Jeremy King, one of Britain’s most famous restaurateurs, sits at a makeshift plastic table amidst piles of dusty crockery at Le Caprice.
Once one of London’s most famous restaurants, a bustling hangout for rock stars and royalty, the St. James’s institution now has a morning-after-party feel.
It has been closed for more than three years since the first Covid lockdown, the Art Deco glass uplighters are broken, the walls are bare and the corner spot where Princess Diana once dined with her closest companions is littered with bags of rubbish and covered with cardboard.
“It’s pretty deserted,” King admits, pointing to a wheelbarrow full of empty bottles of expensive burgundy parked at the reception. “But it’s still atmospheric.”
Gentleman Entrepreneur: 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 the 69-year-old King.
He ran and owned it with Chris Corbin, his business partner, for 17 years from 1981, as the duo built a restaurant empire whose biggest stars were The Ivy in Covent Garden and The Wolseley on Piccadilly.
Now he’s back at Le Caprice for the second time, having taken over the lease from previous owner Richard Caring in August.
After being ousted from his Corbin & King restaurant group last year, King plans to revive the restaurant’s legendary pizza as part of his comeback to the London dining scene.
“A few months ago I went downstairs [at Le Caprice] for the first time in over 20 years and it was quite emotional,” he says.
“You know, I was 27 years old when we opened and life began at Caprice Holdings. So it’s incredibly emotionally important and I think it’s also a historically significant restaurant.”
Le Caprice’s prominent cast members during its 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 his salmon fishcakes in prison.
King plans to adapt old favorites on the menu—Bang Bang Chicken and Tomato Basil Galette—to suit 21st-century tastes, along with the monochrome Art Deco interior.
He will also reinstall the mirrors behind the bar so that customers sitting there can watch the theater in the main restaurant behind the bar without turning their heads.
Heyday: Princess Diana leaves Le Caprice
“This restaurant only works when the bar is full,” he says. “Otherwise it feels a little flat, a little two-dimensional.”
The bill for Le Caprice’s modernization will be “significantly higher” than the £30,000 he spent on the renovation in 1982, says King.
It follows an investment of up to £8 million in a New York-inspired “grand café” called The Park, due to open in the new Park Modern building in Bayswater next spring.
Then King raised about the same amount again to open a third restaurant in central London. He says rumors that he plans to locate it in the former NatWest bank opposite The Wolseley are false. However, the location is still secret.
King interrupts to take a call from lawyers about the lease. He says, “It’s a big restaurant.” I’m limited. So I can’t say where it is.’
All three projects are part of his new business group called Jeremy King Restaurants – a solo venture since Corbin long ago stepped away from work for health reasons.
It is King’s third act in hospitality, having sold Caprice Holdings to entrepreneur Luke Johnson in 1998 and losing the Corbin & King business – owner of The Wolseley and seven other restaurants – to Thai hotel group Minor International last April. Minor used his controlling interest to steer the group into bankruptcy and then took control by undercutting an offer from Corbin & King.
The incident was so distressing that King described it as a bereavement. He has not set foot in The Wolseley since. “That wouldn’t be fair to anyone,” he says. “It would be awkward.”
The painful argument in the boardroom appears to have burned King. Perhaps to prevent similar surprises at his three new restaurants, each will be funded by a “club” of up to 20 smaller investors, and King’s group will retain a significant stake.
The park will be structured as an Enterprise Investment Scheme, which limits individual ownership to 30 percent.
King is still speaking to US investment firm Knighthead Capital Management, the firm that financed his failed bid to retain Corbin & King. However, he plans to raise the majority of the needed funds from family offices and private individuals.
“If I know her, I’m interested in talking,” he says. ‘Many of them [the investors] are friends. “It would be wrong if I named her now.”
From discussions with the project team at Le Caprice, it is clear that King is still highly regarded in the restaurant industry.
Despite the dust, he wears the tailored suit and trademark Turnbull & Asser tie that have earned him the reputation of a gentleman entrepreneur in a world of hard-nosed commerce.
Restaurants are at the heart of every country’s culture and economy
Restaurants are an art form, he says, pointing out that Harold Pinter wrote a play called “Celebration” inspired by The Ivy. He despairs of rivals who open soulless chains.
He says: “Unfortunately for a lot of people it’s about finding a building, setting up a kitchen, hiring staff, sitting people down and taking orders.” “It’s just really functional.” The problem is that in the UK it still is a feeling of servitude that people don’t like.”
Before the pandemic, the hospitality sector contributed almost £60 billion to the economy and restaurants accounted for between 3 and 5 percent of businesses in every country and region of the UK.
Although more than 10 percent of restaurants – about 13,000 venues – have closed permanently since the start of the pandemic, King said the industry still plays an important role in boosting tourism and attracting investment.
“Restaurants are at the heart of any country’s culture and economy,” he says. “I would say there is no literary, artistic, musical or political movement that did not begin in a restaurant or grand café.”
King admits he was initially apprehensive about taking on Le Caprice again. “I’ll be open,” he says. “I thought it was one thing to come back. But would it be interpreted as a step backwards?”
So there will be a sign of him moving things forward when it reopens in the new year. Because Caring is branded “Le Caprice,” King announces that the restaurant will be renamed “Arlington,” after its Arlington Street address since 1947.
However, it’s unlikely there will be a star-studded opening party. “I would invite 200 people but disappoint 2,000,” says King. “And the security – can you imagine that?”
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