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A FINAL MEAL AT THE WOLSELEY

A Despatch from London, 18 March 2020

 

London is a city perhaps best known for two things — some of the best restaurants and hospitality venues anywhere, and a proud uniquely-British resolve that has seen it stand with an almost calm defiance against anything that the world could conjure against it for generations. Even after the rebuilding of London following the Blitz bombs have continued to punctuate the hum of London traffic up to present day. Yet despite this London has endured.  On Tuesday morning I left my workplace and wandered however through a London more quiet and sombre than ever. After originally adopting a “Keep Calm and Carry On” attitude the UK government had the night before been effectively forced by scientific evidence to undertake a U-Turn in the face of COVID-19. Part of this included advising people not to go to pubs, clubs and public gatherings despite not formally insisting that hospitality venue owners close either.  To owners themselves this was double quandary — they could open but with customers instructed to stay away they were unlikely to cover the cost of doing so. In my own desire to offer support, display British resolve, fill my empty belly, and armed with an optimism I’ll explain later — I headed to the Wolseley. The Wolseley is the faceted grand-brasserie jewel atop the crown of Corbin & King — London’s best restaurant group.  I hoped that if nothing else my show of sodality might also reward me with a seat at the most storied table in the venue — for in the central horseshoe exists a corner table upon which the painter Lucian Freud would dine frequently. On the evening of his death the Wolseley left the table empty, covered with a black table cloth and topped with a solitary lit candle against the monochrome ambiance in his honour.  I’ve personally eaten at the Wolseley for well over a decade.  Not being of great income it has punctuated my public dining life rather than filled it. I eat there sporadically throughout the year. I eat there when I can afford it and sometimes when I can’t. I once joked to the General Manager that my daughter — then six years old — who visits with me as part of a Christmas tradition and counts it as her favourite restaurant was “not quite a regular but was at least an annualer.” We both however share a sincere love for the venue, its delicious food and its kind staff.  Throughout my visits there were many times that I have tried to eat at Lucian’s table but been thwarted by regulars.  Arriving on Tuesday to a Wolseley more populated by staff than diners I was surprisingly out of luck this time too. Despite this I was so emotionally struck by the scene that even though the table was occupied I resolved — under the banner of support — to stay.  In short time my actions were rewarded. The person seated at the table — perhaps because of an atmosphere redolent of the last meal on the Titanic — decided against lunch and left. With this I asked if I might change tables and was accommodated with a knowing friendly smile and the perfect hospitality one has come to expect from Wolseley staff in the most normal of times.  The table was cleaned down and made ready.  Over the next hour I shared with staff, a meal and series of moments I will remember forever. Even beyond my own lifetime I expect the story to live on with my daughter. Often whenever asked previously — in Proust Questionnaire-type-fashion — what my last meal on Earth might be, I could quickly reply without thinking “A Schnitzel-Holstein with a beer served on the Lucian Freud table of the Wolseley”.  It was this final meal then that I ate as the whole world seemingly changed around me — on my subsequent commute home I learnt that Corbin & King had taken the tough decision to close the restaurants in the group until further notice. The stark realisation of it actually made the seriousness of what we’re living through right now more real. London has never faltered and stopped and yet here even the dependable Rolls-Royce of engine rooms fuelling London had been forced by COVID-19 to fall silent. I am one of the most optimistic people I know — the fact that my daughter has four younger siblings is perhaps testament to my almost constant optimism over a long period. Despite this however, at that moment, I found myself compelled to tears. I woke early the following morning and I thought of those staff not going to work, I thought of the many who will lose jobs and suffer far worst fates than might be directly caused by the disease itself. I then however thought of that meal. Somehow, defiantly I was able to eat the best food, at the best table, in the best restaurant, in the best city in the world. I did so armed with nothing but optimism and a feeling of solidarity for my fellow man. Without those two things I would have just gone home hungry and fallen into even greater pessimism at later learning the news. Stay safe, isolate of course when needed, but most of all therefore remain positive — one never knows where it might take you. It was this thought that got me out of bed for breakfast.