Interview: Nick Parkinson, Royal Oak Paley Street (October 2019)

[Above: Restaurateur and front of house leader at The Royal Oak at Paley Street Nick Parkinson.]

As a young
teen, Nick’s first weekend job to earn some pocket money was bottling up at The
Crown at Bray.  It was very local to
where Nick was brought up and Bobby King owned the pub.  Nick would collect the empty soda syphons and
split bottles that had been discarded and crate them up, Schweppes would
collect them and give a credit for the returns. 
For the next few years, right up until leaving school, Nick had grown up
working around that pub.  The experience
was such a positive one that it led him to pursuing a career in the hospitality
industry.  Indeed, Nick had enjoyed a
glimpse of the chef world in the kitchen at The Crown so went straight in at
the deep end by applying for a chef apprenticeship at The Savoy Hotel in London.

Nick spent the
next four years in the incredibly tough environment of the kitchens at The
Savoy.  In total, Nick spent around seven years working as a chef but a couple of moments
swayed his attention away from the engine room of a restaurant and toward the
front of house.  First of all, he
realized that to be a great chef took something really different, some special
spark of flair in creativity.  He felt
that while he was a good chef, he perhaps didn’t have the natural attributes of
a couple of his contemporaries. At the same time, he would see the food going
out from the kitchen and wonder what happened to it in the dining room.  Nick started chatting to his first inspirational
career figure, the indefatigable host Angelo Maresca, who for twenty years was the
legendary Maitr’ d’ of The Savoy Grill. 
This relationship opened a new pair of eyes for Nick, who was able to
see the stage, the theatre, the formal suits and the sommeliers as they worked
the floor.

This stayed with Nick when he went on his
travels, landing in Australia where he was to spend thirteen years building a
life and career in the hotel industry.  One
funny story from quite early in his Australian hotel career came when Nick was
Room Service Manager. The rule in the hotel was that should anything be handed
into lost property and not claimed within three months, the item became his to
keep.  On one occasion Nick was called to
lost property after an elapsed three months, he had no idea what he would be collecting,
the item turned out to be a prosthetic leg. 
Hard to imagine how the person could forget something so fundamental, a
memory that stays with Nick and still brings a wry smile. 

Overall, the front of house of the hotel
world felt like a much better fit, however as Nick climbed the career ladder to
be F&B Director at The Intercontinental in Sydney, he was to realize that
perhaps he had once again become too distant from the customer.  A form of epiphany happened one day in the
lobby of the hotel: Nick was sharing the lift down to reception with Lady
Fairfax (of Fairfax newspapers) but at the time didn’t know who she was, so
when the lift reached the ground floor and the doors opened, he saw an old lady
needing help with her luggage.  The
conversation went something like this,

Nick: May I help you with your Luggage?

Lady Fairfax: Oh Yes, thank you, that’s
very kind!

Nick: Are you checking out, today?

Lady Fairfax: Yes I am.

Nick: Have you enjoyed your stay?

Lady Fairfax: Yes, very much so…

Nick: How long have you been staying with

Lady Fairfax: Two years…..

Nick neither knew that any guest had a two
years permanent suite at the hotel nor that Lady Fairfax was in residence.  He realized he had been buried in
administration for too long and had renewed determination to get back to the purest
form of customer facing roles. 

Nick felt that it was time to ‘come home’
and at the same time his father was looking at buying the Belgian Arms pub in
the local village of Holyport.  Nick
fondly remembers the day in 2001, sitting on a banquette in the front section
of The Royal Oak at Paley Street and having the vision of what the space could
become.  His father was sitting next to
him and Nick remembers hearing the words “are you mad,” which was fair comment
to Nick, as at the time the run down walls were painted Salmon pink.  The paint colour and state of the property
were apparently the result of a dispute between the former licensee and his
sublet.  With some tender loving care and
a family passion for the trade, the pub was to become not only a popular food
destination for locals but through various recognition systems, nationally

Nick’s philosophy of hospitality is to keep
it simple, he aims to provide a warm welcome that will allow the guest to leave
happier than when they arrived.  A number
of factors help in this pursuit – a cosy atmosphere, quality food, a 600 bin
wine list, an eye-catching display of art and a virtually ever-present
host.  In today’s competitive world, customers
look for social experiences that tick all these boxes and it is perhaps the
people at the front who differentiate the better places. A significant natural
skill is the ability to enable the guests to renew acquaintances with a host
who remembers details of conversations as if they’d never been away.  Indeed, Nick has made many long-term friends
as the face of The Royal Oak. 

“As well as forming these friendships at
The Royal Oak, it’s been a real pleasure to see people from diverse backgrounds
form lasting friendships of their own under this roof,” Nick’s observation is
perhaps of one of the beauties of what is left of the pub culture that is
unique to Britain. 

As a restaurateur, Nick sees the most
pleasurable part of his responsibilities as being the host, the front of house,
orchestrating the service and working directly with customers.  Occasionally the service may go wrong but
that’s the challenge of the role and to Nick the odd bump in the road is far
outweighed by the enjoyment of engaging with new people every day.  Nick would suggest that the hardest part of
being the restaurateur is all the operations that are involved in running your
own business, the day-to-day tasks that take up a lot of time and can be a
constant nagging stress.  It is actually
the delivering of happy satisfaction to customers that drives the excitement
and motivation going forward.

Nick had the pleasure of hosting President
Macron of France and Prime Minister Theresa May at The Royal Oak, however the crowning
glory of service (so to speak) was perhaps when Nick had the opportunity to
serve Her Majesty The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh.  In April 2017, it was the 75th
anniversary of The Grenadier Guards serving The Queen and they wanted to mark
the occasion by taking her out for lunch and making a presentation. It was a
Monday and while Nick had been given plenty of notice that a ‘VIP’ was visiting
it was only two days before that he was notified that it would be Her Majesty.  Both occasions went well and fit in with the
overall achievements of the pub over the eighteen years under his

Nick is proud of the long association the
pub has with the ‘Top 50 Gastropubs,’ which has been a constant since the
inception of those awards, it has featured on ‘Top 100’ restaurant lists,
scored 6/10 in the Good Food Guide, held three AA Rosettes for nine years, a
Bib Gourmands for two years and a Michelin star for eight years.   Significant coverage across the broadsheets
over the years has all helped the establishment of a small national
institution.  Of course there are ups and
downs with such accolades but Nick maintains the mantra of quality first in all
that he does and that serves the restaurant in good stead going forward.

In terms of legacy, there have been plenty
of staff who have come through the doors and gone on to Michelin related
success in their own right, be it as blossoming chefs or front of house managers.  There is always a sense of ‘one team’ at The
Royal Oak, no egos allowed in dining room or kitchen and a harmonious
philosophy of service to please the customer. 
This ethos epitomizes all that is The Royal Oak and is a credit to all
the teams front and back, past and present and those that will follow in the

from Fine Dining Guide