Published 12 June 1994 Style Magazine 50th article
The big breakfast: on the terrace at the Hotel Splendido (Arnold Crust)
How much do you have to pay to be greeted with civility? The Orient Express Hotels are normally of impeccable excellence, so I was surprised on arriving at their Splendido Hotel in Portofino to be greeted by a ghastly young man at reception, who stared when I gave my name and said, "Do you have a reservation?" I was in no mood for that sort of thing, having come off the motorway from Milan a bit early and driven through spectacular mountains and villages for an hour and a half on hairpin bends that are not for someone of my driving skills. I have difficulty getting my car out of the garage.
"Is that how you greet people?" I asked. "Not 'Good Afternoon' or 'Welcome to the Hotel Splendido'?" "We get a lot of people without reservations," snapped the young man. "I think it's quite in order." As I was about to pay £700 a night, I did not. "Then go back to receptionist school," I said curtly. At this point a young lady rushed over. "Please Mr Winner, come with me," she said. "We've managed to give you one of our best de luxe suites." "No less than I deserve," I murmured, glad to get away from the reception desk. I mean, how much do you have to pay to be greeted with civility these days?
Things did not get better when I went to the terrace for lunch. We'd just missed restaurant service, but the bar, I was told, offered a large selection of food. Indeed it did, if you lived long enough to receive it. The one waiter for that area was never there. He brought bread with no butter, and when butter was asked for he brought it without a plate or an extra knife. I suppose someone, guests or staff, had been nicking the cutlery and it was now rationed.
After that, I'm glad to say, things improved considerably. In case I have given, thus far, a downbeat impression, let me say quite clearly that the Hotel Splendido and Portofino are marvellous. I had never been to either before and I shall certainly return. The hotel stands high on a hillside looking down on the bay of Portofino and to wooded hills with a castle, a church and a mass of trees olives, cypress, palm, Mediterranean pine.
The whole area is outstandingly preserved, like the South of France used to be, but without the high-rise buildings and hideous new hotels there now.
The chef at the Splendido is Gilberto Pizzi, he's been there 14 years, but that's small potatoes compared to the maitre d', Giorgio Tognazzi, who's been there 31 years. The real concierge, not the one who greeted me, is perfect casting for the part, grey and sardonic, and he's been there 30 years. It's that sort of a place. The food is not Michelin rated, but it's deliciously wholesome and tasty. I only went out for two meals over a four-day weekend, so that speaks for itself. They specialise in the local Ligurian food, and I had excellent homemade noodles with rabbit sauce, mixed sauteed meats with olives and pinenuts, baby artichoke bottoms with foie gras in a white wine sauce, octopus risotto with white beans, turbot mousse with steamed scampi ... I could go on. But suffice it to say, to sit on that incredible balcony with the flowers and the dark-green shutters and look down on the old houses and the little boats, is joy indeed. Even the fruit tart was near historic.
Every star in the world has stayed at the Splendido and delightfully old-fashioned photos of them hang in rooms also done out with excellent murals, so a bookcase with vases and ornaments turns out to be painted on.
On my last night an English couple at the next table looked lovingly into each other's eyes. I have a habit of secretly paying for dinner for people just married. "Is this your honeymoon?" I asked on my way out. "No," they said. Two days later I was lunching with John Gold at the Belvedere in Holland Park, when he introduced me to a lady sitting nearby. "I spoke to you in Portofino," she said. "Was it you at the next table?" I asked. She nodded and smiled. "Next time someone asks if you're on honeymoon, say yes," I said. "That way you get a free meal."
My husband and I twice went to Aubergine when it first opened, but can now never get a table. Having read Mr Winner's complimentary write-up last week, we decided to try again. The girl who answered told my husband the restaurant was fully booked. "Even if I say I'm Michael Winner?" he asked; upon which the manager came on saying "Good evening, Mr Winner". My husband had a hard job persuading him that it was a joke, but we're no nearer booking a table.
Lesley Millar, London SW19
I was surprised to read Mr TJ Blake's letter last week concerning his experience of trying to obtain breakfast at Claridge's. It was totally the opposite of the kind of service I encounter when I breakfast there which I do regularly when I travel to London. I have always found the service and courtesy a delight, which starts my day off on a real high note. I suggest the Blakes have another go. I can't believe they will be so unlucky again.
V J Shanahan, The Hague, The Netherlands