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Memo to meek diners: bellow for better service

Reporting from food's front line, Michael Winner found a host of unhappy eaters

Published 6 June 1993
Style Magazine
2nd article

The Roman philosopher Titus Lucretius wrote: "What is food to one man is bitter poison to others." Lucky for Titus that he went to the great kitchen in the sky in 55BC and didn't end up, like me, writing about restaurants for The Sunday Times last week. My goodness, what a kerfuffle! I've never had so much reaction since my first article was published in 1950.

Last year the British spent more than £145m eating out, and for years before that, all through the slump, we increased our restaurant-spend substantially. Does anyone seriously believe that every restaurant in the land is giving great service and wonderful food? But dare to pick out a few that in my opinion don't and the pot bubbles over.

Luminaries such as Tom Stoppard, Felicity Kendall, Melvyn Bragg, Roger Moore and John Cleese congratulated me, people came up in the street, in restaurants; one even walked into my garden to narrate harrowing moments of being over-charged and under-served. One man said he's switched his wedding anniversary party of eight from a restaurant I criticised to Nico at Ninety, which I didn't even mention. But it's a great spot and I'm glad he did.

Naturally the 15 restaurants I praised were satisfied with my keen taste buds. Of the 13 I did not praise, a few said that things were now better, and a few more provided extraordinary accounts of my visit which, if I were not renowned for docility, might have produced writs. John Burton-Race of L'Ortolan even suggested I came an hour and a quarter early and demanded to be shown to a table. Really? Not even I turn up that early for an agreed booking.

But Mr Burton-Race did have one genuine cause for indignation. He triumphantly produced his guest book for summer 1991 in which I had written nice words about food I had not enjoyed.

And there Mr Burton-Race put his finger on the problem with the British eater, including me. We hate to complain. We sit there, again and again, and when our hostess or the restaurateur says, "I hope you liked the meal", we dutifully say, "Oh, yes." If we're not actually writhing on the floor with food poisoning we tend to keep quiet. I discussed this aberration with Andrew Eliel, managing editor of Egon Ronay's Cellnet Guide. He gets well over 500 complaints a year about restaurants.

"People let complaints fester and then write to us, not having spoken before," he said. "They don't like to complain at the time for fear of embarrassing their guests. We advocate they take up their problem then and there."

Since if you check the prices in the Guide you can see that it is not the least bit uncommon for posh restaurants to set you back £150 to £200 for two people, why we suffer in silence is amazing. Here are a few of the things I have kept quiet about too long.

Why do many restaurants that include the service charge in the bill give you a credit-card slip not fully made out, leaving the space clear for an extra gratuity? How many of us are fooled into thinking service has not been charged originally? Some restaurants, and Mr Eliel confirms this, add a service charge and still print on the bill that gratuities are left at the customer's discretion.

And what about the extraordinarily loose meaning of the word "fresh" in restaurants? I have been offered "fresh John Dory" in Los Angeles and when I asked where the fish came from I was told "New Zealand". Fresh to me means in that day and not from the other side of the world.

You'd think if you were spending a few hundred for three hours in a restaurant (plus travel and parking) that at least you could expect a warm welcome and sympathetic attention. But as one man wrote to a national newspaper last week, "frequently the top restaurants are the worst offenders".

And what a lot of prima donnas these restaurant-folk are. "Can you imagine," said my friend John Cleese, "what would happen if we reacted to criticism like they did?" He was referring to the considered answers some of my reviews produced. "The ugliest creature I've ever met," was how the owner of the dreary Beauchamp Place Restaurant described me. Mind you, there are a few film critics I could apply that to.

If restaurateurs spent a bit more time trying to please the customer and less aggrandising themselves, we'd all be better off. The super-chef may be the new celebrity of the 1990s and some of them deserve it but my heart goes out to the folk who look forward to a nice night out and instead get frigid, slow service, inadequate food, and a ludicrous bill at the end of it, of which over a third is usually just for service and Vat.

