20 May 2014
Eversheds partner Bruce Dear visits Winston’s Churchill’s most beloved lunch venue, Wiltons, and finds an oasis of calm in the midst of a bustling city
The bomb brought the windows in, and wrecked the restaurant. The proprietor, Mrs. Bessie Leal, dusted herself down, folded her tea towel - and promptly declared Wiltons closed forever.
One man kept calm. He carried on with his oysters: chewing them as all connoisseurs do. His poised courage after the explosion was extraordinary. As a Grenadier he’d suffered endless trench barrages and then, in one final horror ten years before, his wife had drowned when their motorboat exploded.
“Put this place on the bill, Bessie. I’ll take it on.” It was 1942 and he was Olaf Hambro, Chairman of Hambros Bank, whose family still own Wiltons.
I arrive at Wiltons late and flustered. Why do I never learn? Taxis from City to West End are slower than sloths on mogadon; but the tube will get you there before you can say, ”dirty, crowded, metal-breathing tube”. You see the dilemma.
Michael Stokes, Wiltons’ mellifluously voiced house manager, greets me calmly and kindly, “good afternoon, sir. May I take your coat?” Awkward moment.I’ve just remembered Wiltons operate a jacket only policy, and I (carrying a fair bit of under-skin padding these days) am not wearing one. Perhaps I can keep my coat on, sneak to the table, and put it on the back of the chair…
Harry has the truly outstanding house manager’s telepathy. “These days we’re happy for gentlemen not to wear jackets sir; but we can’t have coats on the back of chairs.” I like Harry. He solves your problems, and makes you feel at home.
If there were a fish restaurant in Downton Abbey, it would be Wiltons. This was Winston’s Churchill’s most beloved lunch venue.
Wiltons is a thoroughbred British classic, woven into the very fabric of St James’ since its shell-fish stall debut in 1742. Its insignia is a perky pink lobster in black tie. He sports a silver-topped cane in one claw and, in the other, an effervescing champagne flute. A jauntily perched white top hat caps him off. This precise, exquisite attention to detail defines Wiltons. The dapper crustacean wears a white top hat (of course!) because that is the grandee about town’s correct informal attire.
And indeed everything about Wiltons is just right. The service is supportive and warm, attentive without being intrusive.
The waitresses are nicknamed “nannies” (from bygone days when every Wiltons customer remembered his), but they are modern and unobtrusively chatty in style and approach. They settle me down. My client, who manages an ancient Mayfair estate, has ordered me a Bombay Sapphire and tonic. “Thought you’d be stressed after your prison sentence in the taxi mate! And it’s Friday.” He’s right on both counts.
Then he thrusts his mobile phone at me. For a moment I think he’s going to moan about my being late. But he’s beaming.
It is a picture of his daughter, who has (I can’t help but notice) the young Kate Moss’s luminous geometric beauty. I’m still unprepared for what comes next. “Kate Moss has chosen my daughter as the Face of the next generation.” Delighted and amazed, we toast her success with a sip of Sapphire - and agree she may be the best pension plan in the history of the universe!
Much encouraged, we get down to choosing from the luxurious menu; marked on every page with the top-hatted lobster’s enticing smile. I start with deep fried whitebait and laver bread mayonnaise. These are to normal pub whitebait what Red Rum is too a three-legged donkey.
They are sizeable and succulent (recognizable as excellent individual fish) and lightly dusted – but not drowned - with golden breadcrumbs. They are the best whitebait I have ever eaten.
They testify in their small, black-eyed way to head chef Daniel Kent’s philosophy: source the VERY BEST British produce, and cook it simply, with restrained French influences. It takes hours of hard work to achieve sophisticated simplicity like this. My client begins with marinated salmon with dill and mustard sauce, and is delighted with its pure clear flavours.
Wiltons is not showy, but it specialises in elegant excellence (like a Sachin Tendulkar innings).
William Best, the sous chef, was voted Master Culinary of Arts in 2013, and it is the current British oyster shucking champions (Sammy, their star oysterman, can open 30 in 3 minutes).
In the old British style, they don’t boast about these battle honours (you have to winkle them out of their web site); but their brilliance is evident in every bite.
For main, I take grilled wild turbot with a creamy spoonful of tartar sauce. This is an immaculate snowy piece of fish, set off superbly by the smoky (almost toffee) notes of the grill. With well-sourced fish, less is always more.
So my client plumps for his lobster simply grilled. “Fabulous Bruce, I can’t praise it enough.” We raise a glass of the brilliantly buttery Chablis to the chef (its flowering flavours prove the sommelier is no slouch either).
Wilton’s seems to operate on its own deep British time…measured out by gently riding rivers and stately homes in sunshine. No restaurant in central London relaxes you in quite the Wiltons’ way. The cosy atmosphere encourages you to chat to your neighbours.
Ours are a wealthy American couple, over from New York for a weekend’s high end R&R in London. She is a charming investment banker, who had just finished a six-week twenty-hour-a-day deal: “I’m having a Friday off, and I deserve it!”
Believe me, you deserve it too. Michael Stokes is waiting to welcome you to Wiltons: the home you wish you had in St James.
Head of London Real Estate, Eversheds LLP.