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Pays your money, takes your choice

Published 2 January 1994
Style Magazine
29th article

Michael Winner recalls a time when caviare flowed as caviare should and ordering a Dover sole meant something "succulent and historic" appearing on the platter before you, and, right, readers reply to his comments on and criticism of Barbados's Sandy Lane Hotel.

Sun, sea and 'yellow soup'; a little criticism comes with the territory (Michael Winner)

I don't mean to be picky, but I sat through 22 breakfasts at the Sandy Lane meticulously separating great, hardened blobs of scrambled egg and lining them up neatly at the side of my plate. "Will this ever end?" I thought. On my last morning it did. I opened the lid of the hot container and there was a sort of yellow soup with a few strands of egg floating on the top. I had the cereal. It is a beautiful hotel, the staff are more than wonderful, but I think at £29,000 for 22 nights, which I have paid, one is entitled to be a bit picky. Any place that charges £3.17 for a small Perrier, £5.95 for a Pina Colada, £7.85 for The Sunday Times (worth every penny, of course!) and £6.96 for the Daily Mail can face a little food criticism and hopefully improve.

We filed on to the Concorde and yet another culinary disaster. I remember when caviare flowed as caviare should; now three tiny canapes, one with odd caviare, some rubber lobster, a tired bit of chicken, no dessert at all and that's about it. And why is British Airways letting Concorde seats be sold at such an amazing variety of prices? The one-way Barbados-London trip goes "normally" for £2,200. A friend bought it in England for £1,562 and in Barbados they're advertising it at £1,333! My travel agent (charging the top price, of course) was on the same flight as me, so I bent his ear in the lounge. He promised to report!

Back in London my mind wandered to the very best food I ever had. It was at Wiltons, St James, under the rule of Jimmy Marks from 1940 to 1976, the greatest of restaurateurs. You could eat his food day after day, unlike the brilliantly cooked, rich, Marco Pierre White offerings; too much for a staple diet.

Wiltons under Marks was a tribute to English cooking at its very best. The fish so fresh that he wouldn't keep it overnight; he'd sell it off at closing time to another posh restaurant down the road. Food in Britain has become over-fancy. I remember Wiltons' Irish stew as one of the great food-tastes ever; also their Lancashire hotpot, the sausage and mash, the fish cakes, the braised oxtail. When you ordered Dover sole, or smoked salmon, or fried plaice, you weren't just ordering a name printed on a menu; it would be succulent and historic.

Marks, in his grey suit, dominated. "This way, my lord," he'd say, rolling slightly from side to side as the aristocracy followed behind. He talked often about the party he would have for his 90th birthday. Danny Kaye would be there and many of his regular customers. It was to be Wiltons' only freebie. But as time wore on, Marks began to fade. At 89 he was still in the restaurant day and night. But his movements slowed until he sat by the door waving at customers he no longer recognised. Four days before his 90th birthday, he died. In his own way he was as temperamental as the star-chefs who were to follow.

I used to eat at the bar on Saturdays, as my office was nearby. Marks came up: "You can't eat here any more on Saturday," he said. "The people who come in Friday night are terrible, not like my regulars, they complain about the bill. So I'm closing Friday and I'll close Saturday." Thus he served only four dinners and five lunches a week! Now taken over by the Savoy Group, Wiltons is open six days a week. It's not what it was, but it's still pretty good. I recommend it.


I have spent the last two weeks lying on a beach approximately six feet away from Michael Winner and his charming lady friend. Whilst he is without doubt a charismatic and entertaining holiday associate, I feel that his critical article in The Sunday Times last week misses the mark. To spend Christmas in the idyllic surroundings of Barbados, basking in the Caribbean sunshine in the luxury of one of the finest hotels in the world, is a joy to all, even the sybaritic Michael Winner. The quality of the hotel food is superior to almost any to be found on the island, and the willingness and enthusiasm of the hotel staff does not deserve the harsh treatment meted out by Mr Winner. As he has spent Christmas there for the last 11 years, surely it can't be that bad.
Brook Land, London W1

My lasting memory of the Sandy Lane, Barbados occurred three years ago when I visited for lunch whilst cruising the Caribbean aboard the Sagafjord. I ate in the informal restaurant at the edge of the beach and chose the help-yourself buffet. I was somewhat startled upon approaching the selection of food to be greeted by four or five birds that literally rose out of the buffet. They were prevented from leaving by the thin mesh "curtain" which should have protected the open sides of the restaurant. The staff seemed totally unperturbed by this event, but, not unexpectedly, my appetite evaporated with the rising of these creatures. Has Michael Winner also suffered the Bajan bird experience?
John S Cuthbert, Sevenoaks, Kent

If Mr Winner doesn't like the food in the hotels in Barbados, why doesn't he try some of the excellent small restaurants? Two not far from Sandy Lane are Fathom's and Ko-Ko's. The food last summer was superb, the setting out of this world. Joseph's on the south coast might also live up to his expectations.
Margaret Gotteridge, Nottingham

What good news that Michael Winner finds Sandy Lane so distasteful. To be the subject of his vituperation must, by now, be recognised as a recommendation. I do feel that his carping was a bit hard on the talented British chef, Mel Rumbles, who is so concerned at the lack of fresh produce in Barbados that he has set up his own experimental farms to ensure fresh supplies of vegetables, herbs and poultry for his restaurant. He and Richard Williams have effected a sea change at Sandy Lane over the years, improving it in every way.
Patricia Fenn, Haslemere, Surrey

