Published 13 March 1994 Style Magazine 37th article
Geraldine Stanton, left, and Doreen Finucane at Fortnum's (George Jaworskyj)
"The credit manager would like to see you, Mr Winner," the Fortnum & Mason assistant said icily. It was 1955 and I had just ordered £200 worth of foodstuffs (a fortune in those days), simple things such as pressed duck in peaches, foie gras, you know, essentials. I'd had a fight with my father and been thrown out of the house.
Having just come down from Cambridge with no income, clearly rough times lay ahead, so I was stocking up. "I'm afraid," said the credit manager firmly, "your name has been removed from the family account." This should not have surprised me because the same thing happened the day before at Harrods.
I was thus forced into my only full-time job in journalism, working for Barry Norman, then editor of a dreadful column on a rotten paper called the Daily Sketch. Two weeks later, by which time I was tired from doubling up at night on the Evening Standard, I was summoned to the Daily Sketch features editor, a man called David English. He uttered only two words, "You're fired". We've been friends ever since.
I often think of this incident when going into Fortnum & Mason, a shop that has figured heavily in my life. My office is a stone's throw away and for some years I would lunch in a strange, subterranean area, now closed, called The Spanish Bar. It was run by two delightful old gay men and became a haunt of the theatrical gay set working in the area. I was the token norm, although probably today it's offensive to say that.
I would also enjoy the other, posher bit, which I always thought was the Fortnum's Coffee Bar, but I went in there last week and now realise it is called The Fountain Restaurant. I remember it being extremely elegant for decades, then it was messed up dreadfully, and now it is rather nice again.
It is one of the very few classy snack places in London, although the menu is enormous and varied. The current decor consists of six bright panels with flowered borders, 18th century in style, depicting peasants in their proper role of serving the gentry. There are fake palm trees and in the windows models of white herons and assorted game birds surrounding F&M motifs.
The waitresses look like they're auditioning for a remake of Upstairs, Downstairs, except for the manageress and the supervisor, who appear each to have one-half of the same costume. The manageress has the bolero-type jacket in black and white houndstooth, while the supervisor has the bottom part of it, a matching skirt. These are the sort of things I mused about while waiting just a bit too long for my excellent Elegant Rarebit. That, to be precise, is "Welsh Rarebit, our famous blend of mature English Cheddar cheese, eggs, fresh cream, and Guinness grilled on slices of toast", with added bacon and tomatoes and, for good measure, the egg I specially asked for, on top. The egg was no trouble to Fortnum's, but try to get one at Orso's to go on their dry pizzas and you'd think you'd requested the Crown Jewels, and they won't give it to you anyway.
The portions are enormous, on long, oval plates. Vanessa's Seashore Avocado, a salad with prawns, crabmeat and a lot more, would have fed a small dinner party. We also had a good pot of Earl Grey tea, except I made a mess of the tablecloth while serving it. Vanessa said that was because I poured it too quickly and I'm sure she's right. She could only eat a fraction of her Patio Nut Delight, which had everything from caramel sauce to coffee ice cream to nougatine to whipped cream. I missed the superb cake trolley they had in the old days, even though I'm too cautious now to partake of such things. I recall the Mont Blanc, a meringue with chestnut puree and whipped cream, as one of the major delights of my youth. But Fortnum's Fountain Restaurant still retains the gentler, good-service spirit of bygone times and we should be thankful for that.