The late Tony Wilson once told me about booking some mega-American band for the Haçienda. Actually, he told loads of people, because I think he repeated the story in his book, 24 Hour Party People; but he told me first over a glass of wine (me) and a pint of lager and a joint (him).
Tony was my best man at my first wedding - Chris Dark had turned me down - and his taste in music was still developing in parallel with his self-regard. At this stage, he had moved on from Carol King’s Tapestry, his regular listening while the rest of us were focused on the Dead, and the Airplane, and Bob, and the Velvets; but his obsession with punk and rave was more opportunistic than instinctive. (One would never use the word ‘genuine’ in the same sentence as ‘Tony Wilson’.)
Anyway, the one thing that was constant in Tony's life was his hatred of jazz in all its manifestations. And this mega-American band who were costing Tony (or rather, New Order) “mega-bucks”, took to the stage more stoned than the audience, and played ... jazz! Tony told me he was so disgusted that he pulled the plug on them, though he doesn't mention this in the book.
The point of all this is that we had an analogous situation in Wilde's on Sunday night, the occasion being the 37th birthday of the bar. Several months ago, my wonderfully generous friend John Myers had arranged for “Mick n Keef” from the cover band Stones to perform a greatest hits set appropriate for the Wilde's demographic. It his birthday present to Wilde's - and it was keenly anticipated, to say the least.
Except that ten minutes before we were due to open, John called to say that they were not coming. No reason. They had just decided not to come.
Shanade Morrow, singer, song-writer and waitress extraordinaire, went to work on the phones. Within half an hour, the best and the brightest of the Leamington music scene, including Clayton Denwood who played with The Band in Woodstock and Thom Kirkpatrick, who has played with everyone else, were on their way.
Meanwhile, Geof, the embarrassed manager of the Stones, had also been on the phone. And, unbeknown to us and at short notice, he managed to acquire the services of a crooner of a certain age who marketed himself as a Billy Fury sound-alike. What's more, Billy Fury arrived first and set up his karaoke machine of backing tracks and proceeded to belt out a Herman's Hermits song. Which was kinda fun. Until the next one and the next one and the next one.
With a dozen musicians (defined for these purposes as people who play their own instruments and write original material) hanging around having given up their evening to help us, it rapidly became something of an issue. Some people left, many complained, and others, including myself, took to drink and, for the first time in months, tobacco. It took Jill - who is less timid than am I – to take action and request that he cut his act short to give others a chance.
The others took their chance. They jammed, sang and played a series of excellent sets which kept a hundred of us on the dance floor and in awe.
This is not musical snobbery. ’Billy Fury’ knows what he is doing and does it well. But it is not what Wilde's is about. It is the very antithesis of the live music which Wilde's wishes to promote.
Fortunately, the last few hours of the evening developed in the right spirit with some superb acoustic guitar work from Jason and Clayton, plus some great vocals, some great sax from Ono, and - at the end - some brilliant Stones covers from Thom Kirkpatrick, the 21st century one-man-band.
So us oldies eventually got our Stones. As well as our Dead, our Dylan, and our Herman's Hermits!
You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need.
Our thanks to all the musicians, to Myers, to Geof, to Shanade, to Ollie and Rachel, and to Richard for his canapés. And to all those who came out on a school night to help us celebrate, especially Pinky and James for their great card.
Peter Mayle recounts the advice given to him by a French gourmet: at about midday, get yourself behind a truck and follow it. You will end up at a really good restaurant. And the chances are it will display the Les Routiers sign.
This was certainly true back in the early ‘60s, before the French built the autoroutes and adopted le fast-fooding. And it remains true. Truck drivers, travellers and tourists seldom fumble through their Michelin Guide for a place to eat. Rather, they look out for the famous red and blue Les Routiers symbol whenever it is time to pull off the road for a break.
Founded in 1935, Les Routiers was always about a warm, friendly welcome and good value for money. Not necessarily the cheapest in town, but the best value.
Today, the red and blue logo is iconic. It’s up there with the tricolour, with Ricard pastis and Gitanes cigarette packets – part of the memory bank of every Francophile.
And now, it’s up there at Wilde’s. We are proud to be part of the Les Routiers organisation. Their values are our values: hospitality, tradition, loyalty, quality and value.
Man is born free, but is everywhere in chain restaurants.
In the same way as our retail High Streets are being taken over by a rash of building societies and chain stores, so our food outlets are increasingly under the control of large corporations. As I ordered a meal in a gastropub in a small village in Bedfordshire the other day, I realised I had ordered exactly the same thing in Broadway the previous week. And it turned out that these so-called family places were in fact part of a chain of family orientated gastropubs. There are dozens of them throughout the country with the same menu, the same wine list, the same look.
So is there a future for the small, independent restaurant of which Wilde's is an exemplar?
We believe so, but we need to distinguish ourselves from the chains by the food we create, the wine we serve and the ambience we develop.
This is what we have been doing over the last few weeks in Wilde's.
We are investing in the future. We have re-decorated and re-furbished the restaurant. We have introduced a new menu at lunch and dinner, together with some new wines.
Importantly, we have a young management team both in the kitchen and at front of house.
So far, the feedback has been gratifyingly encouraging, but not unanimously so. When an institution changes, it disappoints some who miss particular dishes, or a specific wine or simply a way of doing things which had become comforting and familiar.
But of course, the things they miss were themselves new not so long ago. And we promise that we are not changing for the sake of change. And nor are we changing the essential character of the restaurant.
Wilde's has changed many times over the last 36 years and it will doubtless change again. But Wilde's will always be Wilde's.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.
As you all know, we closed for a couple of days this week to make good some problems with the Regency fabric of our building.
In the bar room, a new window - a perfect replica of the original - had been hand-made by Pat McHale and was being installed by Bob, the brother of ex-staff member, Lucas.
In our front room, Sandor and his team got rid of the crumbling plasterwork, and replaced it, skimming it smooth and painting it with Jill's chosen colour. Sandor then addressed the wooden floor, which was now beyond repair, laying a new floor of light oak. The front room is now a brighter, crisper room - enhanced by Jill's hanging lights.
Meanwhile, Geof was scrubbing clean the entrance hall, removing a century or more of tobacco smoke, and painting the kitchen ceiling. And the team of volunteers - owners, staff and customers - were sorting ancient store cupboards, racing to the tip with all sorts of old rubbish, and organizing anything that moved and loads of stuff that didn't and hadn't for generations.
We opened again at 5pm on Wednesday, and the few of us still on our feet opened a bottle or two as we eavesdropped on customers' comments. The reaction seems good, and the chefs have benefited from their couple of days off.
Worth doing, we think.
Jill, Rachel, Ollie, Max and Michelle. Beth was singing, Alice was writing essays, and Jess was ... who knows? when the picture was taken. Photo by Geoff Mayor.
Generations of tobacco smoke are removed by Geof.
The mirror goes up again. Rachel is pretty sure it's not going to work! And she was right, too. But we got there in the end.
We open in two hours ...
Jill and Max would like to thank Geof, Pat McHale and his guys, Sandor Hodi and his team, Stephan the electrician, and - most of all - the volunteers: Ollie, Rachel, Beth, Jess, Alice and of course the wonderful Michelle, representing the customers. Thanks guys. You were brilliant, each one of you.