Kings of cool: The secret of Chris Corbin and Jeremy King's success

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Corbin and King's posh-casual restaurants are hugely popular, a magnet for celebrities – and apparently recession-proof.

Not since the convergence of Auguste Escoffier and Cesar Ritz in the 1900s has there been an impresario partnership like that of Chris Corbin and Jeremy King. In the world of posh metropolitan catering, there's nobody to touch them. They've been called "the Rogers and Hammerstein of relaxed eating".

Their restaurants may not win Michelin stars, but they compensate by being wildly popular with London's intelligentsia. They aren't cheap, but Corbin and King like to insist that money isn't everything. "I always believe," King, has been heard to say "that you give people the opportunity to spend without making it mandatory. Because a lot of the most interesting people who come into restaurants are the least affluent."

Since they met in the late 1970s – Corbin was manager of Langan's Brasserie; King maître d' at Joe Allen's – and joined forces to buy Le Caprice in 1981, they've become the most confident and assured of London restaurateurs. They turned Le Caprice (est. 1947) into an haut-celebrity hangout, where Melvyn Bragg and Jeffrey Archer fought for the all-important Middle Table and where Harold Pinter endured interviews with starstruck journalists (such as moi) at three-bottles-of-Chablis lunches.

In 1990, after six years of trying, Corbin and King bought the run-down theatreland dive, The Ivy (est. 1917) and turned it into the most in-demand eaterie in the West End. It was easier to get into the vaults of the Bank of England than the Ivy if the maître d' didn't know or like you. Models, film people, rockers (such as Ronnie Wood, who painted a striking group portrait of the regulars) and publishers hung out with MPs and TV stars. Sir John Mortimer, the author and champagne socialist, was always in, starting lunch with bubbly and moving on to bangers and mash. The screenwriter Alan Scott (who wrote Don't Look Now) booked a table every day for years. The Hardens guide voted the Ivy "Favourite London Restaurant" for nine straight years.

In 1997 they bought J Sheekey (est 1896) the venerable fish restaurant. A year later, having performed miracles of renovating three moribund eating houses and making them shriek with trendiness, they sold their company Caprice Holdings.

Their new operation, CKL Restaurants, opened The Wolseley in 2003. It was originally built in 1923 as a Wolseley car showroom with marble pillars and Venetian arches, then spent 70 years as a bank and was renovated in palatial splendour. Corbin and King said they wanted to conjure the spirit of the grand cafes of 19th-century Europe: Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Budapest.

It was an instant hit, boasting the highest grossing turnover of any UK restaurant. And it drew an eclectic clientele that included City grandees and Lucian Freud.

The succession of Corbin/King acquisitions speeded up. The Delaunay, a gorgeous Art Deco sister to the Wolseley, opened last December, followed by the massive, 220-covers Brasserie Zedel in August and, last week, Colbert on the site of the ill-fated Oriel in Sloane Square, Chelsea, beside the Royal Court Theatre.

Three new restaurants in 10 months? Aren't they over-reaching themselves? Jeremy King smiles his sleek, greeter's smile: "I'm overwhelmed," he says. "There's been more interest in Colbert than in anything we've ever done. There weren't too many good words about the Oriel, but everyone seemed to miss it. This site had an important role in the community and we're aware of our responsibility to it. That's why we're trying to make it seem like it's been here since before the war."

The Cadogan family, which owns the site, reportedly decided to sell in 2008 after the Earl of Cadogan had a "disappointing" (and overpriced) lunch there. Apparently, 75 people made serious applications to take it on. How did Corbin and King win it? Someone who saw the competition specification told me: "You could easily imagine that the landlord was describing the Wolseley."

Initially, the duo planned to design the place as another Wolseley. But they gradually realised that locals yearned for a typical Parisian boulevard cafe – as Oriel was meant to be. How did they brief the designers (the David Collins partnership) about Colbert's style? Unexpectedly, Jeremy King gives you a detailed life story: not his own, but of an imaginary person who embodies the new establishment.

"I think of a Frenchman on the run from Paris, let's call him Pierre, because he seduced the owner's daughter at the Café de Flore.

"He came to London in the late 1920s, when Chelsea was a subdued area, and had just enough to open the bar here." (A brasseur is French for brewer, so a brasserie is where the brewer sells beer and serves food with it.)

"He opened a pub, and people took it to their hearts and he was able to acquire the shop next door, and eventually another, and here we are."

King caresses the details: how the cornicing varies from room to room, how the floors, the panelling, the colour of the leather banquettes differs from space to space. The photos and posters in the dining-room are of pre-war Paris, the city during the Liberation and Paris in the monochrome 1950s. He plans to have contemporary movie and music posters on the walls. He and Corbin have a passion for set-dressing. The restaurant critic Jay Rayner shrewdly noted that they turn restaurants into film or theatre sets, where "they have created poised British costume dramas, flogging tickets to those who can afford their brand of Mitteleuropean (by way of belle époque Paris) good taste".

Since the same dishes tend to crop up on the menus at sister restaurants – Wiener schnitzel, choucroute de l'Alsacienne, moules, strudels, tartes, coupes – is there a danger that they'll be taken for a chain, rather than a family?

"We never want to be taken for a chain," said King, firmly. "You must remember that people living in Paris before the war could tell what the menu at a new brasserie would be like without actually going there. There are some long-established, standard dishes. And though there's some crossover between Colbert and Zedel because they're more French, there's very few dishes that turn up everywhere."

One thing that does turn up everywhere is Mr King. Diners at the Wolseley and the Delaunay are used to seeing the 6ft 4in co-proprietor, built like a Guards officer and resplendent in a double-breasted grey suit, looming over them with an encouraging smile. King was the first "greeter" I ever encountered, at the Ivy in 1988; did he invent the concept? "No, though we might have heightened people's awareness of it. Proprietorship has been around for a long time. What sets us apart is that we're intent on being restaurateurs rather than restaurant owners. The best restaurants aren't the ones with the snotty maître d'. The best restaurants are proprietor-led."

What did he make of the Michelin star system? "I don't understand it. Like many things in life, if you lose sight of what you're doing, you start to use desperate measures. So Michelin dropped its insistence that restaurants had to have three types of breads and soignee loos and tried to be more groovy, but that just confused people. There's no reason why the Delaunay shouldn't have a Michelin star since the food there is as good as the food at many a Michelin-star place; it's just we don't fancy it up."

Contemplating Corbin and King's small empire of trendy eateries, you can only guess at the number of possible sites and renovations they've considered over the years. King reckons that for every restaurant they open, they've looked at a hundred potential ones. They've considered starting a Wolseley clone in the Shanghai Bund and helping Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair renovate the Monkey Bar in New York's Elysee Hotel. Soon, they'll be dipping a toe into boutique hoteliership with the 73-room Beaumont Hotel, near Berkeley Square; but that won't open until 2014. At present, says King: "At present, we haven't got our eye on anything at all." Frankly, it's hard to believe him. Dame Rumour informs me that the duo have designs on Langan's Brasserie in Piccadilly, where Corbin worked in the 1970s.

It's impossible to imagine such a buccaneering pair passing up the chance to seize such a treasure on London's culinary bounding main.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Payroll and Benefits Co-ordinator

    £22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...

    ICE ICT: Lead Business Consultant

    £39,000: ICE ICT: Specific and detailed knowledge and experience of travel sys...

    Day In a Page

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

    Education: Football Beyond Borders

    Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
    Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most