Published 17 July 1994 Style Magazine 55th article
Jeremy King and Michael Winner (Vanessa Perry)
The Caprice has figured heavily in my life. When I came on to the "upper" end of the London scene in the mid-1950s, it was done out in red plush sofa-seating and a bobbing, smiling, small man called Mario Gallati (who had named it after his wife's bra) would greet evening dressed celebrities after theatre and film first nights. Look to the left and you'd see Noel Coward, to the right Larry and Viv (Olivier and Leigh) and over there Rex Harrison and David Niven. It was all terribly "dahling" and posh.
The room was bigger than it is now, a large part of what was a seating area being the kitchens. The fashionable bit was on to Arlington Street, where the entrance door is today. A large alcove opposite was the place for racial minorities and nobodies. I qualified as both, but got seated in the best part because I was for a few weeks a theatrical agent and an important, ageing, blonde lady in the same office took a shine to me and had me with her. I was an embryonic toy-boy, although nothing naughty ever took place, even if 40 years on is a bit late for a denial.
Later the Caprice floundered, as the era when you wore evening dress for almost every night out vanished. In 1975 it became a tea shop! The next owner changed the red plush to brown and in 1981 it was taken over by Christopher Corbin and Jeremy King, who respectively managed Langan's and Joe Allen's. A lot of black leather and chrome entered, a sparse, minimalist chic and the showbiz group began to return. It's now a noisy (unpleasantly so in the evenings), jolly and extremely well-run place, masterminded in the kitchens by Tim Hughes, who co-chef'd the Canteen when it first opened. The food is cheap and cheerful, a description the owners would probably object to, but it's very good. I remember when I first decided how much I liked eating there.
I'd been having griddled foie gras in Kensington Place, then I had it at the Caprice. This is a different world, I thought, much better. Since then Kensington Place has got even more past-it, but the Caprice rolls on fresh as ever. The black wood chairs are rather chipped if you look closely, but other than that it retains a fresh appearance. The service is usually fine, although an occasional reminder that I'm an eccentric diner does no harm. On a recent lunch the foie gras (they call it sauteed) was still as excellent, then I had Lincolnshire sausages with bubble and squeak and an onion gravy that was deliciously tacky. I finished with chocolate cookies ice-cream with butterscotch sauce! Marvellous! How, you may well ask, have I lost two and a half stone and kept it off? The answer is that after meals such as this I go on salads for a couple of days.
After lunch I drove up Arlington Street to Piccadilly, where it's no right turn. Fifty thousand people marched in front of me in a March For Jesus. I had no option, as the centre was barriered, other than to turn left and and join them, driving at walking pace. Thus I became the token Jew on the March For Jesus in, most suitably I thought, a Bentley an old one, not a new, flashy thing. The police lining the route looked at me with interest, my car now fronted by two young girls waving streamers in moving, whirling circles. Were they available for premieres, I wondered? Marchers galore shook my hand through the open window and a jolly nice lot they were! I was given masses of literature and a song book and joined in chanting "Jesus is our battle cry. We want Jesus more and more." Well, when in Rome, I say. I was sorry to leave them at Hyde Park Corner, where they all waved good-bye and smiled. A nice after-lunch diversion.
A lady last week thought I was being rude about dear Jenny Seagrove, but I certainly wasn't! Of course I know where she is. She's at the Comedy Theatre and we should all go and see her there. I've lost money backing theatre every year for the past 30 years, so I wish her luck.
On Monday evening myself and three friends decided to try dinner at The Fifth Floor Restaurant at Harvey Nichols. It goes down in my gastronomic history as one of the worst meals I have eaten in a London restaurant in 25 years. My specific complaint (discussed with the manager to not much avail) was the gratuituous use of oil and butter in the cooking, and this at a time when the dangers of cholesterol are emblazoned daily across our magazines and newspapers. The pork pate was extremely rich in fat, so when combined with the fried garlic bread, the accompanying chutney did nothing to alleviate the grease. True, I had chosen a second course with a cream sauce, but I had not expected the grilled scallops to be oozing with butter and the endive to be positively squelching with it. The side dish of new potatoes was also liberally doused in butter. Having failed to wade through either course, I hoped at least to clear the palette with a sorbet or fresh fruit on such a hot evening, but alas the sorbets were off and there were no fruits on the a la carte menu and this at the peak of the summer soft fruits season. There were, of course, plenty of rich sweets with sweet pastry, cream and sauces available. Somehow, strawberries were finally produced for one of the guests. The food service was uncommonly slow. The bill was £188 for four. The only glimmer of light in this cholesterol nightmare were the perfect Margharitas with which we started our meal and the pleasant wine service, both of which belied the horrors which followed.
Jenny Cropper, London W9
The sometimes acerbic criticism of restaurants by Michael Winner contrasts with the namby-pamby, usually adulatory rubbish that passes for criticism in my local magazines and newspapers. I personally cannot agree with Winner's comments on the Lanesborough, but would wholeheartedly agree with his report on the Waterside Inn at Bray. Every course of a £65-per-head gastronomic menu we had this June was tasteless and, I thought, somewhat ill-conceived; very disappointing at this supposed level. We must remember that even the best food guides can occasionally lose their way.
John Stevenson, Blackpool, Lancashire
Recently I had a most unbelievable experience in the Cibo restaurant, Russell Gardens. Our reservation was for 9.30pm, and we were shown to our table, but eventually had to ask for the menu. Chaos and complete disorganisation was very much in evidence. At 10.20pm, by which time we were starving, our starter had not arrived (there was a free offering of some clams on a small plate, which had so much sand in them that they were inedible, but as they were "gratis" we ignored that complaint). After asking twice how long the food was going to be, and getting no response, we asked to see the manager, who appeared at 10.40pm, a couple of minutes after the food was served, and was totally unconcerned about the hour-long wait we had endured. The second complaint we made to him was regarding the spinach (served with the main course of rack of lamb), which was lukewarm and full of grit (obviously not properly washed). His response was that vegetables were not served hot in the summer, and 10 other clients had not complained of gritty spinach. We tried to insist that he at least tasted the spinach to confirm our complaint was justified, at which point he asked us to leave, as we had done nothing but complain. "Just get up and go," he said. "We don't want you here!" What has it come to when the re-action from management to any criticism is one of agression, antagonism and, ultimately, the humiliation of being given notice to leave?
Carole Green, London