Offering incontrovertible proof that the head chef in the sky has a sense of mischief, two households, both alike in dignity, are to open new restaurants in London within days of each other. Sharpening its knives in one corner is Caprice Holdings, the owners of London's most photographed restaurant group, which includes J Sheekey, Le Caprice and, most importantly, The Ivy. And polishing the silverware in the other corner is the team behind Piccadilly's favourite celeb-spot, the Wolseley. What makes this melange so uniquely tasty is that Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, the Wolseley's stardust-sprinkling heads, used to own Caprice Holdings.
It didn't need to be like this. Caprice Holdings were due to open Scott's - the latest incarnation of the old Mayfair fish restaurant - in May. But Scott's has proved a troubled project. By the time it reopens late next month, Scott's will have been more than two years in refurbishment. In that time the old restaurant has been completely gutted, and an elaborate air-conditioning system involving a 140ft borehole installed. But the delay need not necessarily hurt its prospects. Given the fact that more celebrities and potentates have visited The Ivy and Le Caprice in the past decade than any other joints in town, one can assume that Scott's can count on a few advance bookings.
King and Corbin's secretive venture, meanwhile, has run meticulously to schedule. And, although the pair have remained silent about the nitty-gritty of their latest project, all you really need to know is that St Alban - which until recently had the working name of Rex - will be on the site of Rex House, on Lower Regent Street, a site the pair bought in April for £2.3m. And when it opens, sometime in November, they, too, will have no problem filling the room.
The competitive nature of these contemporaneous events has been lent a little extra spice by the news that Mitchell Everard, The Ivy's legendary maitre d', who ended his employment with Caprice Holdings this year, has been recruited to run St Alban. This is not the first time that staff from The Ivy have jumped ship to Corbin and King. In 2003, much was made of the fact that Sean McDermott, the top-hatted Irish doorman Madonna calls "Mr Pickwick", had relocated to the Wolseley.
But the Caprice group has some impressive soldiers of its own. Kevin Gratton, currently the chef at Le Caprice, is to be installed in the kitchens at Scott's, while Matthew Hobbs, who started working as a runner at The Ivy 13 years ago, will be the restaurant manager. The key to success in attracting and dealing with the high-profile characters that Scott's hopes will be passing through its doors, though, lies with the maitre d'. In Kevin Landsdowne, they have a man with 25 years' experience at Caprice Holdings, and a scary recall for names and faces, at their disposal.
David Morgan Hewitt, the garrulous general manager at the Goring Hotel, says he and his friends in London's restaurantland are transfixed by the forthcoming battle. "It's such an interesting one," he says, with glee. "King and Corbin are great restaurateurs, who built Le Caprice, The Ivy and Sheekey's into what they are today. They've come back and done an amazing job with the Wolseley. And it all comes down to their ability to create an incredible buzz, which they do by spending every service on the floor, talking to their customers. With the Ivy group, it's different. The [current management] have rather inherited their buzz. Of course, new restaurants are like this season's new clothes, and when you open, everyone will come and take a look. I have no doubt that Chris [Corbin] and Jeremy [King] will open a great new restaurant. The real story will be whether a new Caprice Holdings restaurant can match their buzz."
But both groups seem to be oozing confidence. And Mark Hix, the chef director of Caprice Holdings, is quick to play down any talk of a rift over defecting staff. "I think it's natural that people have gone that way," he says. "You know, Chris and Jeremy owned our business for a long time. They didn't nick any staff. People went to them out of loyalty. There's nothing you can do about it, and there's no bad feeling between us. I still regard Chris and Jeremy as very much part of the family."
Whatever the relationship, it was not comfortable enough for King and Corbin to attend a recent party celebrating 25 years of Le Caprice. Although they were invited, the pair thought it might have been "tricky" and "uncomfortable" if they had shown up.
Oliver Peyton, one of London's livelier restaurateurs, whose now-defunct Atlantic Bar & Grill could once claim to rival The Ivy for star wattage, dismisses any talk of a feud between the two groups. "Why would there be any bad feeling?" he says. "Everyone's making money out of their restaurants, so everyone's happy.
"I don't even think that with the new restaurants these guys are going for the same crowd. The people who go to a restaurant in Mayfair are more of a big-haired, banking crowd, whereas the people who would eat in Haymarket would be a more eclectic bunch. The people they're both targeting, though, want to go to a hard-to-get-a-seat restaurant. They're both selling luxury goods."
So is there room for two more hard-to-get-a-seat establishments in the capital? "There's never been more demand for restaurants in London," says Gordon Ramsay, who is busy opening his latest gourmet outlet in New York. "People want to eat out. What you have in these two new restaurants are two great sites. And, even if they weren't great sites, people are now prepared to travel to eat - just look at St John, which is east of the City. People are happy to travel all the way from Chelsea just to have their bone marrow on toast."
