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The lady's not for spurning

Published 7 November 1993
Style Magazine
19th article

"Caroline," I said, "Albert Roux is not going to set the heavy mob on you. You can write the letter." I was talking to Miss Caroline Coon, who eventually plucked up her courage and wrote the letter published last week about the rudeness she endured at Le Gavroche. She had phoned my office to tell me about being rebuked: "If you want pommes frites you should eat with the staff." After various other complaints she had been told by the manager, Silvano, the next day: "You were our off night!"

Not only are the British loath to complain, but when they do they are terrified of using their name, as happened on this very page with a letter criticising Quaglino's. Miss Coon, a well-known 1960s dissident, has actually been sent to Holloway prison for two weeks (she only did three days) for protesting. But even she was fearful of putting her name to a letter of complaint!

I phoned Albert Roux, who owns Le Gavroche, and put it to him that Miss Coon had not fared well. "So what? We don't have chips," said Albert dismissively. "You have them for the staff," I said. "They get frozen chips from the other kitchen," was his reply. "If the lady had rung before and said, 'I would love chips', we'd have gone out of our way to make her some fresh chips," said Albert, in conciliatory mood. People tend to become conciliatory when I pursue matters.

"Then why didn't your manager say that to her," I asked, "instead of being insulting?" "You know, Silvano is Italian. He gets boiled up," said Albert. "He boils over!" "And what about the next day when Miss Coon rang up and was told she was his off night?" I persisted. Albert giggled. "Like Marco White," he said. "He mustn't do that. We've only got one Marco. We want to preserve him, leave him on his own."

"Are you going to tell Silvano this?" I asked. "Certainly," said Albert. "This is not the way to answer a customer." "Would you think it right to offer the lady a return visit?" I suggested. "Certainly," said Albert, "and I will personally make the chips for her."

There you are! Nobody can say The Sunday Times, in association with MW, does not provide service with a smile. Miss Coon and her guest are to have a free meal at Le Gavroche, with Albert Roux personally making the chips. "In fact," said Albert, "I hope I have not offended her to the point of not trying my chips. I believe I can make the best chips in the world."

As my romances have recently been far too prominent in the headlines, may I assure you I have never even met Miss Coon, an artist, although she did send me a photo-selection of her paintings. They were very charming oils of flowers and scenery, with just a few that were a tiny bit risque even for me!

Were I not going into hospital, I would be tempted to intrude on Miss Coon's return visit to give my own view, however idiosyncratic, of Albert's chip-making expertise. It is a task I shall save for later.

I think Miss Coon's story goes a long way to illustrate that not all waiters are wonderful people all the time, and that it is just not good enough to label those of us who complain as some sort of restaurant terrorists. Terence Conran took this position in his letter last week, referring to my "rantings and ravings" to gain attention. When one is left un-served and deserted, as I was at his Pont De La Tour, a firmness is sometimes needed. And I wonder what Terence has to say about his manager, who approached a table of journalists, and, when my name came up, said: "He's having an operation soon. We're all praying he won't pull through."


It comes as some surprise to us that Michael Winner was unhappy with his lunch at Snows (Style, October 31), because we, unlike Michael, are happily unfamiliar with receiving such poor notices. However, we heartily take Michael's opinion with the same large pinch of salt he feels most meals merit, and breathe a collective sigh of relief that he is unlikely to inflict his male-menopausal angst or boorish guests on our staff and customers again. His stretch limo cast an ominous black shadow into our humble establishment, and his accomplices would only be satisfied with dishes that were clearly not on the menu. While not wishing to take issue with another restaurateur, we must disagree with Sir Terence Conran's generous assertion that Michael directs films rather well. Try as we might, we have failed to find any evidence that he directs films any better than he behaves in restaurants.
Sebastian Snow, Snows On The Green, London W6

I felt I must write to represent the other side of the coin from Michael Winner's comments about Snows On The Green. Over the past year I have eaten there about 12 times, and on only one occasion has the restaurant failed to deliver what it promises: good-value, good-tasting, modern English food. When Winner wrote the first article about poor service in restaurants, I thought here was a refreshing new approach to reviewing. However, his recent vicious self-indulgent prattle should be ignored. What does concern me is the damage that publication of this type of criticism can do to an honest business. While the big hotel companies and the Conran group can look after themselves, Winner's thoughtlessness could destroy a small business such as Snows.
Hugh Fowler, London NW1

