Imagine a tasty rosemary-scented, seven-hour lamb with tender flageolet beans while dining with a revered art hero at his regular table at his favorite restaurant. This summer in London I got my chance.
Yes, I imagined chowing down on this braised lamb classic in the company of the late, great painter Lucian Freud at the Wolseley, the popular eatery next door to the Ritz Hotel in the fashionable St. James neighborhood.
Freud, the grandson of Sigmund Freud, grew up in London after he and his family fled Hitler’s Germany in the early 1930s. He is acknowledged as the greatest realist painter of his generation, and perhaps one of the greatest of all time. Yet painting was only Freud’s day job. At night, he morphed into some version of a member of London’s smart set, and the Wolseley was his regular dinner venue for several years before his death in 2011.
Truthfully, after visiting the Wolseley nine times in six days, I started to believe that I was Lucian Freud. I even figured out how to secure Freud’s table No. 32, which was “booked,” according to the vigilant receptionist, even when not actually in use. In other words, reserved for VIP regulars.
There’s no name plaque in honor of Freud affixed to the massive black marble column that butts up against table No. 32, nothing like those tiny brass name plates on the banquettes at the two-centuries-old Le Grand Véfour in Paris. (I once sat in George Sand’s seat at that two-star Michelin icon.) But the Wolseley restaurant is only a decade old, albeit housed in a vintage British building with dramatic architectural bones and finely-crafted finishes. These things take time, like seven-hour lamb.
Sitting at Freud’s table
Facing the Wolseley’s theatrically-draped entrance doors, Freud’s table is front-row center. From this vantage point, anyone entering the Wolseley will see you seeing them. Freud, the obsessive portrait painter, must have loved that.
And how did I score Freud’s much-coveted table? Well, by making a nuisance of myself with one of the Wolseley’s hosts, Lucio, an elegant Sidney Poitier look-alike. After several visits, during which I always requested table No. 32, Lucio finally relented at lunch on my fifth day in London. I think he was as relieved as I was.
Seated now at Freud’s table, I wondered what he would have ordered. Perhaps the Wiener schnitzel or Austrian pork belly? I asked Lucio what Freud’s favorite dishes were, and followed up with the restaurant’s public relations firm and one of Freud’s galleries, Marlborough Fine Art. They all turned down my query with more or less the same line: “We wish to respect Mr. Freud’s privacy.” Fair enough, but I don’t really think there is an issue with privacy where Freud is currently “living.”
For my lunch that afternoon I picked the half salt beef sandwich (tender, flavorful corned beef) served alongside a bowl of golden and rather good chicken soup. The soup’s bland (under-salted) and defiant (dense) little dumplings (matzo balls) were what Jews back in the states refer to as “sinkers.”
The principle of downward dining
A rather obscure 18th-century French philosopher named François-André-Adrien Pluquet once commented on the function of the restaurant at the historical moment when restaurants went from serving restorative broths (“restaurants”) to whole meals:
“The need to eat unites all men, and creates a sort of bond…all the guests form a single body, and have but a single life.”
In Lucian Freud’s case, I think the impulse to make the Wolseley his regular spot went deeper than social bonding. At the Freud retrospective in 2010 at Paris’ Centre Pompidou, where I first encountered Freud’s painfully graphic work, some of his quotes were mounted on the walls next to the paintings. One of them, à propos his views on travel, caught my attention:
“My idea of travel is a downward travel really. Getting to know where you are better, and exploring feelings that you know more deeply. I always think that thing ‘knowing something by heart’ gives you a depth of possibility which has more potential than seeing new sights, however marvelous and exciting they are.”
This was, I thought, not only a brilliant comment on travel, but also a view into Freud’s painstaking approach to portrait and figure painting, which would take him months in front of his models to complete. Freud’s paintings are like deep journeys into his subjects’ flesh and spirit.
And couldn’t Freud’s idea of downward travel also apply to food, as in, downward dining? I wrote in my journal that day: “Downward dining is going back over and over to the restaurants you love, connecting ever deeper to the place, the food, the staff, the crowd.”
My last meal at the Wolseley restaurant
Back at Freud’s table on my final day in London, this time for breakfast, I ordered the Wolseley fishcakes with poached eggs, topped with Hollandaise sauce and served on a bed of spinach. Well made, though a bit on the heavy side, the dish was more than enough for two people.
It would have been grand to share my breakfast with Lucian Freud, but I realized afterwards that I hadn’t really been thinking about him. After six days of downward dining at the Wolseley I was finally on my own.
I did, though, have the feeling that the Wolseley’s jolly breakfast crowd and I were, in the words of Pluquet, “a single body.” But was I now one of the Wolseley’s VIP regulars like my hero? No, not yet. These things take time.
Top illustration credit: L. John Harris