Just so I can keep some people happy and some people less so, here is some further eat-out guidance.

Recommended: Joe's Cafe ('30s modern and slick food); Scalini (real Italian); Nico at Ninety (Park Lane, posh but very good); The Bombay Brasserie (comfortable room, tip-top Indian); Wiltons (Old fashioned English with frumpy waitresses); Launceston Place (Princess Diana's favourite, discreet and comfy); and the French Horn at Sonning (not in the guide books but first-rate food in glorious river setting).

And not recommended: Kensington Tandoori (Indian gone wrong); Palms (nice room, poor food); Dorchester Hotel Oriental Room (like an airport lounge and the longest wait between courses I can remember).

And finally an Italian restaurant I will not name because I like the owner, but it illustrates how not complaining does the restaurant no good. We had curled-up smoked salmon, dry parma ham and wartime English spaghetti in an empty room where the owner told us he was having to borrow money to stay open.

"Wasn't that good?" he said at the meal's end. I sat silent and nodded with a smile, so as not to hurt his feelings. If I'd told the truth he might have brought things up to scratch and done better.

It never pays to eat poorly and keep quiet. But how many of us have the courage to say what we really think?

'One-sided' view of the restaurant

Michael Winner in action (Terry O'Neill)

I found Michael Winner's article, "Waiter! Waiter!" (Style, last week), to be incredibly one-sided. Having severely criticised three of the finest chefs in the country Pierre Koffmann, La Tante Claire (three Michelin stars); Raymond Blanc, Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons (three stars); and John Burton-Race, L'Ortolan (two stars) Mr Winner, it appears, is on the payroll of Marco Pierre White. In fact, I actually read in your newspaper some time ago that John Burton-Race won two golds and a silver medal at the European culinary championships in Madrid. Surely anyone who reaches this level in cuisine cannot be criticised for having heavy food and sauces.
Clive Jacobs, Joint proprietor, Holiday Autos International, London W1

Michael Winner, with his jocular report on his own behaviour in restaurants, risks having some establishments putting up a notice in their entrance "Dogs and Michael Winner not allowed". What is very serious, however, is his absurd verdict about L'Ortolan. Judging and generalising about its food as being "heavy with sauces to match" reflects disastrously on his palate, as the brilliant John Burton-Race's cooking is among the half a dozen lightest in the country with ethereal sauces to match. But I don't suppose I would be a good film director either.
Egon Ronay, London SW3

As a restaurateur, I accept that sometimes, even with the care and great effort we give to our job, we get it wrong. Although we endeavour to please all our guests, I am quite prepared to concede to the fact that I cannot "winner them all". On the only occasion Mr M Winner and Miss J Seagrove visited my restaurant, on Sunday, July 14, 1991, the circumstances were as follows: Mr Winner rang on the Friday afternoon asking for my wife, and as she was busy he was asked to leave a message; he simply put the phone down. He asked his secretary on the Saturday to make the reservation. The restaurant was fully booked but because I believed Mr Winner to be a man of some status and esteem I made room for him. However, because we were full and because by accepting his late reservation I had to reorganise our 24 tables, my wife could only offer him an early table at 12.15pm or a late one at 2pm. Mr Winner gratefully accepted the late table. He and his guest arrived at 12.45pm and demanded to be seated at his table. This caused me further disruption and in-convenience since he was over one hour early, and because he insisted on going straight to his table instead of having a pre-luncheon drink it rather limited his choices of tables. As to his criticisms about the size of table he was given, he was a party of two, thus was given a table for two. As to the complaints of an uneven floor and wobbly chair, I can only say they were both straight when he sat down. Shortly before Mr Winner and his guest left, he was courteously asked to sign our visitors' book, which he grace-fully accepted and wrote "first-rate and I ate too much".
John Burton-Race, L'Ortolan, Shinfield, Berkshire