During my teenage years, as a schoolgirl in Belgravia, my friends and I loved Oriel. The imperfect but glorious French brasserie on Sloane Square became ‘our place’, a home from home where we would retreat for birthday parties, first dates and first break-ups. It even provided the ideal spot to hide when playing truant. After all, why would anyone come to look for a young girl in such a pricey restaurant?
Little did we know it at the time, but the ‘Grande Brasserie de la Place’ would not go on providing sanctuary to errant schoolchildren for ever.
After 25 years of service, it closed its quaint French windows for the last time this February after its landlord, the ludicrously wealthy Earl Cadogan, refused to renew its lease. Having threatened to do it for years, he ignored numerous pleas to change his mind and went ahead, terminating Cadogan Estates’ links with one of Chelsea’s most beloved stalwarts.
‘I didn’t like the food and the prices are far too high,’ the earl, whose 300-year-old family company is valued at £3.2 billion, revealed one afternoon back in 2008. But did no one tell him? Horror stories of interminable waits, stray hairs in soups, and frozen pellets of garlic butter arriving atop overcooked steaks were very much the norm.
When it came to food, Oriel was bad, famously so.
The fact it also charged sky-high prices for grub that would have disgraced a greasy spoon café should have put paid to any chance it had of establishing itself. But none of the customers, except, it seems, the earl, appeared to care.
One loyal patron says, ‘It was well known that if you were looking for gourmet, Oriel just wasn’t the place for you. Still, its natural charm meant you were always content whenever you’d found a table at which to perch.’
By ending Oriel’s lease Earl Cadogan hadn’t just closed a restaurant, but a social hangout, too. In its quarter of a century, Oriel became the place to see and be seen.
To enjoy a coffee, a croissant and lunch beneath its 1920s Parisian spherical lamps as the hullabaloo of Sloane Square unfolded was a daily hobby for many. It was home to all sorts: ladies who lunched, young couples on blind dates, peckish theatregoers with tickets for the adjacent Royal Court Theatre and us schoolgirls crowded in the corner.
According to another regular, Oriel was ‘the kind of place one could waltz into dressed unkemptly for that warming pot of tea at any time of the day’. She adds, ‘I got into the habit of walking in with my head in Richard Ward foils, stopping for a snack, and going back to my stylist 30 minutes later to have them removed. Anything went at Oriel and no one judged you.’
Enormous shoes, therefore, for new restaurant Colbert to step into when it opens this month on the cherished site of 50-52 Sloane Square, not least because it is said the family’s priority is to regain popularity with locals whose ‘Save Oriel’ petitions it ignored. (In March, the earl was succeeded as chairman of the Cadogan Estate by his son, Viscount Chelsea; he is now the company’s life president, but no longer a director.)
Cynics suggest that the estate has already played it remarkably safe. In November it was announced that a lease had been agreed with Rex Restaurant Associates — in other words, London’s lauded restaurateurs, Chris Corbin and Jeremy King.
The Wolseley-owning pair, who began their ‘professional marriage’ by rescuing and restoring restaurants including the Ivy, J Sheekey and Le Caprice, beat off stiff competition in the form of Jamie Oliver, Selfridges and arch-rival Richard Caring’s Caprice Holdings. ‘It never mattered to Cadogan Estates that Corbin and King have fewer restaurants to boast than Caprice Holdings, because it was the Wolseley’s unabashed trade that bewitched them,’ explains a property insider.
‘They’re keen for similar traffic on Chelsea turf, but they also realise that the elegant, tried and tested grand brasserie look of Rex Restaurant’s places is very similar to what Oriel once was. It’s a canny way to get the same loyal diners back.’
In addition, the sudden swelling of the pair’s collection in the last 12 months must have helped sway minds. Last year saw the Wolseley’s younger, more informal brother the Delaunay, along with its takeaway deli branch, the Counter, open to much praise: it’s been hard to find an empty table since. The feat was swiftly followed by the opening in June of the 250-cover Brasserie Zédel, a Parisian ‘grand café’ on the site of the old Atlantic Bar & Grill. There’s already anticipation, too, for their first hotel, the Beaumont, scheduled to open in 2014.
While Corbin and King appear to be on a winning streak, there is no guarantee that Colbert will be another hit. Their record does have the odd blemish (their Mediterranean restaurant St Alban closed its doors in 2009) and it is also not clear how the new venture will fare now that the Chelsea Brasserie and Tom and Ed Martin’s neighbouring Botanist have acquired their own crowds of devoted Sloanes.
We can presume that Colbert will serve exquisite food and be finished with a glossy sheen. But we must wait for an answer to the more important question: will this be enough to win back the wives, businessmen, theatre enthusiasts, shoppers and schoolgirls who once upon a time preferred character and heritage to flawlessness and Michelin stars?