5 per cent of businesses in each country and region of the UK.
While more than ten percent of restaurants (around 13,000 locations) have closed permanently since the pandemic began, King says the industry still plays a vital role in driving tourism and attracting investment.
“Restaurants are at the heart of any country’s culture and economy,” he says. “I would say that there is no literary, artistic, musical or political movement that has not begun in a restaurant or a great cafe.”
King admits that he was initially worried about taking over Le Caprice again. “I’ll be honest,” he says. ‘I thought, it’s one thing to go back. But would this be interpreted as a step backwards?
So there will be a sign that it is moving forward when it reopens in the New Year. Since Caring has the trademark ‘Le Caprice’, King reveals that the restaurant will be renamed ‘Arlington’, after his address on Arlington Street since 1947.
However, there is unlikely to be a starry opening party. “I would invite 200 people, but I would disappoint 2,000,” says King. ‘And the security… can you imagine?’
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