Having returned from St James Beach, Barbados, several days before Christmas, we eagerly anticipated Michael Winner's report on the Sandy Lane Hotel. I would like to confirm that, although the hotels along the beach are magical, the food is uniformly awful. However, if Mr Winner and his party would like to take a five-minute walk to Holetown, there are several restaurants Nico's, The Mews, and Ragamuffins which, although small, serve excellent food at sensible prices.
Vivien Williams, Houghton on the Hill, Leicestershire

As an upmarket travel company specialising in the Caribbean, we cannot agree with Michael Winner's views on the food and dress at Sandy Lane. We are one of the largest suppliers of clients to the hotel and whilst we appreciate that food is a very personal matter, we must state that we did not have a single complaint about food during 1993. It is interesting to note that Mr Winner has been staying at the hotel for a number of years. One wonders why, if the food and dress code are not to his liking. Perhaps he should do himself, the hotel and his fellow guests a favour by finding another hotel next year.
Geoffrey P Moss, Elegant Resorts, Chester

I quite agree with Mr Winner's remarks about the food at Sandy Lane, but may I suggest he dines at the wonderful Cobblers Cove in future?
Joan Hall, Wetherby, Yorkshire

Michael Winner seems to have missed the whole object of the dress code at the Sandy Lane Hotel. The Bajans themselves are always smartly dressed for an evening meal at good restaurants, so to allow foreigners to wear jeans, of any colour, would be an affront to them. Also, considering that 90% of all food has to be imported to this tiny island, he says nothing about the magnificent state-of-the-art buffet decorations, which are a feast for the eye, if not for Mr Winner's stomach.
Edna Weiss, London NW11

On behalf of our client, Sandy Lane Hotel, we were surprised that Mr Winner's critique of the Sandy Bay restaurant appeared to be written in ignorance of some crucial facts. Sandy Lane, refusing to accept that the problems of Caribbean cuisine were insuperable, two years ago brought in Mel Rumbles. His extraordinary turnaround of the cuisine has been noted and recorded by innumerable professional travel and food writers. He has inspired long-term improvements by arranging the introduction to Barbados of a wide range of new local crops. We also understand that Mr Winner was present at Sandy Lane during a strike by the Barbados Workers' Union. To ensure that the record is straight, this was an island-wide strike attracting only small support among Sandy Lane's loyal staff. Most guests did not even know of it unless they passed a picket line manned by a few militants.
Keith Tottem, Keith Tottem Associates, London SW10

Michael Winner is living proof of how the good life gets to you in the end. When I read his article Another Helluva Meal, I immediately thought it should have been re-titled Another Helluva Waste Of Money. But what really incensed me was the subtitle, Barbados is unchanged. Rubbish. There are now many excellent, intimate restaurants serving a very high standard of cuisine. And I don't think a surly Bajan exists. Perhaps it is the sight of Winner rolling into their restaurants that makes their smiles disappear.
Suzy Nuttall, Stratford-upon-Avon

I was astonished to read Michael Winner's scathing report on food in Barbados. My husband and I have stayed at Sandy Lane on a number of occasions and, before we had stayed at this hotel, we had visited and eaten at other hotels and local restaurants on the island and thoroughly enjoyed the food and service. I am sure the Caribbean will breathe a sigh of relief when Mr Winner chooses some other island where he can happily wear his jeans. Well done Richard Williams for keeping up the high standards of food service and dress code for which Sandy Lane is first class.
Sandi Corbett, Shrewsbury, Shropshire

It surprises me that such a well-travelled bon viveur as Michael Winner should choose to single out Sandy Lane Hotel for his expensive "evening out". It is the flagship of the Forte chain of hotels, which should indicate to him that the surroundings, ambience etc will be superb, but the food at best will be nondescript, and at its worst, atrocious! After all, they set the standards for the rest of the group! As to acceptable dress in Barbados, why should John Cleese be an exception?
Nita Reed, Ironbridge, Shropshire

I would like to assure readers that one can dress casually and eat very well at a very reasonable price at most of the restaurants on Barbados, if one is only willing to venture outside the beautifully manicured compound of the Sandy Lane Hotel. Inland, many of the old plantation houses offer a wonderful evening out in beautiful surroundings, and if Mr Winner wished to taste real Bajan food he could do worse than go beneath the stands at the Kensington Oval during one cricket season where the luncheon plates, stacked with steaming, delicious food, would put most sports stadia catering in Europe to shame.
Jeni Wood, Henley-on-Thames

I have no doubt that Michael Winner enjoys being outrageous in all aspects of his life both private and public, but the contents of his article were inaccurate and misleading. If Mr Winner is unhappy with the quality of the food and rules at Sandy Lane, he can quite easily eat elsewhere, and I can quite certainly give him two excellent restaurants on the island which are better than the majority of restaurants who enjoy good reputations in the centre of London. Richard Williams is a great manager and would be just as much at home at Claridge's. I hope that your readers will not be put off visiting the hotel by Michael Winner's unrealistic appraisal.
David A Roe, London SW3

About to embark on our fifth visit to Barbados, I was so annoyed by Michael Winner's sweeping statement that I feel compelled to defend that island's culinary expertise. Staying at the Southern Palms Beach Club each visit, I must say that their restaurant, and those in the surrounding area, serve first-class food. If this is Michael Winner's so-called expert opinion, I suggest that you consider appointing another critic.
Jean Betts, Goostrey, Cheshire