Published 19 November1995 Style Magazine 124th article
Putting on a tie at the Ritz: Francesco di Bari, Michael Winner and the chef David Nicholls (Vanessa Perry)
About 12 years ago I dined at the Ritz in Piccadilly. It was pretty awful and the orange juice tasted terrible. As nobody came near the table, I got up and walked to the head waiter in the middle of the room.
"Is my orange juice fresh?" I asked. "Did you ask for fresh orange juice?" he said.
"You mean I have to ask for it specially . . . !" So that was that.
However, in the unstinting sacrifices I make to get my Sunday lunch list to perfection, I phoned the Ritz at 12.15pm one Saturday to book a table. The hotel answered like lightning. The restaurant extension rang. And rang. And rang some more. Then it stopped ringing and I got music. Then the music stopped and I got ringing. Eventually I replaced the receiver and redialled. "Is the restaurant open?" I asked. "Yes," said the switchboard girl. "They don't answer the phone," I said. "I'll stay on the line with you," she replied. And they answered quite quickly. "Could I speak to the general manager?" I asked by mistake. "The general manager isn't in the restaurant," was the reply. "I mean the restaurant manager," I said. Whoever it was put his hand over the phone and spoke to the restaurant manager, who was obviously next to him. "There's a man here asked for the general manager, I told him the general manager wasn't here so then he asked for the restaurant manager. . . " and so it went on. Obviously he hadn't seen the television commercials, if so he'd have known just to say "It's for yoo-hoo!" The restaurant manager, Francesco di Bari, came on. I made my booking. "Where should I sit?" I asked. "The best tables are by the window, Mr Winner," he said. "I shall rely on you," I replied. The next day I phoned again to ask the dress code. "We require a jacket and tie," said Mr di Bari. "A tie?!" I said. "Or elegantly casual." "Is elegantly casual with a tie?" "Yes." And they didn't allow jeans. "But they allow jeans at Claridge's," I explained. "And at the Ritz in Paris."
Oh well. I got ever so smartly dressed. Black Savile Row double-breasted blazer, black silk trousers, old 1950s silk tie from Barclay of Paris, white Turnbull & Asser shirt, shoes by Tonino Crispi. As I entered the restaurant, the first thing I noticed was what looked like a lumberjack in a green jacket and an open-necked, red-checked shirt. "I had to wear a tie!" I said in protest. "He's elegantly casual," explained Mr di Bari. "He is?" I thought. Apparently there'd been a misunderstanding about the tie. Never mind, the corner table by the window was perfect.
It’s a staggering room, the best in London. Marble pillars, Edwardian gilt chandeliers, sky and clouds painted on the ceiling, a man playing the harp. We got some totally historic cheese straws - normal and anchovy. I had seconds. The bread was old-fashioned brown or white, but fine. My freebie starter was a lovely pea soup, Vanessa's was a nice vegetable tertine. The first course was terrific. I had risotto of ceps, Vanessa had chilled cappuccino of lentils with roasted langoustine. "Mmmm," she said. I tried some. She was right. The service was impeccable throughout. It was going well. Sadly, the main course threw a spanner or two in the works. The roast beef was goodish, but cut too thin. The Yorkshire pudding was extremely poor, you pulled it and it stretched. The roast potatoes were the worst: no crispy skin, soggy all the way. Vanessa didn't like her chicken breast much, though I thought it was pretty good. Not as good as Claridge's or at my house, but what is?
The clientele were an odd mix, people in ghastly clothes with very open-necked shirts, some business types. No unity. The desserts were all right but no more. The millefeuille wasn't crisp, the English marmalade ice cream was pleasant but unexceptional. All in all a nice experience, but they must try harder. The set lunch costs £29. Less good than Claridge's at the same and the Dorchester at £24.50. Marks for the Ritz: 6 1/2, Claridge's 9, Dorchester 8 1/2... oh, I'll repeat them all for you another day.
After I waited in my smart outfit by the porter's desk for Vanessa, I'd just got change to tip the highly efficient doomran. Two old ladies came up. "Can you tell me where the toilet is?" asked one of them.
"Madame, I know I look like a member of staff, but actually I am a guest," I replied as sweetly as I could. "It's Michael Winner," said her companion. That made up for it. Almost.
I recently ate Sunday brunch at the Cafe Rouge in Clapham, south London. I ordered a croque monsieur that, according to the menu, was to come with fries and a tossed salad. In fact, it consisted of two feeble pieces of sliced white bread, some highly unpleasant-tasting ham and a bit of cheese stuck between them. With it, one small piece of frisee, and some burnt chips. Our waiter when he eventually returned was happy to take the sandwich off the bill, but it is still a constant source of amazement to me that this well-established chain cannot get even the most basic of dishes right.
R Johnston, London SW4
Restaurant Watch letters have been a bit negative of late, so I would like to recommend The Hare & Hounds in Lambourn Woodlands, Berkshire. A roaring log fire and the genial proprietor, David Cecil, made sure that we recently enjoyed a well-nigh perfect evening.
Duncan Williams, London SW10