Published 30 July 1995 Style Magazine 108th article
It happened here: the Savoy (Denzil McNeelance)
"You're not bashing 'em enough, Michael!" Thus speaks the brilliant ex-editor of this paper, Mr Andrew Neil, almost whenever I see him. It was Mr Neil who took me from the anonymity of motion pictures to become a hobby-food writer. Well, Andrew, this week is for you.
Firstly, the oddest behaviour I have ever known from a member of staff. It was at the Savoy's River Room on the night I booked for Vanessa and five young friends to celebrate her birthday. Everything had gone superbly. The assistant restaurant manager, Steve Yildiz, was charm itself when I made and reconfirmed the reservation. Everyone was lovely when I went to sit there for an hour. The kids, all in evening dress on Saturday's dine and dance night, enjoyed it greatly. The table was good, the food was terrific, the service was tiptop. The doormen were on impeccable form. The waiter I had known when he was at Les Ambassadeurs; he was superb. Then it happened!
Around 1.30am the group were leaving. Miss Perry was in the Ladies (and why not?). Up ran one of the five reception head waiters, Francesco Balducci, in a state of great excitement. Waving the bill in front of her friends in the hall, he said: "There's a problem. Mr Winner doesn't have an account!" Now, if there's anywhere in London where I'm well known it's the Savoy group of hotels. I and my family have been going there for 70 years. We've had accounts with them for ever. And I am the quickest payer in London, if not the world!
Miss Perry was hastily summoned and challenged. "Mr Winner made all the arrangements," said Vanessa sweetly. "We know Mr Winner very well," said Mr Balducci, as if Vanessa didn't. "Wait here!" he commanded gruffly. So saying, he walked up the steps to a telephone at the front desk. Vanessa held herself admirably in check. Just as well. Believe me, when she blows, God help the world! She walked over and said firmly: "We would like to leave. We see no reason to wait and we are going." At that, Mr Balducci held out the bill and said in a surly manner: "Sign this then." Quite why my guests should be shown the bill at all, I cannot imagine. But rather than be locked in the Savoy dungeons for the night, Vanessa signed and off they went.
As they stood in the forecourt waiting for a taxi Mr Balducci appeared yet again! "Will you write down Mr Winner's telephone number?" he asked. Vanessa gave it. Now what was the silly man going to do? Phone me at 1.30am and say: "Are you the Michael Winner who walked into the restaurant tonight and sat with your guests? Or was it a lookalike? Did you really make the booking? Are you about to leave the country to avoid payment of our bill?"
The next day I made my feelings known by letter to Mr Pajares, the newish boss of the Savoy Group. Luckily for him he was on holiday. Mr Duncan Palmer, the even newer general manager of the Savoy, rang. He was appalled. There would be staff meetings, retraining courses, canings, executions, public hangings in the lobby. Well, not quite, but you know what I mean. Mr Palmer was apologetic charm itself. He sent each of the young people a personal note of regret and a Savoy bathrobe. More he could not have done. I even noticed when I got the bill he'd left the service charge off. Rightly so!
Zafferano, SW1, has been struck from my list. Enzo Cassini, the maitre d', was okay in the relaxed atmosphere of Eze village in France, but here, well I won't tell you what's gone on, but it's shambolic to say the least. I never like to go into a room that isn't well managed and Zafferano isn't. A friend of mine asked why his was the only table without bread, and witty Enzo said: "We're sending out to Marks & Spencer for it!" Fortnum's Fountain restaurant has dipped since the lovely Mariane Broe left and Nuala Marnane took over. And on my last visit some weeks ago, the welsh rarebit was so sticky I feel I'm still chewing it.
Finally, a before-the-theatre request for Coca-Cola at the Criterion brought an appalled "We're better than that, we don't serve soft drinks" attitude from the barman, the girls behind the desk and others, until the duty manager, Anthony Whitehead, came along and, most pleasantly, let me have one. Marco Pierre White should use him when he takes the place over. Service to dear, sweet Michael should always be rewarded. And vice versa.
Having read the article Winner's Dinners of July 16, we feel compelled to write in defence of the Connaught hotel restaurant. Michael Winner mentioned in his first paragraph that he had one of the most awful meals of his life there, and he especially condemns the restaurant manager, M Jean-Pierre Chevallier. Mr Sack and I have been staying at the Connaught for the past 20 years or more and have always used the restaurant. We have found MChevallier most kind, considerate, courteous and efficient, and in our opinion he is the finest restaurant manager we have ever encountered. Obviously, whatever the Connaught was going to be able to offer Mr Winner, it was not going to be ideal. We think Mr Winner should take into consideration (and we feel very strongly about this) that the human element does creep in and one cannot always make everyone happy in a restaurant. Mr Winner very rarely seems to be pleased by anyone! As you can gather, we are incensed by Mr Winner's criticisms, as we have been so often in the past. We feel certain he has no idea how he can hurt these people with what he writes. We are, however, certain that he cannot damage the reputation of the Connaught. We will not say any more, but feel happier that we have written this letter in our very humble way in defence of the Connaught and especially M Chevallier.
F E Coulson MBE and B G Sack MBE, Howtown, Penrith
At last the "poor boy from Willesden" has hit the nail firmly on the head. I share his view, in its entirety, of the Connaught hotel restaurant. Indeed, everything from stale bread to supercilious arrogance from the waiters was my recent experience. Only the manager the following morning had any sympathy. From my impression, the Connaught deserves less than the five out of 10 Winner awarded it, but I hope they might be humble enough to take some notice of this customer's reaction to their service.
N J Barker, Morpeth, Northumberland