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June 2003

Table Talk

The travels and travails of a British restaurateur

When, at the age of 18, Jonathan Phelps was faced with making a choice between spending the next four years as a penniless interior design student, or working on a cruise liner, earning a wage and seeing the world, he did what most teenagers would do: he decided to go on board the Queen Elizabeth II.

How the Isle of Wight native ended up in Munich via a long sojourn in the Bavarian Forest is an interesting story, though one that the modest Phelps likes to play down. Today, the successful restaurateur and his two German partners, Uwe Lindner and Tobias Woitzik, run the English country-home style Victorian House, a restaurant-café open for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. And more recently, they have opened The Sconery, which serves fresh scones and tea to go, in the latest addition to Munich’s Fünf Höfe arcade. Since a young boy, Phelps has been interested in interior design. In southern England, where he grew up, he loved to visit country houses and castles open to the public, fascinated by the minutiae of the way a table was set or objects were arranged around a fireplace—the Edwardian and Victorian periods are his favorite. Phelps’ father was trained in the fine arts, becoming a lithographer, but discouraged his son from pursuing a career in the highly competitive world of art.

It was grandfather Phelps, the managing director of a rubber manufacturing company, which had offices in London and New York, who inadvertently gave young Jonathan his first career pointer. His grandfather would often make transatlantic trips on ships like the Mauretania, the Aquitania and the Queen Mary, and brought back books about these vessels. And Phelps, leafing through these colorful tomes, developed a fascination for ocean liners as well as the décor of their staterooms and public rooms. Infected by his father’s skepticism about a career in the art world, the teenager decided to live out his maritime dreams. His plan was to work for a year and save some money and get back to London to attend a 12-month interior design course at the prestigious Inchbald School of Design. But after a year on the QE II, having met people from all over the world, Phelps discovered a newfound sense of independence and worldliness, and school in London was beginning to lose its luster. Phelps rose fast in the service ranks, and, within six years, was promoted to Public Room Officer and Maitre d’ of the most exclusive first-class dining room on the QE II. In 1989, the ship docked for a few months in Yokohama to celebrate the 130th anniversary of the port. It was here that he met and befriended Uwe Lindner and they got talking about starting a business together. Phelps was ready to set up a life on terra firma. When he returned to England, he sold his apartment and found a property in Cheltenham, where he and Lindner would set up shop. A combination of property regulations, the beginning of the recession and destiny conspired to prevent the plan from succeeding.

Lindner’s parents were then living in Kötzting, a village of about 10,000 people in the Bavarian Forest, and he had been offered a little space within a private house on the main town square. It was here that the duo began their first enterprise, the original Victorian House, in 1991, which will be closing down in September this year. By virtue of a Chinese Clinic and lots of city dwellers coming to Kötzting to take their cures, as it were, the Victorian House (named because of its interiors, which had all initially been chosen for the Cheltenham establishment) became a popular watering hole and expanded from being able to accommodate 30 guests in one room, to a 100-person establishment in seven rooms over two floors. Meanwhile, Phelps spent his free time discovering Munich and acquiring a taste for city life. Over time Lindner and Phelps finally found a space for the Victorian House in Munich (Frauenstrasse, just off the Viktualienmarkt), and set up shop in October 2001.

A couple of years later followed The Sconery, Woitzik’s brainchild. Scones—neither cake nor pastry—are the British equivalent of curry in India, a food eaten by all echelons of society. They simply vary in presentation, quality and the way they are served. At The Sconery, which also serves all kinds of tea to go, the savory scones are sold with quark or salted butter and the sweet scones with original imported clotted cream from Cornwall. The Sconery’s 20 square meters are already packed to the hilt with thrilled customers. The scones are also available on the Victorian House menu, and the three partners are determined to spread their vision of “Tee und Kuchen” culture around the city. They are already looking for a larger, more central space to develop further.

Despite the fact that Phelps never made it to art school to study interior design, he believes that if the restaurant business had not developed, he would have had a career in interiors. “Although one can learn the principles and the applications, taste or a sense of design is inherent.” His experience is a case in point. Being an antique collector and an autodidact, it followed naturally that he designed all three of their spaces himself, for which he also chose all the furnishings. At the same time, he has no illusions about what look he can create. “It’s definitely the English country home look. I appreciate different kinds of style, but do not identify with all of them. The kind of style I most admire and hope to emulate is the kind of understated elegance of the interiors company Colefax and Fowler in England.” Phelps embodies something of a dichotomy—he feels decidedly British but at the same time professes not to think or communicate like an Englishman. “After all my years on a ship, the most valuable thing I learned was how to deal with a whole gamut of people. It taught me to adapt myself to all sorts of clients and helped me get to this stage of my business.” He would like to be buried in England and believes that it is where he feels most at home, “but then again, my parents and relatives have all passed away, my friends have moved to other countries, and eventually you realize home is where you build your relationships and develop your roots. Besides, once an exile, always an exile.” For the moment Phelps is happy with Munich, and the feeling seems to be mutual.

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