Published 14 April 1996 Style Magazine 145th article
Test pilot: Tony Adams, Wendy Wood and Michael Winner, holding BA's new 'cold plate' (Clive Mitchell)
I have a way to rid this country of crime. Wipe it out once and for all. Just send convicted criminals to take a British Airways ﬂight from Nice. They will do anything not to have that experience repeated. Alone in the empire of excellence that is British Airways, its staff at Nice are horrific. Last time but one I was there, it took 1 hour and 10 minutes to check in! Nearly as long as the flight. We stood in line like idiots, nobody told us anything, occasionally a rude BA staff person turned up. At last they opened another check-in counter.
Recently I was walking along, very happy, suntanned, overfed, when I saw a counter marked British Airways. "Where's your check-in?" I asked. "Here, if you have carry-on luggage," said the girl. "But you haven't." Forgetting to ask why they didn't label the counter, I exploded: "Of course I have carry-on luggage!" The girl got her supervisor, another arrogant young lady. "That is not normal British Airways carry-on luggage," she said snottily, pointing to my small suitcase and my briefcase. "Oh, really!" I said. "How would you know? These two cases have travelled with me on British Airways flights for 30 years! They flew out in the cabin to Nice and I can assure you that is how they are going back. It just depends how much trouble you want."
The girl paled a bit and said huffily: "Well, it's not a full flight, so I'll let you on." Now in a rotten mood, I boarded the plane, to be greeted with great civility and charm. I'd also had to pay an extra £85 to be on BA, because my return ticket was with Air France! It turned out to be more than worth it. For, as they came round with the meal, the exceedingly lovely air hostess, Wendy Wood, said: "Hot canapes or cold plate?" "Er . . ." I replied. "We're testing out new British Airways food on this flight," said Wendy. "Hot canapes or cold tray?" "Gosh!" I thought. "Testing!" Boy, did they have a wrong number with me on the flight! "It's just today on this and the Geneva flight," said Wendy as I pointed to the hot canapes. It looked like three squares of chicken on a skewer, something odd covered in sesame seeds and a bit of quiche. I pointed to the odd. "What do you think that is?" I asked Wendy. "Couscous," she said. "Try it," I begged. "I'll try it in there," she said, indicating the crew area.
Wendy returned. "It's a prawn," she advised. "The other one is couscous. I thought it was very dry. I'll let them know, we have to write a report." The only thing I found remotely eatable was a firm, squidgy, green thing with sugar on it in an elaborate elongated pyramid wrapper with red stripes and the words "Depuis 1854 Hediard Paris" printed. A sign of European unity?
The official BA papers, which I acquired, I will not reveal how, asked: "Were the menus clear, not very clear, confusing?" That was easy to answer. There weren't any. "They forgot to put them on," apologised the marvellous cabin service director, Tony Adams. "Before this, you got a hot meal - starter, entree and dessert," he explained. Wendy came by again. "You're taking notes now," she observed. "Yes," I replied. "That's good," she said, turning to pour a bitter lemon for a large lady.
Thus I participated in Service Style Europe. I studied tricky questions such as: "What were the issues raised by offering hot canapes?" It would have been better if they'd been more selectively chosen. Sausages always wear well, I think. So do sausages on a stick. Chicken dries up too easily. Quiche tends to lose all taste. Again I thought of caviar. Tony Adams had actually seen some on BA's New York schedule a few days earlier. Not in pots, mind you, but on canapes. I can't believe David Gillham of British Airways, who wrote to this page saying that a great deal of caviar was being served by BA. I can't find anyone who's noticed. It must be at their staff parties.
I mused how glad I was I hadn't chosen the cold tray. Unappetising rolled fish, fruits and cheese. On the other hand, it might have been better! I'm getting old. I can only cope with one questionnaire at a time. If BA really insists, I'll advise on its cold tray another time.
PS: My suitcase, and Vanessa's, enjoyed it greatly in the rack above us. Easy to get in. Hand luggage if ever I saw it!
In criticising the Mezzanine Restaurant at the National Theatre (March 31), Mr Winner seems to assume that people attend the theatre prepared to hurry through gourmet meals at fancy prices. Most do not, because they are not able to justify a significant addition to the price already paid for the performance on stage. But enough theatregoers can still be wooed by good, well-presented food, with time allowed to consume and digest it. Perforce it all has to be packed into an hour and a bit, either before or after the show and needs to cost a lot less than the same customer would pay for a whole evening spent eating at a comparable, ordinary restaurant: it's tricky stuff. Giuseppe Fortis, the outstanding manager at the Mezzanine (until recently called Ovations), has been meeting these near impossible demands with distinction and success for the past 18 years. In that period, my wife and I have dined at the restaurant more than 200 times. The place is packed every night. Dishes from recent menus include a delicate spinach mousse with parmesan cheese, a succulent duck breast, and fish cakes only just below the standard of the incomparable ones at Le Caprice, but at about half the price. The dishes are served calmly and efficiently by a cheerful team of young people, with unobtrusive concern for the limited time you have at your disposal. The cost of dinner for two from the a la carte menu, with a bottle of the house wine, is usually about £45, including the tip. The whole thing is a winning mix, unmatched, in our experience, at any other British theatre. No doubt Mr Winner is an authority on sausages but, next time, he should try something more ambitious from the Mezzanine menu, while giving due credit to the other unique attractions of the restaurant.
David Williams, Virginia Water, Surrey