Published 23 January 1994 Style Magazine 30th article
Happy eaters: inside Bistro 190 (Andy Lane)
Downstairs was awful, but now 190 is going up in the world, says Michael Winner.
One of the worst dinners I ever had in my life was some four years ago in a basement called Downstairs at 190. The chef was Antony Worrall Thompson, and my host was a well-known movie star. Everything went wrong, from very slow food delivery to courses that were so heavy that if Worrall Thompson had been chef on the Titanic it would have sunk long before hitting the iceberg. I am prepared to accept that was an off-night, which we can all have, because Mr Worrall Thompson flourished, even if Downstairs at 190 changed direction a year ago and became a less expensive fish brasserie. Antony Worrall Thompson rarely cooks now; he is the "creative director" of his six restaurants, and last week I went to the one above my earlier disaster, Bistro 190.
It's a jolly spot in a rather gloomy street, Queen's Gate, and set in a much tarted-up Victorian room in the equally tarted-up Gore Hotel, SW7. The first table I was offered was too small, and the second, ostensibly for four people, was so squashed that even with only two of us my head kept hitting some dried flower arrangement hanging from the wall. But the food was rather impressive. I was a bit surprised to see bread listed as a starter (£1.45 to £2.45), but there was a good, fresh selection and a nice wooden tub of butter and some olives.
The atmosphere is lively and my secretary, Mrs Lagoudakos, commented that the prices were cheaper than where she lives, far north in Wirral. The linguine with tomato sauce was a first-rate starter, but my main course, spinach, mushroom and gorgonzola calzone, was disappointing, because the waiter had assured me it was like a folded pizza. It was no such thing, more a very doughy pasty filled with this and that. I left most of the dough and the rest tasted fine. Mrs Lagoudakos had the liver, which I nicked a bit of. It was exceptional. It came with a wodge of balsamic vinegar butter, bacon and veg, all for £10.25.
My steamed chocolate pudding was two slices of chocolate cake with some sauce, okay but mis-described completely. I declare Bistro 190 a jolly brasserie and a success. And the member for parliament who thinks the nation needs a Bill to remove service charges from restaurant bills (that's a real national priority, I'm sure!) would be happy, because here they don't have one.
I have been receiving public relations material for some 45 years, so I have long known that PR people live in a fantasy world of their own, untainted by facts or reality. But the ``Winner Award For The Silliest PR Statement Of The Century" goes to Mr Keith Tottem, who wrote last week about the Sandy Lane Hotel: "To ensure the record is straight... most guests did not even know of it (the strike) unless they passed a picket line manned by a few militants."
Come off it, Keith. I was there. First the manager, most properly, sent a hand-delivered letter to every guest room, telling us the strike was imminent. Then he delivered another one, saying the strike was on. Then he put a large, hand-written sign in the entrance lobby of the hotel, re-confirming that the strike was on. Then he asked guests on new year's eve to self-serve part of their gala dinner, as there was not enough staff. Then he closed one of the hotel's two restaurants completely and the remaining one was all self-service as so few staff turned up. And you think most guests were so dumb they didn't even know there was a strike on. I know, Keith, you thought when the guests got those letters and saw the sign, they thought the manager was having a little joke.
And when we all had to stand in line and serve ourselves it was just a new game the management dreamed up to amuse us! That's PR land for you.
I am writing to you in order that you may alert your readers to an experience we underwent on Saturday, January 15. We attended a 50th birthday celebration at Black's Club in Dean Street, London W1. There was a £10 fixed-price menu, on which the two main-course choices were rabbit and mushroom caps. My partner and I both ordered mushroom caps. The party of 35 was forced to wait nearly an hour for the main course to be served, and when our dish arrived it consisted of one mushroom with one strand of spinach, served on a small mound of polenta and surrounded by brown sauce. The dish was cold, congealed and floury. It was completely inedible. The manager of the club admitted to the hostess that the main course was inedible, and gave two free bottles of house champagne. He did, however, insist on charging for the main courses. Because it was a celebration, we did not wish to make a fuss, but I have now written to the club asking for a refund dessert consisted of a portion of tiramisu, with no other choice, and on top of this was added service, plus a £1 entry fee.
A S Michel, London W1
I know we are slightly past the festive season, but Grindlays restaurant in Edinburgh let us down on Christmas day, of all days. We arrived at our appointed time and it was shut not a light, not a notice of apology, nothing! Being 12,000 miles from our home in New Zealand, and with no family here, we thought that a small and friendly restaurant was just the thing for December 25. We had booked and paid our deposit way back in October 1993. Grindlays has a good reputatuon throughout Edinburgh, and we were assured by all we met that we would have a great time. For the past two weeks I have been phoning them, with no luck. It would seem that that it has shut down or is changing hands, but I have heard nothing. With nowhere to go, we made our way back in the snow to where we were staying, and drank the rest of our case of Kiwi wine.
Joelle Thomson, Edinburgh
So, Sheila Simison (January 9) could not embarrass her guests by complaining about the food and service in a restaurant that was so bad she had to write to The Sunday Times. Her "important clients" must be wondering just what sort of person they do business with a person daft enough to dine in a place where the food costs £100 a head, and so stupid as to endure "appalling" food and service, and still pay for it!
Keith Maddaford, Tockwith, North Yorks
Myself and six colleagues had a most disappointing lunch at Brown's Hotel in London on December 23 last year. We arrived, as expected, at 12.45pm and were seated immediately. After a short wait, the water we had ordered was duly served. Some 20 minutes later, a waiter appeared and showed us the silver trolley dish of the day roast goose. He then promptly vanished. A further 20 minutes later we managed to attract sufficient attention to place our wine order. Yet another 15 minutes elapsed, and we had still been unable to order our food. When we did eventually order, the four from our party who ordered goose were informed that it was finished. Forced to make second choices from the remaining, very limited, menu, we were later disappointed to discover that the dessert trolley was similarly bereft. This all amounted to a somewhat subdued occasion, particularly regrettable since we had enjoyed two excellent Christmas lunches at Brown's Hotel in 1990 and 1991. The bill came to £350. Needless to say, we did not leave a tip.
Samantha Simson, Oakes Bacot, London W1