London restaurants are ephemeral. As the ‘famous faces’ become well known, before long they want to offer culinary delights, but their failure list is endless: Pharmacy, Bank, Tiddy Dols, Mirabelle. As cabbies, we have to learn their location and as inevitably as eggs are eggs they fall from fashion and are gone.
Their reputations are based upon publicity, usually on the back of their famous owners, and upon their unusual and ‘innovative’ menus.
[B]ut one establishment knows its clientele, they should, their diners are probably the great-great-great descendants of an early patron. Wilton’s has been serving ‘English’ food since 1742 and with prices to match their reputation. Bertie Wooster would not seem out of place here in conversation about the servants at Blandings Castle while enjoying a lunch of guinea fowl.
Wilton’s is the oldest restaurant in London. George William Wilton opened the original location in Haymarket as a shellfish mongers. It passed down through his family until the name became Wilton’s Shellfish Mongers and Oyster Rooms.
The restaurant seems to have been itinerant moving to Little King Street, onwards to Great Ryder Street then to Kings Street, Duke Street was next before a return to Kings Street. Next, it alighted in Bury Street and finally in 1964 settled in Jermyn Street.
It has had many owners and one story which it worth retelling involves a Mrs Bessie Leal who acquired the licence in 1930. Bessie ran the restaurant with her two female associates During the Second World War one evening in 1942 Bessie was talking to one of her regular customers, a Mr Olaf Hambro, who was dining alone at the bar. Without warning a bomb, which landed near St James’s Church Piccadilly, shook not only the walls of Wiltons but Bessie’s nerves.
As history has it, Mrs Leal folded her tea towel, unpinned her apron and then proclaimed that she no longer wished to live in London during the war and wished to sell Wiltons. She asked Mr Hambro if he knew of anybody who would be in a position to purchase the restaurant, to which he calmly replied that ‘he did not know of anybody other than himself’!
A somewhat surprised and relieved Mrs Leal inquired at the end of his meal how he wished to proceed to which he replied “put the restaurant at the end of the bill!” and she did just that! The following day she packed her bags and left for Cornwall, never to return to her beloved restaurant.
Featured image: Wilton’s Restaurant, 55 Jermyn Street, noted since 1742 for the finest oysters, fish and game by “Tweedland” The Gentlemen’s Club