Published 10 April 1994 Style Magazine 41st article
Fine service from John Davey for Michael Winner and Vanessa (Hylda Gilbert)
What I only go through. How I suffer. Unbelievable really. I'm referring to the food at the multi-million pound refitted Lanesborough Hotel.
It is grotesque, so awful as to be almost indescribable (though I shall try) and an absolute disgrace. The owners, if anyone knows who the owners are of these strange places, should call a board meeting at once and fire themselves. And, believe me, what I've written so far is kind.
It all started when Mrs Hylda Gilbert, a close friend and wife of the film director Lewis Gilbert, rang me. "Take me to lunch at The Lanesborough," she suggested. "It's the most beautiful room." "How's the food?" I asked. There was a pause. "Average," she replied. Now, I don't totally trust Hylda on rooms. She once told me the lobby of the Carlton Tower was the most beautiful room in the world. But when she said "Average" I knew the food would be dodgy.
Nothing venture, nothing gain so Vanessa and I picked up Mrs G and set off for Sunday lunch at The Lanesborough. The building, on the site of the old St George's Hospital at Hyde Park Corner, is severe Georgian. It looks from the outside like a home for the mentally unstable. Once you get in things perk up a bit. The Georgian lobby/corridor is classy, although I don't know why they've got one of those awful gas imitation coal fires. If Claridge's can have a real fire, why can't they?
The Conservatory is the name of the only restaurant in The Lanesborough. It is indeed a nice room. Rather camp, done out in Georgian chinoiserie with a lot of pink, models of mandarins, various Chinese lanterns and two enormous urns with palm trees and assorted plants in them. The ceiling is glass and high, the tables are well apart, the chairs are comfortable, the crockery is good with blackberry decoration. There is pleasant music from a real-live pianist and double-bass player on a little platform. If only they served food as well.
Guessing things would be in need of help I went totally mad and ordered a bottle of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1961 for £499. Before you think how utterly decadent, I drink very little but tend to spend a lot when I do.
I ordered Chinese duck cakes with oriental aioli to start, it might match the decor, I thought. This turned out to be no more than duck hamburger, with no sauce to help it. It was bland and dreary. Vanessa had asparagus soup. I tasted it, or rather non-tasted it. The flavour was nil, and it wasn't very hot either. Mrs G had smoked salmon. The service was fine, the room is run by John Davey, a great pro whom I knew at Bibendum and The Belfry.
For a main course I ordered a kedgeree of salmon and haddock with curry butter. It came with rice and for some odd reason, boiled egg slices! It was totally uneatable. It is very rare I leave a main course, I pig out and then complain. This was so drab and tasteless I just nibbled a bit and gave up. Vanessa's chicken was dry and horrid but the corn fritters with it were good. Mrs G had roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. She picked at a nasty-looking piece of overdone beef and from time to time pulled a face and looked round at the decor. At the end she left half of it; Vanessa left most of her chicken.
Dessert was cappuccino brulee for me and Mrs G, thick and horrible is the best I could say. Vanessa had apple pudding and honey ice-cream. I tasted it. Rather like it came from a packet, I thought.
At that point the manager came over. "The chef would like to know when your write-up will appear," he said. "No he wouldn't," I replied. "The food is disgusting. I shall say so in no uncertain terms."
As I left a bevy of people in dress suits bowed a bit and said, "How was it, Mr Winner?" "Lovely room, awful food," I muttered without pausing. They deducted everything except two set lunches at £23 each and the expensive wine from my bill as a gesture of regret.
The next weekend a friend of mine went and his meal was so terrible they gave him two meals free. This, however, is not the point of a restaurant. After all this is on one of the most expensive sites in London. If other London hotels can get in excellent chefs, why can't The Lanesborough? "When they shut the hospital they should've kept the chef," I said to myself as I left.
I have never written to a newspaper before about a restaurant at which I have eaten. However, recently I had dinner at La Rive Gauche, a small French restaurant near The Old Vic. The meal and service were outstanding. However, the restaurant was virtually empty and our party of four were almost the only people in the place. I would hate them to go out of business since they really were good and relatively inexpensive. I can assure you that I have no association with either the owner or the restaurant except that I work nearby.
Professor Walter Holland, London SE1
I have been an inmate at HM Send for just over a year, and thought that your readers might be interested to read of the quality of food served here. The gastronomic highlight of the week is definitely the Friday evening supper. It is at this time that we are served fish and chips, with mushy peas. The fish is cooked in a subtle blend of oils, which give it a unique flavour. The quiet green of the mushy peas provides a perfect accompaniment to the fish. When I am released to sample in more detail the various restaurants explored by Mr Winner, many a day will have to pass before I forget the Friday treat on offer in this penitentiary. Unfortunately, our menus are limited to a select band of people, but we have nothing but gratitude for those who work so hard to prevent our tastebuds from slumbering.
Philip Englefield, H M Send, Woking, Surrey
I live in the north of England, and on my infrequent visits to London I make a point of eating in the best restaurants. Unfortunately, disappointment usually results. Much is made of the genius of the chefs at these top restaurants, yet I am unable to experience their cooking! I can recall only one occassion when the famous chef has actually been on the premises, never mind cooking during my visit. I feel cheated when paying top prices which are justified by the fame of the chef, when I am not even experiencing that chef's cooking.
Mrs M Thompson, Hamsterley Mill, Tyne and Wear
I feel that the majority of restaurant staff are sadly lacking in customer care these days. I enjoyed my meal at the Hoddington Arms, Upton Grey, Hampshire. The starters and main course were superb, and the service was good until I ordered my sweet. I asked for the strawberry pavlova. I am no great patisserie chef, but I do know the difference between a mass-produced dessert and the real thing. I sent it back, but we were still charged for the sweet. My husband complained, and the manageress returned with the bill, the sweet deducted from it. No apology followed, and I was made to feel like an idiot who had made a fuss over nothing.
Alex Topham, Hartley Wintney, Hampshire
I was delighted to see that Michael Winner is not averse to reviewing hotel restaurants ("Halycon days, at last"). While a number of these restaurants are diabolical and undoubtedly survive on a captive market there are some notable exceptions. The most outstanding of these is Bracewells restaurant at the Park Lane Hotel. The food is inspired and the service quite outstanding. At £19 inclusive, their three-course lunch represents quite exceptional value. I use Bracewells frequently and my guests are always impressed I am sure this would also go for Michael Winner.
Christopher Matthews, London W1