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Why Berni's in

Published 23 April 1995
Style Magazine
94th article

Facing the cameras at San Lorenzo, from left: Princess Di, Naomi Campbell, Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cilla Black (Brandan Beirne (Arnie) and Richard Young)

It's the done thing to knock London's most fashionable restaurant, San Lorenzo, in Knightsbridge. "Terrible food", "full of pseuds", "arrogant service". All I can say is, if it's that awful, how come it's always full and has been for 22 years? They must be doing something right! I've always been a little wary of it. All those paparazzi outside, too many celebs inside, everybody so desperately chic and determined to prove it. "The" meeting place. Eric Clapton here, Lauren Bacall there. A lot of "darling" and kissing and exaggerated movements of greeting; smiles just a bit too wide to be sincere. And at one lunchtime recently some gems of over-the-top "in" crowd dialogue, all accurately recorded in my humble squiggles.

"How's Irving Lazar?" "He's been dead for two years." "I tried out the new 230 Mercedes, you can walk faster." "I've got this gorgeous flat in New York, it's been empty for 10 years. I stay in hotels." But enough of this cafe society claptrap, what about the food? I thought it was most acceptable. In fact better. We started with a Rossini prosecco - fresh raspberry juice and sparkling wine - very nice. Then I had one of the best soups I've ever eaten, pasta fresca con fagioli, or bean soup to country folk like me. The grilled sea bass was okay plus, and the dessert of zabaione con lamponi (raspberries) as good as even I could wish for. Vanessa liked all her stuff, too!

Atmosphere-wise it's one of the most pleasant dining rooms anywhere. Light and bright, and lots of plants and arches to other rooms. A wave to one of my favourites, Louisa Moore and her family, a nod to somebody terribly important in property (people in property should never get more than a nod) and a "hello" to a famous movie star.

All this is an incredible credit to Mara and Lorenzo Berni, who started in small premises here in 1963 and grew because, quite simply, people liked it and them. Mara does not look the chic restaurant owner. Her old sweaters rival those of Barbara Deane in Chinon. If you didn't notice the confident and lovely smile you might think she was the cleaning lady. Lorenzo could be the maintenance man. He was, in fact, a captain's steward on a ship. But, my gosh, how hard they try. Mara can work a room better than anybody in London (except possibly John Gold at Tramp) and both have lasted forever because they know what they’re doing. I have decided San Lorenzo is somewhere I must go more often. I can always stroll down the street and get there quicker than the idiot in the 230 Mercedes.

Today I offer an award for By Far The Best Catered Party I Have Ever Been To. lt was given by Thomas Goode, the crockery and other luxuries shop in Mayfair, co-owner Alexander Riahi presiding, sadly not in his usual My Fair Lady bit-player outfit. Large bowls of great caviare piled high like Mount Everest, wonderful freshly cut-as-you-watched smoked salmon, unbelievable bits of salmon and chicken and stuff on sticks. Miraculous canapes. So much Sevruga caviare, 65 kilos actually, that retail it would have cost £32,500. A bit less than the price of one china cup at Thomas Goode.

My friend Sir Basil Feldman asked me to the opera. I once saw The Merry Widow where it was created, at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. I went with Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield and Alain Delon. (Name dropper!) My second opera, Salome, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, ain't the Merry Widow and that's for sure! I mean, a woman making love to a severed head is one thing, but to see it after the most terrible meal in history is another! Why, in this amazing building, do they provide catering that makes British Rail look like it's got three Michelin stars? Dried-up smoked trout, curling smoked salmon, salad that a kiss of life would be a waste of time on, and apple pie that could have been made in the second world war, ie it tasted 50 years old! As I left humming You Go To My Head, Sir Basil (who as chairman of the Conservative Party National Union has the toughest job: to get people to vote Tory) noticed my Phantom V Rolls parked ostentatiously opposite. "You can say you brought your Phantom to the opera," he said. "I suppose that little joke is in lieu of dinner," I replied. Can't wait for Salome Meets Frankenstein.


I am rarely driven to write to newspapers. However, Michael Winner's column has forced me into action. I read it every week and long to be able to be as direct with restaurants as he is. But enough of the compliments. I must recommend a place that is so good that I eat there every day. Its menu covers all tastes and is always served with a quip from the chef. It is similar to many small outlets spread throughout Bosnia and across the globe. They provide excellent service, often in the poorest of conditions. So, Mr Winner, please get out and try something provided by British Army chefs!
Captain D M T Shipley, 30th Signal Regiment Detachment

What a bitter man Michael Winner appears to be. Having lived in the northeast for the past five years, I can only say I thought his diatribe on 21 Queen Street in Newcastle (April 9) an abusive and bigoted piece of writing. He attacks the clientele's clothes, when his sartorial splendour leaves much to be desired. He had only to step outside to see the quality of dress sense on the streets. He obviously came up with a set of entrenched images of the northeast. Those Japanese businessmen, whom he seemed surprised to see, are investing heavily in the economic bonanza under way in the area and so often overlooked through the myopic vision of the south.
Caroline Wills, Alnwick, Northumberland

I love reading Winner's Dinners, especially when Winner quotes the prices. Living as we do on social security, and supporting two children on £198 per fortnight, we couldn't, of course, afford a bread roll in the places he eats in. But as I look forward to my mussels with spaghetti, courtesy of Jocasta Innes's Paupers' Cookbook, with a side dish of purple sprouting broccoli, picked straight from my allotment, washed down with a fine vin de pays des cotes de gascogne £1.99 from Somerfield I know the whole lot will be less than a fiver and I won't be disappointed with the cooking.
Evan Ward Proud, Bath

Bridget Freeman's letter (April 16) about Le Caprice is unfair. I have been a customer for many years and have always found the staff absolutely as they should be and they always telephone to confirm the reservation. I have occasionally turned up without a reservation and they have done their best to help not always successfully but that is my fault, not theirs.
Stanley Silver, Hadley Wood, Herts