Published 13 February 1994 Style Magazine 33rd article
A real star: Stephen Terry of The Canteen (George Jaworskyj)
When you find yourself searching the menu of a supposedly good restaurant, desperate for something you like, and ordering, again and again, the mixed grill you know it's time to move on! Thus I departed from the squeaky chairs, the excessive noise and the erratic cooking at Kensington Place and sought pastures new. Why, I thought, could Kensington Place not be like The Canteen in Chelsea Harbour? Here is a restaurant which charges less but provides so much more.
In fact, if I had to nominate the most successful establishment in years, it would be The Canteen. Not only have I never had a bad meal there, I've never had a bad course, or even a bad item within a course! Why I put up with sending raw grouse, or salty duck, among other dishes, back to the kitchen at Kensington Place for so long, I cannot imagine. How is it that an actor, a supposedly hyped-up super-chef and the owner of the restaurant that failed in the same premises, can take on a new young chef and turn a space in one of the ugliest developments in England into a triumph? Obviously they know something the men at Kensington Place do not.
The first thing they know is to have a really inventive menu, that not only reads well on the card but tastes superb. Secondly, they sell it at absurdly low cost for the quality on offer all 11 first courses at £6.50 each; 11 main courses at £10.50 and 10 desserts at £4.50. It's what Marco Pierre White, the Canteen's culinary Godfather, rightly described as "haute cuisine at affordable prices".
Thirdly, they have an extremely pleasant setting. When I first went to The Canteen I started to count how many types of light-fitting they had. I think I got to 12. None of them very attractive. Some have been changed, either way it doesn't matter. The old-fashioned, playing-card bench upholstery, the split levels, the view of the yacht basin, everything works. At Kensington Place, for more money, they don't even give you tablecloths or padded chairs. At The Canteen the place is laid out like a real eating room, not like a cafeteria with pretension.
And no-one should underestimate Michael Caine's contribution to his restaurants, all seven of them. He is not just a star who turns up for people to gawp at and go away feeling they've hob-nobbed with the glitterati. Having dinner with Michael in The Canteen is to see a man close to obsessed with getting things right. "We must make that corner more attractive", "Why have they put the thermostat right in the middle of that pillar?" and, to me, "Come on, Michael, let's go to the bar, we can re-sell the table then."
But the real star of The Canteen has to be Stephen Terry, the chef. I only learned recently that Stephen was brought up hearing about me and my exploits from his mother, who was my father's secretary. Even his pram was a gift from my dad. So I feel a personal pleasure at his success. He's a Marco Pierre White protege, trained at Harvey's and various other well-starred establishments, and it shows. Anyone who can attract full houses every night to an out-of-the-way example of post-war Russian architectural mess, with the worst-designed, most irritating car park in London, has to be good.
In the early days, before Marco had to spend all his time at his new Restaurant in Knightsbridge, there was the added attraction of seeing who he might ask to leave. On hearing his side of such well-reported events, I always thought he acted most properly. He can still be caught, looming in to keep an eye on things around 11pm. Dad looking in to check on his baby. And with justifiable pride.
We recently had a family lunch at La Tante Claire in Royal Hospital Road, SW3. My 16-month-old son was included in the party. Although it was a Wednesday lunchtime and the restaurant was full of business people, we were made extremely welcome. In particular, the staff were attentive and very considerate to my son. Far from frowning on his presence, they even gave him a guided tour of the kitchens. It seems almost secondary to say that the food was magnificent, and the service faultless. It was a pleasure to go to a quality restaurant which could provide magnificent fare without it being filled with its own importance.
Caroline Boothby, London W9
We reserved a table for six for new year's eve at Quaglino's for which we paid £100 each in advance. The booking was for the 10pm sitting and we were asked to arrive promptly since last orders were at 10.30pm. Dress was specified as "glamorous", and the ladies duly obliged. We arrived at 9.55 to be told that our table was not ready. We were asked to sit in the bar area and presented with a complimentary bottle of champagne. At 10.30 I could see one empty table, but it seemed that we had been forgotten. I spoke to the maitre d' who apologised and took us down. However, our orders were not taken until about 11pm. The starters came about 30 minutes later, and by midnight there was still no sign of our main courses. The manager told us that there was "a big problem" in the kitchen and that there "had been a terrible accident". However, he said he would see to our food immediately. By 12.15 we decided we had had enough. Our new year's eve was completely spoiled. Our dinner consisted of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon at my house in full evening dress. I wrote to Sir Terence. My letter was passed to the general manager of Conran restaurants. On February 1 a refund was made, but I was told that although the service was slow, "the way we responded was unacceptable". The letter went on to say that in view of events which took place, would we "not frequent any of our restaurants in the future". I have asked for an explanation of why our response was "unacceptable" but have still received no answer.
Barry Ziff, Chairman, The Robina Group Plc