Published 10 July 1994 Style Magazine 54th article
Michael Winner and Lauren Bacall outside Da Ivo in Venice
People often ask me "What's the best meal you ever had?" I usually mutter about it being very difficult to compare one type of meal with another.
Now I can say "At Harry's Bar, Venice!" It may not actually be the best meal ever, but I've certainly never had a better one. Harry's Bar holds a mere one Michelin star. It overlooks the start of the Grand Canal, but the windows are so small it doesn't matter. It was founded in 1931 by Giuseppe Cipriani, is now owned by his son Arrigio and has been a hang-out for Hemingway, Cole Porter, Joan Crawford and me. Not in order of importance, I might add.
I went there on my recent trip. It doesn't look much. A bar downstairs with some tables and a posher bit upstairs, both levels quite small. It's when you grab a bit of croque monsieur from the bar that you are hit by a taste so terrific that you know this is no ordinary establishment.
Apparently they fry it in olive oil, but all the ingredients of this usually dull thing, cheese, bread, ham and whatever, are so good it becomes a taste experience. Then you have a Bellini for which they are famous, and wow! I mean this place is major, ultra-historic-excellent. Not tepid old rubbish like I had at the Waterside Inn, but a serious frothy combination of white peach juice squeezed by hand and put through a sieve and Italian champagne. I don't drink much at all but I could live on their Bellinis. Giuseppe christened the Bellini for the Giovanni Bellini exposition in Venice in 1948.
The superb manager, Lucio Zanon, showed me to a table for two, the only mistake of the day. I never sit at tables for two even if I am two. I sit at tables for four. This was soon corrected and service and food to match then followed. We had a variety of pasta, tagliolini with ham, with wild mushrooms, with scampi and zucchini, a taste of risotto with baby artichoke, then spinach and cheese ravioli. Each one, quite simply perfect. Liver and onions Venetian style may not sound much, but their way, it is. The secret, so they say, is the sweet Italian onions and the thinness of the liver slices.
And desserts? Unbelievable! A chocolate cake which was definitely far and away the best I have ever tasted and I consider myself the number-one world expert on chocolate cake. The taste! The texture! Oh dear! A sample of lemon meringue, apple cake, zabaglione cake ... each one absolutely beyond improvement. Even their bread is special. They started making the round roll with its spiral shape some five years ago. A culinary invention if ever there was one!
As for the rest of my Venetian food not brilliant. Lady Rose Lauritzen, whose husband Peter is the world-renowned Venice expert, recommended the Hotel Monaco as the best food in Venice. She's a local, so we tried it. A fading, Frinton-on-Sea dining room with everything ordinary from the watery fish soup to the zabaglione cheese cake. Lady Rose also recommended Da Ivo, a small place clinging to a canal. I bumped into my friend Lauren Bacall (Betty to me!) coming out during a brief rainshower the day before I was due to go in. She liked it too. But I found it claustrophobic and horrid. A nasty mural of a naked lady surrounded by farmyard animals, tiny tables and an appalling group of tourists being slowly served. I got up and fled to the Cipriani pool. Why follow aristocrats and actresses I thought as I saw Betty charging up and down in the water wearing goggles and a rubber hat.
I did like La Caravella even though it resembled a roadhouse in East Grinstead. Dark with silly nautical stuff on the walls. We booked for 8pm and out of courtesy I called to say we'd be there at 8.15. "Come at nine," said the maitre d'. "No, no," I replied patiently, "I was booked for eight but I shall be 15 minutes late." "Rather have you at nine," he said in the great customer-service style now affecting restaurants everywhere. I came at 8.15 determined to hate it, but only the bread was awful. The calamari risotto, the carpaccio with spider crab, the drink of Titziano fresh orange, strawberry and sparkling wine all were good. So much as I wanted to, I didn't complain. Now that's something!
I happened to be dining at the Waterside Inn the same day as Mr Winner I was only a "humble", paying guest! I found the meal and the service up to its usual high standard, and the Bellini I drank was excellent. As far as I am aware there are no restrictions on dress code, despite Mr Winner's protestations to the contrary.
Josefina Griffiths, Bray, Berkshire
With his customary sense of decency and good taste Michael Winner once again asks: "Whatever happened to Miss Seagrove?" Allow me to tell him she appeared in one of last week's dailies looking charming, elegant and absolutely stunning.
Helen Bagwell, Lindfield, West Sussex
When Venice actually sinks, would that Michael Winner sinks with it. We stayed at the San Marco (a paltry £100 per night against the £820 for the Cipriani). We were unfortunate enough to have our room over the local bar, but on complaining we were treated with great courtesy and our next visit to Venice at the same hotel will have the compensation of a discount. More discreet complaining direct to the management of hotels and restaurants might have a better effect than griping in public, Mr Winner.
Robert Breckman, London
I have discovered Canaletto, an Italian-style restaurant in Hatch End, Middlesex. The menu included a selection of house specialities such as fresh sea bass, and hot mushrooms filled with tuna and parmesan. My wife ordered parma ham over fresh tropical fruits. I could not resist the giant asparagus which came cooked to perfection. We followed this with veal palliard (like a steak diane) and fresh spinach, and I capitulated to one of my favourites, spaghetti vongole, shells and all. A fine soave white wine properly chilled crowned the meal. Cassata followed, then coffee (the bottomless cup!). The service was elegant, the waiting staff charming the manager supervised proceedings superbly. We shall return again and again (particularly at about £20 per head!).
Sydney Waissel, Bushey Heath, Herts
My wife and I recently visited The Restaurant at the Hyde Park Hotel and had a most enjoyable luncheon. The food itself was a creative wonder, fresh and delicious, and the service impeccable. At a fixed price of £25 this must surely be the best bargain lunch in London. Marco Pierre White stopped by our table for a chat, and we found him to be a personable and, dare we say it, charming young man. So, please, let's stop persecuting the poor chap and simply enjoy his genius in the kitchen.
Simon Cowell, London
Recently we paid our first visit to The Square, London SW1. I had booked a table for two at 6pm. The surroundings, service and the meal were good, but . . . Until nearly 6.50 we were the only people in the restaurant and yet when two others arrived it was deemed necessary to sit them directly next to us in an otherwise empty room. In a busy restaurant this is accepted, but it inhibited conversation. By the time we left The Square, having had a leisurely three-course meal preceded by an aperitif and followed by two espresso coffees, there were still only two other tables occupied, so bookings cannot explain away their action. A little more consideration in the placing of customers would not have gone amiss. Modern restaurants are not known for spaciousness. Unnecessary proximity of customers means unnecessary proximity of waiting staff. Maddening and tactless.
H Buckle, Hampstead, London