LONDON — When Jeremy King’s partners won a bitter, long-running battle for control of his restaurants on April 1, they wasted no time in throwing him to the curb. Forced to hand over his company iPhone and laptop, Mr. King told colleagues he worried that his family would not be able to contact him when they saw the news of his ouster.
It was a swift defenestration for a celebrated London restaurateur whose travails had become an anxious topic of conversation among his devoted diners. They spoke of it, sotto voce, as Mr. King glided past their tables at the Wolseley, the Delaunay, Bellanger, Colbert, Fischer’s and Zédel — glittering jewels in a gastronomic empire that many credit with transforming the city’s once-fusty restaurant scene.
For Mr. King’s loyalists, the rude circumstances of his departure have led to angry vows that they will never return to the restaurants he created. It has triggered a small earthquake in London’s social circles, where Mr. King’s tables have attracted celebrities and corporate titans, artists and politicians, theater royalty and actual royalty. Princess Diana was a regular at his first place, Le Caprice.
“Jeremy King is the consummate restaurateur,” said Roland Rudd, a well-connected public-relations executive who occupied a regular table beneath the wrought-iron chandeliers at the Wolseley. Mr. King, he said, combined “breathtaking” attention to detail with impeccable customer service, all while being “one of the nicest, kindest, most loyal human beings you could meet.”
“By dispensing of Jeremy,” said Mr. Rudd, who is the co-chairman of Finsbury Glover Hering, “the faceless corporate owner has ripped out the heart of the restaurant and will leave a sad shell of its former self.”
The corporate owner in question is a Bangkok-based hospitality giant, Minor International, which bought 74 percent of Mr. King’s company, Corbin & King, for 58 million pounds ($75 million) in 2017. The new investors said Mr. King blocked their attempts to expand his restaurants to Asia and the Middle East. They said Corbin & King was weeks away from insolvency, a crisis they blamed on mismanagement and the pandemic, which forced its nine restaurants to shut down for months.
“Jeremy was losing a great deal of money,” said William E. Heinecke, an American-born billionaire who is the chairman of Minor. “All I wanted to do is to see this company grow and look after its employees.”
In London’s sympathetic news media, Mr. King’s feud has been framed as a classic David-and-Goliath tale. While it is true that Mr. Heinecke used bare-knuckles tactics, it is also true that Mr. King brought him in as a partner, eager for cash to bankroll his ambitions in an expensive market. And Mr. King, 67, has fallen out with at least two previous partners, a testament to his uncompromising style.
Like many such disputes, this one is cloaked in layers of claims and counterclaims, accusations of bad faith and litigation that continues even now, which is why Mr. King declined a request for an interview.
“I can’t talk about it,” he said, though his friends were happy to provide his side of the story.
They describe a principled proprietor who was desperate to protect his employees and the reputation of his restaurants from his bean-counting partners. Among their proposals was to open a Wolseley in Saudi Arabia; Mr. King told friends his regulars would be outraged by that because of the Saudi government’s human rights abuses.
They also say that the restaurants are making a profit. By demanding immediate repayment of a loan, however, Minor forced Corbin & King into administration, the British version of bankruptcy. The administrator then held an auction for the company. Mr. King, backed by a New York investment fund, Knighthead Capital Management, submitted a bid to buy out his partner. But Minor outbid him, offering 67 million pounds ($87 million) for the remainder of the company’s equity, as well as its debt.
“I will no longer have any equity interest in Corbin & King,” the normally loquacious Mr. King said in a terse farewell email to employees after the auction. “It remains to be seen how the transition will be effected.”
Badly, as far as Mr. King’s customers and employees are concerned. On the day after the auction, his restaurants posted a black-and-white portrait of him and his longtime partner, Chris Corbin, on their Instagram accounts. It was both a wistful tribute and an unmistakable message to the new bosses.
The two men first met in the late-1970s when Mr. King was maître d’hôtel at Joe Allen, the London outpost of the Manhattan theater-district restaurant, and Mr. Corbin worked at Langan’s Brasserie, where the actor Michael Caine was once an owner. Together, they bought and sold restaurants that became landmarks, including Le Caprice, J. Sheekey and the Ivy. (Mr. Corbin retired from active management years ago.)
“Jeremy always made restaurants that were brave,” said Ruth Rogers, proprietor of the River Cafe, another renowned London restaurant. “There was a sense of occasion. You could always feel at home, but in a glamorous way.”
Focusing on French and Austrian cuisine, Mr. King’s restaurants evoke the brasseries of Paris or the grand cafes of Vienna. Customers could splurge on a lavish dinner or order a lunchtime bowl of soup for less than 3 pounds. That was a novel concept two decades ago in London, where the dining scene was bifurcated between temples of haute cuisine and mass-market eateries.
It earned Mr. King a legion of A-list customers, who followed every twist of his corporate divorce. On Twitter, the actor and author Stephen Fry lamented how Mr. King was forced out. “Is it always going to be a world where the good guys lose and the greedy, soulless and mean win out?” he said.
Mr. Heinecke, who is a Thai citizen, once played David in his own David-and-Goliath tale. In 1999, when his company was much smaller, he fended off Goldman Sachs, which was trying to buy his stake in the Regent Hotel in Bangkok. “There is a lot more than just money involved,” he said at the time. “This property has a bit of emotion attached to it.”
Mr. Heinecke acknowledged the role reversal. But he said he had been unfairly portrayed as the heavy in this case, arguing that Mr. King filed the first lawsuit when the partnership soured, and then disparaged him in the news media. He joked that he might not get a table at the restaurants he now controls.
“I’ve been the punching bag. I guess I feel a little aggrieved, too,” Mr. Heinecke said. “All creative people are unique but in Jeremy’s case, he began to believe his P.R.”
There’s no question that Mr. King looms large over London’s restaurant scene. His network of contacts is nonpareil; his manner solicitous and genteel; his work ethic fanatical. Colleagues marvel at how he turned up at each of his restaurants almost every night. A tall, silver-haired man, known for his tailored suits, Mr. King can survey a dining room in an instant and detect if anything is amiss.
“The point about all his restaurants is they are never factories,” said Robert Peston, a prominent broadcaster who got to know Mr. King at the Ivy and has frequented the Wolseley and Bellanger. “He walks the floor of every one of his places every day and every evening and has a personal relationship with hundreds of customers.”
Like other regulars, Mr. Peston said he would stop dining at either restaurant if Mr. King was no longer there. Whether future customers, or the tourists who visit London, will care is another question. Mr. Heinecke called Mr. King a “very nice fixture,” but pointed out that he was not the chef at his restaurants.
As for Mr. King, he has told friends he is too young to retire and is already pondering his next move. It could include opening another restaurant.