Published 3 April 2020
We work in an industry in thrall to the new, so sometimes old-school places get neglected. Loyd Grossman celebrates the great-grandfather of the capital’s vogueish fish restaurants, Wiltons
1742 was no 1066… by which I mean that the historical events of the year are not particularly memorable. Britain was embroiled in the rather pointless War of Jenkin’s Ear with Spain, Spencer Compton (who he?) became Prime Minister, Handel’s Messiah had its first performance.
Of more long lasting significance, George William Wilton began peddling oysters. Moving from London’s Haymarket to Ryder Street, from there to Bury Street and now settled in Jermyn Street, Wilton’s business endured and flourished. Along with the nearby clubs – Whites’, Brooks’s and Boodles – it is the natural habitat of all whose lungs are accustomed to the rarified air of Saint James’s as well as more ordinary civilians not intimidated by its elegantly low-key entrance and legendarily terrifying prices.
I say ‘legendarily’, because many who write about the joint do make a song and dance about how expensive it all is. Indeed £60 for a Dover sole is no joke, but ain’t it all relative? The prices of even the most slapdash London restaurants are shocking and there are many places in the St James’s/Mayfair ‘hood that will land you with a bigger than Wilton’s bill without even coming close to delivering a Wilton’s grade experience.
And to their credit, they have a three-course lunch at £43, which compares favourably to most West End prices. What you get for your bucks is a couple of hours luxuriating in a fluffy duvet of luxury and tradition and jolly nice food.
In keeping with its oysterman’s DNA of simplicity and super-high quality, the raw materials are worthy of a centrefold in Fishmonger’s Monthly: the crab is sparkling, the oysters are sea-water tangy, the smoked eel is the best you can get.
The cooking long ago transcended what is dismissively called ‘nursery food’ and is better described as awlessly executed classics. It inches towards the contemporary a little more each time: even the oldest of the Old Guard are no longer shocked by a micro-herb garnish.
Importantly the kitchen and front of house buzz with professionalism and consistency. The nappery
is generous, the cutlery is heavy enough, the upholstery is plush, the staff are omnipresent but not hovering. It is a restaurant designed very much for its customers – a delightful and prized institution at a time when so many restaurants seem to be created instead for the benefit of their chefs, architects or investors. I don’t go as often as I’d like to, but I have been going there since 1975.
55 Jermyn St,
St. James’s, London
This article was first published in Issue 22 of the CODE Quarterly magazine. To read the digital version, please click here