My wife and I recently had lunch at the Corse Lawn Hotel in Gloucestershire. The front-of-house welcome by the owners, Denis Hine and his son, Giles, was exemplary, the food superb. What with excellent service from the restaurant staff, we left our table feeling extremely well fed and cosseted. On paying the bill I enquired whether a service charge was included. The reply came back: "We do not add a service charge, service is what we are here for." This attitude is in stark contrast with that of the majority of restaurateurs, who add whatever extras they think they can get away with to the bill in order to make maximum profit from the diner. Long may the Hine family stay in business.
Ivor Hall, London NW11

Why does Michael Winner want ice and lemon with his mineral water? Surely the point of mineral water is its purity, and to add ice made from tap water can only adulterate it. The bottle should be served well chilled, as would be a white wine. As for lemon with it! The French regard this practice with the same air of bewildered amusement as Mexicans do to adding a slice of lime to their beer.
David Shamash, London WC2

What should have been a pleasant evening for four at Sir Terence Conran's Cantina was spoilt by having repeatedly to implore the waiters to bring menu, water, bread, wine, butter, in any order - after 30 minutes we didn't care! The main courses arrived with similar long, grey stretches in between, which effectively stopped conversation while we gazed longingly at the kitchens and our empty glasses. When the wine did arrive, we poured it ourselves. What really made us splutter, though, was a whopping 15% service charge. Never again!
Linda Martin, Londan W9

I refer to Michael Winner's annoyance at not being recognised by the staff of Daphne's (Style, October 17), and note with surprise that he is still using his own name when booking tables. He must surely have noticed an increase in the number of restaurants and putting waiters in their place. The contradictions in all this do not appear to have struck him at all. I have long thought that the only way to behave in restaurants is to be polite (I agree with Sir Terence Conran's comments - October 31 - entirely), but not to put up with rudeness, superciliousness or excuses in any form. Above all, you should never be overawed by name, reputation or price. Shouting is rarely effective - I have long suspected that screaming at the waiter about the late arrival of your chargrilled radicchio only results in your order being shunted back to the end of the queue. Ask for the manager, if you cannot get anywhere. If the manager fails to deliver, leave, and then write letters of complaint to the manager, the owners, and The Sunday Times. That is the great advantage of your page - it allows nonsense to be exposed to people who care about food, and who will react to news of rudeness or bad food by staying away. For that reason, Winner (and your readers' letters) provide a useful service. Most people are rude to waiters for the same reasons that they are rude to shop assistants - because of a nasty taste for self-aggrandisement. Of course, this does not apply to Winner, because he is already jolly important. But even he could benefit from a little humility.
Hester Bright, London WC2

Last weekend, myself and an old girlfriend had dinner at dell'Ugo in Soho. We hadn't seen one another for some time, and were very much looking forward to our meal. The first two courses went without a hitch. The problem came, though, with the pudding. My companion had asked for pecan pie with praline ice-cream. Quite some time later - in fact, long after I had finished my selection of English cheeses - her pudding arrived. It was not however, pecan pie, or anything like it, and was served with creme freche. She attracted the attention of a waiter, whereupon she was told that the kitchen had run out of praline ice-cream. The waiter offered her vanilla ice-cream instead, but insisted that his offering was pecan pie. In fact, he said that he had tasted it himself to make sure! He could not have been less willing to help. After going through the menu again, and finding that the restaurant was also out of bread and butter pudding, my companion chose an alternative. It was only after this arrived that our original waitress came by and apologised for having brought us the wrong pudding. My companion had been right all along about the pecan pie. We are not the grumpy, complaining type. We still left a large tip. But the experience still spoilt what would otherwise have been an extremely pleasant evening.
Name and address withheld

Although the service was excellent - during our recent visit to Sir Terence Conran's new Chop House, the problem we struck was with the manager. On arrival, we were informed that our table had to be given up by 9.20pm, but no mention of this fact had been made to me when l had called earlier to confirm the booking. We were shown to our table which had been booked for five people. Staff were scurrying around placing a fifth seat at the end of a table for four as we approached. We asked if we could have one of the round tables for five that were vacant, but the manager refused, and one of my friends had the table leg stuck between her legs for the duration of the meal. "An hour later, four people were seated at one of the tables for five we had asked for earlier. We asked to speak to the manager again, and while I appreciate that some bookings don't show up, and tables must be allocated accordingly, it is the complete lack of flexibility on his part and his refusal to accept that we had any reason to be upset that is so infuriating.
Jill Harwood, London SE1