Published 25 February 1996 Style Magazine 138th article
Red snapper: Michael Winner, left, with Stephen Cohen (Vanessa Perry)
This week I'm going to tell you how I write this column. "We don't want that!" I hear you say. Oh, do shut up. I sit in my study in front of an oil painting of a rather po-faced French girl in a lace collar and a grey dress signed by the 19th-century artist Fernand Roybet, except I sawed his signature off the bottom in order to get it into an amazing, carved antique frame.
Twenty years ago, it only cost £80. How was I to know it would be valuable? Then I sit at my typewriter (not computer) and later I check what I've done, scribble on it and give it to Valerie, who has been my secretary for 30 years. Service like that deserves a medal or a straitjacket. She retypes it!
"But," I hear you asking, now enthusiastic, "what about those odd photographs?" Er... yes. They have the novelty of being taken on-the-spot-as-it's-happening, and not weeks later of a tired flower or debilitated chef or ghastly people posing as customers. They are either taken by Vanessa or by Arnold Crust. Arnold is me. He is also Venetia's father. Venetia Crust was the debutante of 1956 who didn't exist. She was invented by me and Jeremy Campbell when we wrote a column on the Evening Standard. She was a legendary Fleet Street hoax. Her father, Arnold, was discovered at a restaurant called the Paint Box where he had painted an oil called Trauma with a stirrup pump. The Paint Box, where you sat and ate while painting nude girls, was real. It was owned by Diana Dors's ex, Tommy Yeardye.
Our photos are developed and printed by Mr Cohen of Snappy Snaps in Kensington High Street. Mr Cohen and I have a fractious relationship. About a year ago, I wrote a snotty letter closing the account. Mr Cohen wrote back: "Dear Mr Winner, I refer to your recent letter. In the immortal words of the great George M Cohan, my mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you and I thank you." We tried someone else for a few weeks, then returned to Mr C. He does have a sense of humour.
"Aren't you going to tell us about some restaurants?" I hear you chanting. Very well. My award for the most consistently good food and service in London goes to Le Caprice and the Ivy. One reason is the owners, Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin, are always there. I see no point in going to a restaurant if the owner can't be bothered to.
The other Saturday as I ate lunch, an excellent corned beef hash and fried egg, Jeremy very kindly moved my old Bentley from a residents' parking bay in Monmouth Street to a double yellow line outside the Ivy. "I suppose he'll either crash it or we'll get a ticket on the yellow lines," I observed, as Vanessa knocked back her deep-fried mixed Cornish fish with minted pea puree and Pont Neuf chips. Neither happened, and Jeremy finally moved the car to a single line. "Don't tell anyone," he said. "They'll all expect me to..." "Don't worry, Jeremy, I'll give £100 to a charity of your choice. Nobody else'll ask you to park a car for that. With this lot," I indicated the room, "paying a tenner would be like a silver cross to a vampire."
I was somewhat surprised when, totally against my advice, Vanessa insisted on trying out Kensington Place, without me, of course. She described the bellini as awful apparently it had an unidentified object at the bottom. The avocado was too ripe and had gone off, with little black bits in it. The food was tasteless, like mass-produced canteen stuff. Then one of my screenwriters, Nick Mead, went, also against my advice. He booked for 9pm. They sat him down at 10.15pm and said: "As you're a party of 12, you'll have to have a restricted menu." He said: "Can't we split into two parties of six and have a proper menu?" But no. He found the salmon mousse tired and horrible, like it had been sitting around, and the duck seriously average. "I'll never go back," he said, as if it was my fault. Serves them both right, I say.
Finally, you remember Daniel Walsh from Baldock, who said Baldock needed "driving"? He runs the Baldock Development Association. As I ate my awful meal at his George and Dragon restaurant, he gave me some printed literature selling the delights of Baldock. Odd words in it included liasing, anny, talkinf, oppoetunity and intemate. Baldock doesn't need driving, I thought. It needs to learn how to spell.
I went to lunch at Mezzo recently and while waiting for my party to arrive, I had a tomato juice at the bar. I was told it would be £1.95, and upon asking for spices, was told it would be £2.95. As I considered the additional £1 for spices to be outrageous I did without, on principle.
Sandra Swerdlow, Parkgate, S Wirral
What special ingredient sets restaurants apart from other retailers, enabling them to set a limit on the amount of time and money we are allowed to spend in their establishments? Marco Pierre White's revamped Criterion Brasserie in Piccadilly Circus proves so popular for after-theatre suppers that he cannot resist the temptation to pack in a late sitting of punters. This means that when we went recently, we were advised that our 8pm table would be needed for other diners at 10pm. However, at 9.50pm we were asked to move to the bar for puddings and the rest of our wine. This would have been easier to swallow if it had not taken the waiters 40 minutes to bring our first drink and 20 minutes to clear away our main-course plates. It was hardly surprising that there was no time left within our two-hour slot to take our pudding order while we still had the luxury of a dining table. Surely things are getting out of hand ... especially when our bill for five people came to nearly £300?
Joanne Imeson, London W2
We've heard so much from Michael Winner about the startlingly expensive Sandy Lane hotel, Barbados, that I feel the urge to tell readers about a gem of a place far nearer home. For a decade, my partner and I have been visiting the Tudor Cottage restaurant in Wickhambreaux, near Canterbury, and we have never had a disappointing meal. There can be few places left in England where every dish is home-made and brought to the table by a husband-and-wife team who are also the proprietors. If I add that the Tudor Cottage really is just that, complete with thatch, friendly old-world atmosphere and the smallest, most charming bar imaginable, you will understand my reluctance to share the secret; but as a counterbalance to all this flummery, it's ideal.
Simon Du Plock, London SW4