The extravagant volcanic metaphor of the jobs market as a wrathful Vesuvius, or Mount St Helens, came from the gastropreneur Richard Caring, the owner of Annabel’s, the Ivy and pretty much every second restaurant in Mayfair, when he was speaking to a Sunday newspaper — he had the two-metre rule and the lack of government clarity in his sights. “There are estimates saying we could have up to five million unemployed. It’s not going to be five million — it’s going to be more. I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet. The government is killing the country right now and the hospitality industry is the frontline disaster.”
He is not the first person to warn of the impending Götterdämmerung of the restaurant business; Rocco Forte has been equally vocal. Then on Monday came news that proved the truth of Stalin’s observation that one death is a tragedy, but a million merely a statistic: it was announced that Le Caprice on Arlington Street in London — part of Caring’s empire — would not be reopening.
Within minutes of the news breaking I was receiving text messages from traumatised members of café society; the outpouring of grief was in contrast to the contrived blandness of the statement issued by a City PR firm. “Le Caprice has occupied the current site for 38 years and now the lease is coming to an end. The iconic restaurant within the London dining scene will be reborn at a new location currently under negotiation. We thank our clientele for their loyalty and support over the years and assure them that they will be as excited as us with the new plans for this historic brand.”
Thing is Le Caprice was never just a brand, it was a landmark, and when I was there a couple of months before lockdown there was excited talk of a big refurbishment and of making Le Caprice Great Again. Its location next to a car park, underneath a featureless block of flats, at the bottom of a cul de sac south of Piccadilly, does not sound like the perfect restaurant site, but it has worked for the past 38 years. Le Caprice is a brand (isn’t everything these days?), but it is also much, much more — a complex recipe that mixes good (but not show-stopping) food, with clairvoyant service, familiarity and a shiny sort of glamour.
It was opened in 1947 by Mario Gallati, a former maître d’ at the Ivy who saw potential in an ill-starred location that had already seen off a batch of restaurants called things such as Corvette and Cigogne. Observing alphabetic convention Gallati chose the name Caprice (the Le came later) and with backers including Ivor Novello and Terence Rattigan, plus banquettes and ruched silk walls, it was a smash hit in the days when men wore dinner jackets to restaurants. It remained open until 1975.
At the start of the Eighties the fashion retailer Joseph Ettedgui took over the site. He once explained to me that he had been to a restaurant in New York called One Fifth that had reminded him of a “paquebot [ocean liner] like the Normandie”. He wanted to capture a sense of updated art deco glamour in a London restaurant. He insisted on a long bar at which you could eat — daringly cosmopolitan for what at the time was a very dreary London. He hired Eva Jiricna, who had just started her architectural practice, and created an interior of timeless, hard-edged chic.
The interior was black and white. The walls were hung with black-and-white David Bailey portraits: Malcolm Muggeridge, Rudolf Nureyev with Cecil Beaton, Roman Polanski and a topless Sharon Tate, Marianne Faithfull, Catherine Deneuve inter alia. The portraits were to remain for years. Bailey himself was a regular and even today he recalls the time that he turned up and found his table was occupied. “I asked who had my table and I was told that Ridley [Scott] got there first.” He was surprisingly gracious. “I said, ‘OK, if it is Ridley I don’t mind.’”
It was run by a couple of bright twentysomething managers, Chris Corbin, ex-Langan’s, and Jeremy King from Joe Allen. It opened in September 1981 and was an instant fashion success. Vivienne Westwood, Zandra Rhodes, Katharine Hamnett, Michael Roberts and the rest of the fashion world followed Ettedgui down what was then an unfashionable side street.
The walls were hung with black-and-white David Bailey portraits: Malcolm Muggeridge, Rudolf Nureyev with Cecil Beaton, Roman Polanski and a topless Sharon Tate, Marianne Faithfull, Catherine Deneuve.
Although the restaurant was fashionable, it was not viable and in March 1982 it closed. “But Chris said to me, ‘Don’t go out looking for a job. Le Caprice will reopen,’” recalls the then-young waiter Jesus Adorno, who had joined from the Covent Garden restaurant Inigo Jones. “They mortgaged their houses and I came back as a senior waiter,” Adorno says, and there he remained for 38 years until March, when the country entered lockdown.
The crucial moment in the creation myth of what would become London’s defining restaurant of the 1980s came the evening Marie Helvin rang to book a table and said she would bring Mick Jagger and his party, and was reassured that the restaurant would be lively. “Chris and Jeremy called all their friends and told them to come and fill up the restaurant for free,” AA Gill recalled in the Le Caprice cookbook. “They got people out of bed, people who’d already eaten. It worked, and the reputation began.”
Another early beneficiary of King and Corbin’s largesse was the photographer John Swannell. “I had an exhibition at the Ritz hotel and Chris said to me, ‘You know we’ve taken over a place called the Caprice. Would you like to come and bring ten people with you for dinner? It will be on us.’ And that was my introduction to Le Caprice,” Swannell says. “I’ve been going there ever since, although it changed hands.” And after a rehang a few years ago, it is Swannell’s portraits on the restaurant’s walls.
King and Corbin realised that London needed a new type of restaurant for a new type of celebrity culture: bright, buzzy, glossy, gossipy. The old days of hierophant head waiters and sacerdotal sommeliers were over. Le Caprice mixed things up: Princess Margaret, the Pinters and David Frost could find themselves on a table next to newly important media personalities including Clive James and Melvyn Bragg; members of Margaret Thatcher’s inner circle such as Alistair McAlpine; and such pillars of the Eighties establishment as Jeffrey Archer and Gerald Ronson. Archer said he was having dinner at Le Caprice at the time it was alleged that he was meeting Monica Coghlan, and even incarceration at Her Majesty’s pleasure could not deprive him of Le Caprice — Adorno fondly remembers sending him fishcakes in prison.
