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In praise of the smart set

Published 31 October 1993
Style Magazine
18th article




"How can you judge a restaurant properly?" people ask me. "When you go in everyone does their best, you get special attention." Oh yes? Then how come I was served these dreadful, burnt fishcakes at Snows On The Green? My host, someone terribly important at Polygram, couldn't believe it. "I can understand me getting burnt food," he said, "but you?! It's like they're taking the mickey!" I sawed away at the hardened edges of my lunch and then gave up.

Snows had been recommended to me by various celebrities. It's a cafe-like place on a hideous main road near Shepherd's Bush, very noisy, no tablecloths, and in the cause of learning how common folk live I was having the set lunch at £12.50 including Vat, service at customers' discretion. I had started with linguine with pesto that was so uninteresting I left most of it. Then came the fishcakes with spinach and chips, and then the worst pear and almond tart I have ever eaten. The pastry was heavy, the taste like mass catering at its worst, the texture clogging.

A few days later I found myself in the safer surroundings of Chez Nico at Ninety Park Lane. His set lunch is Pounds 25 for three courses, including Vat and service, and I had the added delight of seeing Nico ask a particularly obnoxious customer to leave. This time I was the host to three men I had known first when they were deb escorts and I was a humble journalist some 40 years ago. They were now all very successful and, unlike me, wore ties. Nico offers a wide choice on his set lunch and it's all good. I had ravioli of goat's cheese and boned knuckle of veal in mustard sauce. Then a lemon tart.

In the new Egon Ronay guide, Nico has been given, alone, the highest mark of any restaurant in the land. I'm delighted for him. Marco Pierre White, who was between restaurants at the time, has not yet been graded. It will be interesting when he is.

My final set lunch was at Claridge's. They offer a variety of prices depending on your main course, ranging from Pounds 26 to Pounds 31, including service and Vat. I was brought up in Claridge's, some of my greatest family dramas were played out on the balcony of the Rand Restaurant. If ever a man came in to so much as paint a cupboard, my parents would take a suite in the hotel for a week's rest. It remains a real event. Where else do you get a four-piece orchestra in knee breeches playing as you enter the lounge? How can you compare the plebeian, Essex-man modernity of Quaglino's with the old-money, period largesse of Claridge's?

I have always found the food extremely acceptable. I had the cheapest set lunch of game pie and sea-bream, which were excellent, and the Claridge's dessert trolley is incomparable. My host was one of the very few business tycoons I have ever liked, Sir Harry Solomon. The clientele at Claridge's is a wonderful mix. I have dined adjacent to or with Francis Bacon, Margaret Thatcher, Sophia Loren, Robert Mitchum and Jack Lemmon, as well as assorted geriatrics and the strangest of American families. The odd king is not an uncommon sight. Some people object to the formality of it all, but I was wearing no socks, my shirt was not tucked in and could not be buttoned at the neck because it didn't fit. I am certainly the worst-dressed food critic in town. But then I've always said film directors should not be allowed out.



Letters

Last month I dined at Le Gavroche with a friend. The maitre d' began by taking our order veal as the main course. "And what vegetables would you like?" he asked. "Pommes frites . . ." began my friend. Looking pained, he told her, "We don't serve pommes frites." You mean they are not on the menu tonight? "No, no, we don't serve pommes frites." Still not getting the drift, I asked whether the chef might kindly cook some especially for us. "No, no, if you wanted pommes frites you should have come here at 6 o'clock to eat with the staff." A green salad arrived, more oil-drenched than Kenneth Baker's hair. The veal was served on smeared plates. Next day I spoke to manager Silvano. He found my disappointment "unbelievable". Perhaps they were having an off night? "Madam," said Silvano, "you were our off night." At Quaglino's, the pommes frites are perfection.
Caroline Coon, London W11

It seems typical of the Winner page that a letter criticising Quaglino's should be published which starts, "I would like to add my name", and ends "name and address withheld". The rantings and ravings which Winner seems to advocate to gain attention in a restaurant are certainly not the way to receive good service, because waiters are only human, and very much dislike being abused. I would also like to report that the absurd coupon, thankfully abandoned the other Sunday, has only appeared once in one of our restaurants over the past few months, despite our serving 13,000 meals a week. Obviously, readers of The Sunday Times have a great deal more common sense and better manners than your restaurant critic. It is a shame that he does not concentrate his skills on film direction, which I understand he does rather well.
Terence Conran, London SE1

I noticed that Michael Winner found Daphne's extremely efficient. Four of us arrived last Saturday evening on time for our 9pm table, and were not served our main course until 10.35pm, after having been told that everyone had arrived at the same time, and that the kitchen could not cope. Our meal, in the event, was disgraceful they'd forgotten to put the dressing on the Caesar salad and, had I been fortunate enough to have been dining with Miss Seagrove, I would willingly have swapped the glutinous mound they called their ""special" of risotto with prawns with her. It was a tasteless glug, which two of us left. Daphne's might be the "in place" now, but, with food like that, for how long?
Lynne Shore, London