Published 4 February 1996 Style Magazine 135th article
Daniel Walsh and Michael Winner (Vanessa Perry)
When I was at my Quaker boarding school in Letchworth, my parents would come down at weekends and drive me in the Rover to an excellent lunch at the George and Dragon hotel in Baldock. Baldock was a nice town with lovely old tearooms, a lot of good antique shops and a delightful 1930s cinema called the Astonia. I would later drive through it often on the way to Cambridge. I recently decided, some 47 years since I was last there, to visit the George and Dragon on my way, again, to visit Cambridge. I phoned from the car and made a reservation for Saturday lunch. You now enter Baldock through horrid housing estates that I knew as green fields, the Astonia cinema has gone and is replaced with an ugly brown-brick building housing a chemist shop and other practical things, my olde worlde teashop has become Mai Ho Fish and Chips, there are no good antique shops. But the George and Dragon looked much the same. Wisteria still climbed - not in bloom, of course - outside the front of the old building, and opposite in the narrow street was R J Chapman and Sons Family Butcher. The only item not there on my schoolday visits was a yellow banner with red lettering stating "Under New Management".
It was still sort of oak-beamed inside. A notice board displayed a local newspaper piece saying it was now run by Daniel Walsh of Stakeout Inns, "who has vast experience in the catering industry". In the lobby there used to be a magical penny golf game, where you flipped a coin to see if it could reach the other side of a golf-illustrated scene, and not fall into the bunkers. Now there was a garish cigarette machine. The restaurant was full of ghastly, cheap little chairs and tables with an awful shield with George and Dragon Baldock 1515, hanging with two tacky banners that looked as if they came from the set of a school play made by particularly untalented children. Rock Muzak played constantly. We waited a very long time, even though there were only seven people present, before menus arrived. Eventually a man in a multicoloured waistcoat came and said: "Have you had your orders taken?" "No," we echoed. He returned with a pad. "All right, boys and girls!" he beamed, pencil poised. This was the Daniel Walsh, experienced caterer. There was a normal menu, a vegetarian menu and a vegan menu. Lots of things to choose from. Apparently the previous tenant had gone broke, but Daniel assured me: "This could be a very lucrative business." Daniel is also head of the Baldock Development Association. "Baldock needs a large kick in the backside," he confided. "Lovely place but nobody is driving it."
After a long wait came some of the worst bread I've ever seen, rubbery and ghastly. Vanessa's melon was okay, my soup was watery and undrinkable. Garlic bread appeared that I burnt my fingers on. When it cooled down it was awful and we left that, too. Vanessa eventually got her cashew nut paella. "A melody of whole cashew nuts, rice, sweetcorn, courgettes, red and green peppers, flavoured with Mediterranean herbs and garlic." She took one bite, pulled a face and described even the cashew nuts as rubbery. "Revolting," she stated. My 8oz fillet steak was edible, not good, and the roast potato had two gold-wrapped bits of butter in it that had melted to liquid when you tried to open them.
Mr Walsh returned. "Everything all right here?" he asked jovially. "Fine," said Vanessa. I kept quiet. I got the waiter back to clear the table by shouting "Thank you", otherwise we'd still be there. He saw Vanessa's full plate. "Everything all right?" he, too, asked. "No, it was terrible," I said. "What didn't you like about it?" he said. "Were not having a discussion. This isn't a debate," I replied. "It was terrible, the steak was all right." After another long wait I got the worst chocolate fudge cake I have ever seen or tried to eat in my life, Vanessa a poor fruit salad with strange-tasting melon. This was a memorably, absolutely horrific meal.
The bill was £21.50, no charge for the so-called paella. "Is the service charge on?" I asked. Apparently not, so I wrote in a generous 15%. "They charge tax if you put it on the bill," muttered the waiter. "So what, I pay tax," I said. And I usually eat. "Never mind, we'll have tea in Cambridge," I said reassuringly to Vanessa as we escaped.
PS Following my murder last Sunday of meals on Concorde, I got a phone call from British Airways at 10 o'clock the next morning. Complaining? Hysterical? Out to kill? Not at all. They wanted me on their television network repeating and enlarging on my views. It was to be shown a couple of days later at the Concorde hangar at Heathrow, where there was a fair for business staff, then beamed around the UK and to their staff in New York, Cairo and Sydney.
Very nice, but will the food improve?
Michael Winner's amusing article on the inedibility of airline breakfasts reminds me of an early morning British Midland flight I took to Nice a couple of years ago. Breakfast was copious but predictably unpleasant. I could only pick at my tasteless sausage and cardboard omelette but I was curious to see the reaction of the couple across the aisle, the Michelin-starred Nico Ladenis and his wife, when faced with this offering. Would he demand to see the captain? Would he rant at the stewardess? Would they display their legendary petulance or just sulk until they could get a proper breakfast on the Cote d'Azur? No, they scoffed the lot with sombre dedication and for an extraordinary moment, when he called the steward over, I thought they were going to ask for seconds!
Geoffrey Cullinan, Wisborough Green, W Sussex
What a charming manner Mr Winner has towards ordinary mortals! With regard to his comments last week concerning the food on Concorde's London/Barbados/London flight, he suggests that the peasants who travel subsonic should be satisfied with rubbish. As mere mortals, we travelled last week from Barbados. Indeed, the food was rubbish! How delighted we are to learn that we saved £8,260. However, in all other respects, BA treated us like royalty.
Mr and Mrs Garry Horne, Radlett, Herts