This simmering social bouillabaisse was garnished with a hefty dollop of showbiz: which could be Charlton Heston, who tended to order scrambled eggs, or, more often, the queen of big-shouldered, big-haired glamour, Joan Collins.
King and Corbin realised that London needed a new type of restaurant for a new type of celebrity culture: bright, buzzy, glossy, gossipy.
However, the celebrity omelette that was Le Caprice did not get made without the breaking of a few eggs. One evening in 1986 a fairly “refreshed” Ian Dury hobbled over to Omar Sharif’s table and sat down, words were exchanged and suddenly Sharif was on his feet punching the singer; blood everywhere. The conversation is recounted by Dury’s biographer Richard Balls. “He leaned over to Omar and said, ‘I think the first film you made was your best one, everything else was shit,’ and Omar turned round to him and said, ‘I don’t give a f*** what you think’ and Ian said, ‘Well, then you’re a c***.”’
By the time I sat down to my first salmon fishcake in 1990, things were a little more subdued. Le Caprice was a theatre and every sitting a performance. The list of bookings was studied and the tables were allocated (top table being in the corner), making sure that guests with a grudge against each other were not seated next to each other. Staff were expected to be up on the latest news from Campaign, the theatrical press and of course the Nigel Dempster page in the Daily Mail. The restaurant manager was expected to have read the first edition of the Standard before lunchtime service began, during which either King or Corbin would move among the tables, complimenting this guest on his new book, that one on her new stage role, pausing to exchange the occasional bon mot, but never overstepping the boundary into excessive familiarity.
Their genius was to make it affordable, financially within reach of writers and actors. “Chris and Jeremy’s vision is very different than a lot of other restaurateurs,” says the chef Mark Hix, who started at Le Caprice at the beginning of the 1990s. “Their focus was always the customer, what the customer wanted. That stuck in my head, so when we used to do dishes it was almost dishes that you could eat with a fork while chatting doing business over lunch or dinner. The fishcake is one of those dishes: you didn’t need to look at the plate. The thing was really to make dishes that the customer wanted to eat rather than the chef wanted to cook.”
In those days it was heady stuff. I remember seeing Archer and the chancellor Norman Lamont lunching together; as far as I recall it was the day that the pound crashed out of the ERM, Black Wednesday. Another time Clive James and Princess Diana were lunching at the next table.
Diana was a regular, although it took her a bit of time to get to know the layout. “I think it must have been her first time there,” Swannell says. “She got up from the corner table and walked across the room. She was going to the loo.” The problem was she headed straight down into the men’s lavatory — swiftly pursued by a waitress. “About 15-20 seconds later she came back up to the restaurant and everybody was waiting to see what was going to happen. Her face was completely red, and she just lifted her shoulders and put up her hands to say, ‘OK, I made a bit of a mistake’ and everybody clapped. She took it as a joke, and it was a really nice moment.”
“The thing was really to make dishes that the customer wanted to eat rather than the chef wanted to cook.”
Protecting the princess from the paparazzi was another duty of Caprice staff. Once when there were too many photographers, Hix says, “I thought we’d get her out the back door,” and then Hix and the staff covered her escape “with hosepipes to get the paparazzi off”.
The relationship with the media was a balancing act performed to perfection. Corbin and King were ostentatiously discreet, almost never photographed — even for their own cookbook they were shot through a Venetian blind — yet certain journalists were welcomed. Nicholas Coleridge, who left Harpers & Queen to head Condé Nast, believes that he ate at Le Caprice about 600 times, and he would bring Graydon Carter when the then editor of Vanity Fair was in town. “For a visiting New Yorker, the Caprice was the epitome of Nineties-era London. If ever there was a Condé Nast canteen, this was it. I don’t remember a visit to the city that didn’t include at least one meal there. The tomato galette is something I think of to this day,” Carter says.
Taking his duties as a Condé Nast editor seriously, GQ’s Dylan Jones has been a regular since taking over the magazine. “When I joined GQ I had a hit list of people I was going to hire to write for the magazine and one quite near the top was Boris Johnson. Because I wanted him to be our motoring correspondent I took him to lunch at the Caprice.”
Jones’s loyal patronage was rewarded last year when Adorno asked if he would like Swannell to take his picture for the walls. “They actually took my photograph, but I was only up there for two months before Le Caprice closed.”
Whose pictures will be on the walls of the new Caprice is one of many questions facing Caring. “It’s not complicated. Our lease is up in the Caprice, I think some point next year, and we are not 100 per cent sure what we will do with the site yet, whether we are going to renew the lease or not is a question mark,” he told me yesterday, adding that he was eyeing a couple of sites in Mayfair for a new Caprice. “It’s a little bit like what we did with Annabel’s where we moved not that far away. Le Caprice is a super brand and we think she’s a grand old lady and deserves to be rebeautified.” He speaks of “keeping the feeling of a Caprice restaurant bringing it into today’s world … of course people have known the site, but it was getting slightly tired.”
He is under no illusions about the investment needed and the difficulty of the times, but Le Caprice has a place in Caring’s heart. It was one of the first restaurants he acquired and the company is named Caprice Holdings. I asked him what made him buy it in the first place. His answer is simple: “I could never get a table.”