Michael Winner recalls French Christmases, and his mother's indebtedness to casino catering.
Published 19 December 1993 Style Magazine 25th article
The Winners, mere et fils. (Sparkle)
The place where I have eaten more Christmas dinners than anywhere else is the south of France; a great many of these in Cannes Casino, a wonderful building constructed in 1901, with high ceilings and a lot of marble, mirrors and chandeliers. Quite often we would have Christmas lunch elsewhere and go to the casino for the gala dinner, where a 15-piece orchestra in evening dress played and, at some point in the evening, fireworks would cascade down the outside of the tall windows looking on to the floodlit, palm-treed gardens that led down to the sea.
The group dining would be me, my parents and assorted friends. When my father died in 1972, my mother stayed in France, greatly enjoying being the belle of the casino and losing some £6m in six years. After the first £2m, they gave her free dinners, so she would always insist on the casino, I suppose, to get back a few pennies of her losses in free food.
As the casino manager said when I returned some five years ago, long after my mother's death: "Please, M'sieur Winnaire, no charge of entry for you, anything you want to eat or drink is on us, your mother was a very good client of the casino."
By then, in 1979 to be exact, the old casino had been knocked down and replaced by a monstrosity of National Car Park-style architecture, but my mother stayed loyal to the gaming tables until ill-health prevented her rushing round four roulette games at once.
The casino food was good it usually is in casinos, to attract gamblers but the scattered restaurants nearby were better. La Mer Terrats in adjacent La Napoule had red-check tablecloths and a chubby owner, Marcel, who sang with two musicians, the food was fresh and delicious and my mother's eyes would light up at the music.
La Mer Terrats went the way of most small, individually owned places, particularly in the south of France, and was eaten by a large hotel complex. Behind it there opened L'Oasis, a very highly rated place that did a terrific eight-course Christmas lunch. I went with Sparkle one year.
"Don't eat too much of each course," I cautioned. But she would not listen. By the time we got to the turkey, in little, pretty bits with lovely veg, she was wilting. The dessert, each plate decorated as a town with a bridge, a river and a church, was too much. She nibbled the marzipan steeple and gave up. L'Oasis, too, vanished. It was burnt down spectacularly; rumour had it that the mafia, Graham Greene's bete noir, did it because the owner wouldn't pay protection.
Another place for Christmas lunch was the Bonne Auberge near Antibes. For years it was the finest cooking in the area. It has not vanished, but it is no longer even mentioned in the Michelin Guide. It has gone down-market to meet the demands of apartment-dwellers from the new, ever-rising blocks.
I once had Christmas lunch at the Ritz Paris, as grand a hotel as exists. It was full of old ladies, some alone, some with companions, being served by waiters in livery and white gloves. Each separate vegetable came in a little basket of pastry. I think we were the cabaret, because I was with a 6ft 2in, young African-American girl who had just finished a triumphant run on Broadway as the West Wind in the hit musical The Wiz.
But the oddest note in my diaries is of a Christmas dinner at the Connaught, London, in 1971. I had come back for a 10-day break when Hollywood rightly closed down my film The Mechanic rather than pay the crew overtime. Dinner for four, including wine and the tip, is registered in my impeccable hand at £30 total! This year it's £90 a head, excluding wine and service. What a difference 22 years makes.
The single most irritating thing about London restaurants must be the increasingly widespread habit of adding a (normally 15%) service charge "at the sole discretion of the customer" automatically to the bill. I always leave a tip in recognition of good service, but I do resent the imposition of a service charge in this manner. When I recently challenged this procedure at an up-market restaurant in the Brompton Cross triangle, the not very convincing excuse was "that was how the computer had been programmed by head office". At my (real) discretion, I am now avoiding restaurants with this particularly ugly habit.
Dr Karl H Pagac, London SW7
"There are good restaurants in the provinces," writes your correspondent Marcia MacLeod (Restaurant Watch, December 12), "but they are scarce and, because they are scarce, normally require booking several weeks in advance. They are also expensive." We have a term amid the smoking chimneys, pigeon lofts and pudding mines of provincial Yorkshire for this sort of condescension. Tripe. I can't say I relish the thought, but perhaps Ms MacLeod should make an expedition to Yorkshire, if, indeed she has ever heard of it (turn right at Le Gavroche and head 200 miles north). If she could leave her lovingly nurtured prejudices in NW3, I think I could find a number of places to confound her bizarre theories.
Robert Cockroft, Restaurant critic, Yorkshire Post
In response to Marcia MacLeod, I am further surprised that people can continue to be so condescending towards the provinces. My experience, coming from the affluent south, having travelled throughout Europe and beyond, but now living in the Birmingham area, is that there is no dearth of good restaurants here. I would be happy to furnish Ms MacLeod with the telephone numbers of several of them: Le Silverside and the Copthorne Hotel in Hockley, Valentino's in Harborne, Pranee's in Selly Oak and any number of Chinese restaurants, including the Lychee Garden in Bearwood, which I consider to be as good as I have visited anywhere outside Hong Kong.
Brian Steele, Solihull