Published 12 December 1993 Style Magazine 24th article
The man behind Bibendum: Paul Hamlyn, above, and chef Simon Hopkinson
It was Old Students' day at my Quaker boarding school, and an ex-pupil, Paul Hamlyn, who published film books, was wandering around with a blonde looking like he wished he'd never come. To make matters worse, I (then 14) went up to him and said: "Could you please send me your books free?"
Most generously, Paul did, we became friends, and indeed that moment of our meeting in 1950 led to my entering motion pictures. But that is another story.
Six years ago, I received an invitation with Paul Hamlyn's name on it, among others, to the opening of a restaurant called Bibendum. By then Paul had become one of the richest and most successful publishers this country had ever known, and had married a girl from our school who had been in the class above me. More importantly, everything Paul did was done with great style, so I went to Bibendum, found it extraordinarily excellent, and have been going ever since.
It is well known in its Michelin Building in Fulham Road, London. Like many institutions that do well over a period of time, it has been slammed mercilessly by the Egon Ronay guide. Although still giving it a star (why it's even in the guide, given what's written about it, I don't know), the guide refers to the chef, Simon Hopkinson, "treading water" and talks about lack of inspiration, disappointment and weakness in relation to the food. Far be it from me not to join an attack, but I think they're nuts. I have never known such consistently excellent food in any restaurant anywhere. I went there for lunch last Saturday (amazing value at £25 for three courses excluding service) and if I couldn't find anything to complain about, you'd better believe things were going well.
There have been times, though not recently, when the service was dodgy in the extreme. I recall Michael Caine ordering grouse and getting pheasant. I remember a period when, consistently, at least one person on the table got a wrong order and another would get nothing at all. I recall going in years ago with Burt Lancaster and seeing the over-snooty staff do nothing to stop a member of the public come in and be a damned nuisance at the table.
However, the food, whatever you eventually got, was always first class. I think it shines even more today. It is not nouvelle cuisine, or any of the variants that so many would-be chic places dole out. I would describe it, meaning to be complimentary, as the very best of 1950s cooking. Those were the days when there were standards. My lunch started with a fantastic bacon and endive soup. The chef said I should have the veal, not usually my favourite, but this was delicious, sliced in a tasty sauce (or should I call it gravy?) and topped with pimento stuffed with celery, fennel, and chopped shallots, all reduced in white wine with herbs. Other veggies, including a first-rate puree of celery, came on the side. Sparkle had cod cooked with herbs and juices; she's very fussy, and she said it was the best ever.
I was allowed only a taste of figs poached in red wine with cinnamon and creme fraiche and a blackcurrant sorbet. I grabbed for the plates to finish the lot, but Sparkle removed them from the table. She insists on my diet. All this in comfortable chairs, well-spaced tables and one of the best rooms in London with a large blue-tiled window featuring a white Michelin-man riding a bicycle. Simon Hopkinson is quite simply a great cook. There are not many of them about.
My wife and I always enjoy our frequent visits to London, and particularly enjoy breakfasts in one of the many restaurants and coffee shops. However, a visit to Fenwick's new theme restaurant, Joe's, in New Bond Street, has ensured that our choice of venue will be more discerning in future. We could not have croissants as they were "sold out". This was at 11am. A request for Danish pastries, as an alternative, received a reply of "We have only one left." A plain scone was then ordered, but, after some considerable time, toasted fruit scones were delivered. I believe they were toasted to camouflage the fact that they were not fresh. Our complaints, as we promptly left, met with a very take-it-or-leave-it approach. The sad fact is that this floor once had an excellent restaurant which was professionally managed. A change for the worse by Fenwick.
J R Connor, Glasgow
In answer to Jennifer Robb (Restaurant Watch, November 28), I am sorry, but as a frequent traveller I am not surprised that critics find little to write about outside London. There are good restaurants in the provinces, but they are scarce and, because they are scarce, normally require booking several weeks in advance. They are also expensive (although I admit many London restaurants reviewed in the press are not cheap). I have been to Manchester several times; apart from a good Chinese meal, I have not been impressed. The places my friends take me to popular, crowded, obviously successful are fine for the provinces, but I would not return to them were they in London. I have also found that many diners outside the capital have a different perception of what good food and good value is; often a place has been recommended to me because it is inexpensive. Value cannot be judged by price alone.
Marcia MacLeod, London NW6
I read with interest your restaurant reviews, but I am afraid that in this part of southwest France, Craig Brown, Michael Winner et al would be superfluous. All restaurants give good value for money, and eating out costs only a fraction of the horrendous charges quoted in your articles. One local establishment offers five courses at lunch time, plus wine, for 50 francs (£6). At a smart restaurant, one would pay about double that for an evening meal of, perhaps, foie gras entier with a mixed salad, a cutlet of fresh salmon in a light fennel sauce, grilled duck breast with a mushroom sauce and vegetables, cheeses and a wide choice of home-made desserts. Of course, you would probably sit next to the local gendarme, or the plumber and his family, rather than a pop star or minor royal, because here the emphasis is on good food and wine.
Lawrie Ellis, Penne d'Agenais France