Published 5 December 1993 Style Magazine 23rd article
Table talk, from left: guests Stephen Fry, Peter Cook and host John Cleese
Recovering as I am from open-heart surgery, I have been told not to be too adventurous in my first weeks at home. But it was no difficulty walking down to Kensington High Street on my second day back to visit Il Portico, the sort of restaurant, tucked under a block of flats, that most people drive by.
It's one of those invaluable local places which never get in the guides, never get written about, but which provide a jolly good service. It's a real family place, run by Pino and Anna Chiavarini, not expensive, not the greatest food in the world, but acceptable and pleasant.
I have visited it on and off since 1969, usually for al dente spaghetti with tomato sauce, but there is a varied menu and the service couldn't be better. Main courses are around £8, with vegetables £2.40 extra. Its clientele ranges from locals to John Wells, and Peter and Anthony Shaffer, and when my friend Don Black, the Andrew Lloyd Webber lyricist, moved in opposite, he greatly thanked me for recommending it.
My second trip was to walk the half-mile or so to the more upmarket Italian, Cibo. Although hidden away in a dreary road near the railway by Olympia, Cibo has found considerable favour with the glitterati. On this particular visit, my scampi were so tiny and shrivelled that I felt I had eaten nothing it is usually first-rate. It had a moment's fame on this very page when a lady letter-writer claimed the owner, Gino Taddei, was rude. Gino responded by saying the lady was with a group who had booked for 16 people, arrived late and become 23. Some 20 stayed to eat, this way back in August, but the hostess has still not paid the bill! Solicitors' letters, Gino tells me, are flying! When people ask me: "Why don't you open a restaurant?" it's this sort of thing that makes me glad I've always said "no".
My trip out last Sunday was to a wedding at John Cleese's house. Not, of course, the wedding of John himself but of his wife Alyce's son, Martin, an extremely nice chap I have known for some years. The food was surprisingly good. I say "surprisingly" because I always mistrust any meal prepared for more than 12. There were 58 of us, and freelance cook Patrick Williams knocked up a very tasty wild mushroom risotto (my friend Sparkle went back for a whopping second helping), together with a tasty veal stew, some poached salmon and salad. The dessert was a chocolate truffle wedding cake. On my spartan regimen I am not allowed that, but it was declared terrific by those around me.
Patrick also doubles as a flute-player and appeared trilling away in a very fair rendition of the Mozart flute quartet, along with some Guildhall students. Mr Tomasz Starzewski, by day a famous dress designer for Shakira Caine and the Princess of Wales, among others (is there a designer in England who doesn't do for the Princess of Wales?), supervised the flowers and decoration lilies and orchids all over the place, and in cascading table arrangements. I found I was able to stay for five hours, while the taxi waited, feeling just as fresh at the end as I was at the beginning. A medical breakthrough! Just shows how well you can manage if you're having fun. And with Stephen Fry, John himself, Peter Cook and my favourite screenwriter, William Goldman, to chat to, who wouldn't?
Tip top I read Restaurant Watch most Sundays and have noticed a constant mentioning of top restaurants in London. I am a regular visitor to London and its restaurants. Recently, I discovered, to my pleasure, Osteria Basilico in Kensington Park Road, and experienced the art o understatement, warm welcomes, good service, great food, and very good prices. It was the first restaurant where I have had the pleasure of adding a tip to the service charge. In my opinion, the restaurant is a breath of fresh air, nicely tucked away from the top places and well worth mentioning in your column - definitely a place I shall recommend to my friends.
Giulio Cinque, Cambridge
Veg stew What astonishing arrogance Ms Valerie Greenberg (November 28) displays in expecting that, by giving 48 hours' notice that she is a vegetarian, she will receive special attention. Would she go to a vegetarian restaurant with a meat-eating friend and demand a range of meat dishes to be cooked specially for him/her, or go to a pizza restaurant and require fresh sushi? Greenberg is surprised that the restaurant about which she complained does not encourage "newcomers rather than make them feel that they were an inconvenience". She was clearly an inconvenience, and I imagine the restaurant would be delighted to do without the arrogance of Greenberg and her like, let alone their custom. Anyway, I would like to sit next to anyone whose difficulty in dealing with potato cakes "resulted in chunks flying off (the) plate on to the floor".
Michael D Varcoe-Cocks, London W6
Fuming I would like to endorse Bryan Lask's comments (November 21) about the lack of small restaurants with non-smoking sections. Many times I have been enjoying a meal, only to have it ruined when the person at the next table lights up. I have decided to tolerate this no longer and now eat and drink only in establishments with smoke-free zones. This leaves me with a rather limited choice, and numerous restaurant owners without my custom. My advice to fellow suffering non-smokers: when phoning to book a table, ask first whether they have a non-smoking area; if not, go elsewhere.
Mrs J Casey, Enfield, Middlesex