Amid all the brouhaha about St Alban and Scott's, though, no one seems to have thought too much about the quality of the food. Does it rile Ramsay (seven Michelin stars, lest we forget), that cooking appears to have fallen right to the bottom of everyone's agenda?
"Listen, I know that Kevin Gratton [the chef at Scott's] is an exceptional cook," says Ramsay. "So, no one has to worry about that. And, as for Jeremy and Chris, they're very canny. Because they don't actually build their restaurants around the food. Now, speaking as a chef, that's obviously a bit of a kick in the nuts, but they're very successful at that approach, and they know exactly what they're doing. They offer not just food, but the whole package."
Morgan-Hewitt concurs. "The food is almost unimportant," he says. "It's taken as a given that all these people will deliver an above-average standard of food. So what punters are actually after is what you get over and above the food. The restaurants are about the people in them."
As "almost unimportant" as the food is, the customers have to eat something. So what will these two headline-grabbers feed their stars when they're not feasting on A-list eye-candy?
"Scott's is the second oldest restaurant in London," says Hix, "so we're going back to what it always used to be - oysters - and we'll have a big oyster bar that divides the restaurant in two. In front of that, we'll have casual dining, where you can have a plate of oysters and a glass of wine, and in the back there will be tablecloths - something more formal. It's a 95 per cent fish menu, with a small section for meat dishes like a Barnsley chop or a good cut of beef on the bone, and it will be fairly traditional." So, a bit like J Sheekey, then? "No, it's a different proposition to Sheekey's. You'll see."
King and Corbin are notoriously reluctant to speak to the press, but one insider is willing to reveal certain details about St Alban. The food will be contemporary and European - with influences from Portugal, France, and Italy - and cooked in wood-fired ovens and charcoal grills. There will be a little over 100 covers - perhaps as many as 130. "It's completely different to the Wolseley," says the mole. "It will be the first truly contemporary and original restaurant King and Corbin have done since Le Caprice in 1981."
In Haymarket and Mayfair, then, a war for hearts and minds. While the lust for novelty means people will flock to both the moment they open, their success, or failure, will be judged not now, but in 18 months' time - not only by how booked up they are, but who they're being booked up by. The point of opening a restaurant is not just to attract people, but the right people. For Caprice Holdings or Corbin and King, there's no joy in opening a restaurant at which any Tom, Dick and Harry can book a table. Tom Cruise, Dick Cheney, Prince Harry. Then, you've got a restaurant.
From the Ivy, a new fish restaurant
The people behind the new project: Richard Caring, Mark Hix
Name of new restaurant: Scott's
The site: 20 Mount Street, Mayfair. Although Scott's has existed as an oyster venue since 1851, it has only been on its current site since 1968, when it moved from Haymarket.
Number of covers? About 120 in the main room, including 14 stools at the oyster bar. 30 can fit into the private dining room.
The food: Fish, served simply. Oysters from the West Mersey and the Duchy of Cornwall's old farm on the Helford river, and crab from Portland in Dorset.
The chef: Kevin Gratton, who has moved from Le Caprice.
The style: Lots of glass, and artwork by a new generation of British artists like Rebecca Warren and Gary Webb.
The crowd: Ivy regulars likely to try Scott's include Victoria and David Beckham, Melvyn Bragg, Harold Pinter, Gillian Anderson, Madonna and Graham Norton. Otherwise, hedge-fund boys and their expense account guests, Russians, and the media elite.
From the makers of the Wolseley, a thoroughly modern venture
The people behind the new project: Jeremy King and Chris Corbin
Name of new restaurant: St Alban
The site: Rex House, 4-12 Lower Regent Street, in the heart of the West End. Earlier this year, a pizza house, Il Pomodorino, shut down on this site.
Number of covers? Anywhere between 100 and 130.
The food: Modern Southern European, cooked on charcoal grills and in wood-fired ovens.
The chef: To be announced.
The style: Sparse, modern, streamlined. A leaner look than the room at the Wolseley, where King and Corbin redecorated an old luxury car showroom in a sumptuous 1920s style.
The crowd: Everyone from footballers to film stars. Wolseley devotees likely to book a table at St Alban include Ewan MacGregor, Scarlet Johanssen, the Duchess of Cornwall, Michael Winner, Nigella Lawson, Cate Blanchett, A A Gill (and Nicola Formby) and Harvey Weinstein. The media will be represented strongly and theatreland is on the doorstep, so expect some post-performance thesps too.Reuse content