Published 17 December 1995 Style Magazine 128th article
Framed: Michael Winner, and Jimmy Marks in oils (Vanessa Perry)
Mr D Elia writes to me that he owns one of the top restaurants in the Midlands. He says he's been reading my column for 20 years. Somewhat difficult as I've only been writing it for two! He advises me to stop being a poser (sic) and critisis (sic) the restaurants and chefs more. Gosh, a restaurateur asking for more criticism. He slightly spoils it by then writing: "We do not want to know what you like to eat or what you like to drink." But Mr Elia makes one good point. He says I should concentrate more on the traditional foods. I have long been a great advocate of traditional English foods, but where are they? Lost in a sea of over-sauced plate decoration as each new "genius" chef tries to outdo the current wonder boy for exaggeration, excess mixings of odder ingredients and so on.
How often do you see Irish stew or Lancashire hotpot or shepherd's pie on these pretentious menus? What about a jolly good sausage and mash? There was one place that did all this and more with total brilliance. This was Wiltons in St James's, W1, under the autocratic rule of Jimmy Marks, my favourite restaurateur of all time. Cockney, grey-suited, rolling through the old-money booths as if he were on a ship at sea, Marks knew about fresh. Fresh is a much over-used word. What does it really mean? How fresh does something have to be, to be fresh? In my view, fresh fish is fish that came in that morning from the seaside and was caught the night before. Marks used to sell his fish at the end of the day to a nearby restaurant rather than keep it in the fridge overnight. Wiltons is now run by the Savoy Group. It's still excellent, but not a patch on what it was when Marks ruled the roost.
Marks also had exceptionally good taste in people. He was very attached to me. I was allowed to eat in the bar if the place was full, at a little round table. Now that is permitted on all the bar tables, to keep the money rolling in. "Michael can do anything he likes," old Marks used to say before he sadly died in 1976. I, alone, was allowed in without a tie. But recently the restaurant manager, Robin Gundry, said to my Mr Fraser when he made a booking for me: "Could you please ask Mr Winner to wear a tie?" I was outraged. I phoned up. "Who," I said icily, "told you to make this ridiculous request?" "Our chairman, Rupert Hambro," said Mr Gundry, "he wants everyone to wear a tie." Being a good boy, I donned one for my next visit, but I wrote to Mr Hambro to give my views. I pointed out I had been going to Wiltons for more than 50 years and that I was sure, up in heaven, Jimmy Marks was shouting: "Michael doesn't have to wear a tie!" I asked for his angelic wishes to be considered.
Mr Hambro wrote back, pointing out I must have been nine years old when I started visiting Wiltons (I was), which made me the oldest customer. He wrote: "Jimmy Marks was much loved by us all, and the stories about him are legend. The only story I have the greatest difficulty confirming is that he ever went to heaven - but obviously you have greater connections in that direction than we all have." (I do.) He finished by saying that my letter had prompted a somewhat unexpected and most out-of-character reaction. "We have commissioned a Wiltons tie, which we shall offer to our favourite customers. You shall be the first to receive one." I don't want to look a gift tie in the mouth, but that letter was written in August and I'm still waiting!
Their tie-manufacturing speed is clearly slower than their restaurant service, which has always been exemplary. Under Marks you could get a three-course meal and coffee, effortlessly served and of magnificent quality, in half an hour. Not like Whites in Oxford where, with surly bumbling, they only managed to serve me two undistinguished courses and coffee in an hour and three quarters! You sit at Wiltons among cabinet ministers and heavyweight chiefs of industry. I recently took Peter Wood, the brilliant creator of Direct Line Insurance. He's saved me £5,500 a year on my car insurance! He said when he came in that nobody greeted him and he had to find my table on his own. Now come on, chaps, Marks would never have let that happen. If I put on a tie, surely you can see my guest is directed to it!