Published 30 April 1995 Style Magazine 95th article
Just right: guests at Colombe d'Or in St Paul de Vence (Eric Francesi)
"Look, it's Charles Aznavour," said Joan Collins, pointing to a man loading suitcases into a car. "Nonsense," I said. "I did a movie with Charles, it's not him at all." "Yes it is, go closer and you'll see," said Joan. I did. It was. We embraced. Charles joined us where we were lunching 3ft in front of the lavatory door at Auberge de la Mole. This is not a highly known restaurant. It is not in the Michelin guide, indeed Mole is so insignificant even the town is not in the Michelin Guide! I was there because Joan, who lives in nearby St Tropez, had told me it was one of the best restaurants on the coast. Joan can be fussy, so it was an essential to try it out.
It's a homely place next to a painted church, quite large, with very good old travel and other 1900-ish posters on the walls. It's run by the family Raynal, Paulette (mother), Clotilde (daughter) and Philippe (son). It was hot, so we sat outside on blue and white plastic chairs. Opposite were old buildings with red and green shutters. The food was extraordinarily good. If you can ever find a map with Mole on it (which isn't easy!), go there. We started with various terrines including (for £16 extra) the best foie gras I've ever had. Then I had some frogs' legs and after that the special - goat with pasta! This was cut up in squarish pieces with a sauce, unlike the last time I ate goat in a curry in Jamaica. It was delicious. I don't remember what the dessert was, but we got there at 1.30 and the meal didn't finish until 5.30! The longest lunch I’ve ever had and I never got irritated! "Isn't it something to do with the fabulous company, darling?" said Joan. She was right.
At the Colombe d'Or in St Paul de Vence things were pretty normal. "I like to tell them," said Danielle Roux, my favourite hotel manageress. She had just been on the phone reducing some guest to an oil slick. "You do indeed," I said. "Well," said Danielle, safe behind her wood-barred reception desk, "when I'm right I'm right." She paused. "If I'm wrong, I apologise." Another pause and she took off her large glasses and smiled disarmingly. "But this time I was right." The Colombe d'Or, with its Picassos and Chagalls and mosaics by Leger and what have you, remains one of the greatest hotels. Some people find it odd, or too rustic, but they're stupid. It's true they give you less soap than Britain in the war; there is no fridge in the rooms, let alone a mini-bar, and it's the only place I'd let palm me off with a room and not a suite. But that's how it is. Excellent and irresistible.
Andrew and Madeleine Lloyd Webber took me to Sloop, one of dozens of small restaurants dotted along the harbour at St Jean Cap Ferrat. Look at them as a novice and there's no way to know if one is better than the other. But the locals know. Andrew's a local and one of the great bon viveurs. He's planning his millennium party at which he'll offer some of the finest wines of the century, which he's had in store for decades. "I think I'll have 60 people," he said. I couldn't remember anything I ate after that, I was desperately trying to figure out if I'd be in the top 60! Oh well, there's always dancing round Eros if I'm bounced.
Another of the few unspoiled coastal towns in the south of France is Beaulieu, next to St Jean. There one of the greatest dining places in the world is the terrace of the Reserve de Beaulieu, a small, genuinely exclusive hotel. The view is of the bay with rocks and mountains, the harbour of St Jean and little houses and bobbing boats. The food’s good, too! I listened to the manager Gilbert Hirondelle give the staff a major bollocking for allowing some visitors, who were not even guests, to eat at the poolside. He was quite right, they have a raised dining area at one end of the pool. "You wouldn’t like to sit next to people eating would you?" he asked. "Certainly not," I huffed. Thinking, but maybe the people eating wouldn't like to eat next to me sitting! Then I looked through their autograph book, marvellous messages from the 1940s on from Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Greer Garson, David Niven, Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth . . . the sort of cinema memorabilia I love. On one page they've even got me, opposite Tina Turner. I deserve a place in history, Now I know I've got it.
After hearing such good things about the Cricketers restaurant in Saffron Walden, my partner and I travelled up from London and were looking forward to a Valentine's Day meal there. Big mistake. Firstly, I was brought the wrong starter. I appreciate they were busy, but this was the first in a line of upsets. We waited a further 15 minutes for the correct starter which came without the parmesan cheese the menu specified. I had to ask another waitress for this. By now, an hour had passed and we had not even had a chance to order a main course. This came and went rather unremarkably and, feeling thoroughly fed up, we requested the bill. We were presented with a £47 bill including £10.37 for wine we did not order. Two letters and phone calls and months later, I am informed by the owner that my "minor problems" are "no cause for complaint" and I am offered a terse apology in the form of "Sorry but there is nothing I can do." I am appalled by this attitude to customers, and that old "we have not had any complaints in 17 years" is an abysmal insult to any customer with a valid reason to complain. Whoever said the customer is always right obviously had not eaten at the Cricketers.
Julie Zirngast, London NW7
Having read Mr Winner's recent report on his visit to The Restaurant owned by Marco Pierre White which involved a bill of £1,820 including £1,210 for wine, I am reminded of a scene in that classic Marx Brothers' film, A Day At The Races. Chico, who is operating an ice cream stall as a front for selling tips for the races, has seen Groucho slouching along with his brief case and says as an aside to Harpo "Ssh, I think I see a mug coming".
D A Nash, Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex
I think I have read too many Winner's Dinners because, last week, in an amazing turn of events, I found myself nodding in agreement during his pontifications on San Lorenzo in Knightsbridge. Strange, that. So I read it again and discovered that I had in fact only nodded in agreement once. I had flipped past his comments on it being "the" meeting place because I simply don't agree and I had skipped over the part about the pleasant atmosphere because I simply don't know. No, I agreed when he suggested he can always stroll down the street to San Lorenzo rather than do battle with the traffic in a 230 Mercedes. The exercise may do him good.
Louise Burton, London, SW10