Published 28 April 1996 Style Magazine 147th article
Greet, seat and smile: Michael Winner, Pilar Sanchez and Nik Daniels at the Hilton National London Olympia (Michael Guest)
The Hilton National London Olympia stands where there used to be lovely, little terraced houses with long front gardens stretching down to Kensington High Street. I'm going back a long time, of course. My dad owned some of them, and a Canadian heart-throb actor of the 1950s, Lee Patterson, who starred in the first film I ever wrote, Man with a Gun, had a flat there. On the other side of Russell Road there was, and still is, a garage. Except, in those days, for reasons that I never understood the pump attendant (there's a thing of the past!) used to show you pornographic pictures as he filled up your tank. Perhaps it was instead of gift stamps or petrol company giveaways?
Now it's all semi-high-rise and part of it is the Hilton National Olympia, the sort of hotel for people I never meet. It used to be rather decrepit and called something else; I put visiting writers up there for £40 a night. Now it's a minimum £125 a night, going up to more than £250!
I walked there for lunch the other day. I was seeking adventure. A film producer, Michael Guest, was with me. The lobby is quite pleasant and practical, brown and white marble, looks clean - unlike the lobby of the Sheraton Park Tower. Next to the lift is a photo of 12 Hilton employees, or rather 11 of them. There is a space for Carlos Gomez, the night manager. I suppose it was so dark when he was on, he couldn't have his photo taken. You go up gold escalators past a bizarre chandelier of chrome and strip lights to the first-floor dining room. Strangely, I thought it all worked rather well. At the top, on your right, are signed photos of various stars, ranging from Phil Collins through June Whitfield to Norman Wisdom! I love theatrical photos and these are enhanced by plaques in blue, like the old GLC ones, to Benny Hill, Peter Sellers, Charlie Chaplin and others.
The dining room is large, bright, big windows, very comfortably furnished and with good-sized tables not set too close. The tables for two were massively larger than the one I was offered at the Savoy. A pleasant young chap, identifiable as Nik by his lapel badge, said his job was to "greet, seat and smile". He did all three rather well. He didn't care when I chose a big table for four, but when he saw my tape recorder he paled. "You're not from head office?" he trembled. "No," I replied. "Thank God for that," he said.
We decided to bypass the set menu. £16.50 ex service, and go for the buffet, £11.95 inc coffee and mints! Nothing happened so, after a while, I asked Nik if our table had a waitress attached. He took the extra place settings away and brought mineral water, ice and lemon. "Who's that lady there? What's her job?" I asked Nik of someone at the desk. "To try to look important," he replied. The buffet looked all right. A cold table and hot tureens of lamb. turkey, chicken and what have you. I took a bit of this and that. The lamb was surprisingly good. I grabbed a lot of apple sauce and mint. The roast potatoes were noticeably better than the Ritz or the Four Seasons. My guest, Mr Guest, had the scampi, which were okay plus. The veg were particularly fresh, tasty and crisp. Unbelievably, I found myself viewing things as almost excellent. I even went back to try some pasta and rice with sweetcorn, noticing the apple sauce bowl was close to empty, as I had left it. When I went back later the bowl had gone altogether. "Why didn't you replace that?" I asked the chef. His mouth opened and closed but no sound came out.
We had ice cream, a mousse (both good), an excellent red jelly with fruit and cream (I like jelly), plus fairly feeble meringue cake and weak apple and berry tart. Still, for the money, it was good value. Mr Guest liked his cheese and biscuits. The room had tasteful flower prints, potted palms, big chairs, and I found it no hardship to be there. It took some time before Pilar Sanchez cleared away my old dessert plates. "Are you the restaurant manager?" I asked. "No," she said. "I think I'm a bit lower." The senior restaurant supervisor, I noticed, was avoiding me like the plague! She needn't have been afraid. I'm not booking for New Year's Eve, but, for what it was meant to be, it did rather well.
While I would agree with Mr Winner that the diet offered by BA on its Nice to London route varies from the inedible to the almost palatable (April 14), his comments about the checking-in facilities at Nice airport make me wonder whether he might actually have used another airline by mistake, or perhaps was so rude that even the normally placid French staff reacted accordingly. I fly regularly on this particular route, mostly by BA. I have always found the staff at Nice airport to be friendly and efficient. BA comes in for a great deal of criticism, but, as a frequent traveller, it is my favourite airline: the planes are reliable, the timekeeping pretty good, the staff competent and, on a one-and-a-half-hour flight, who really cares whether it is a hot plate, a cold plate, or a bucket of caviar?
Myron Morris, London NW3
It is Reid's in Madeira that has prompted me to put pen to paper. On a recent visit, I was appalled at the total lack of customer service this bastion of British tradition offers. In my telephone call to make a reservation at Reid's gourmet restaurant, Les Faunes, I stated that I would require a vegetarian menu. My reservation was rejected on the basis that they "didn't cater for vegetarians"! Not being one to accept defeat, I rang again. This time I was allowed to book a table. Upon arrival, we were informed by the maitre d' that the chef would cook whatever I required. While this sounds ideal, it is actually a very annoying habit of top-class restaurants the world over it puts the onus on the customer to create a new recipe, while everyone else has the luxury of a choice from a menu. I requested vegetables tempura with a coconut dressing, crisp salad and a portion of potatoes. Imagine my horror when our silver domes were removed to reveal a plate of boiled vegetables! I summoned a waiter, who duly took our food away. Fifteen minutes later it was returned as it should have been first time around. At £45 (not including desserts) per head, I believe Reid's should cater more efficiently for vegetarians.
Nicki Campbell, Knaresborough, N Yorks
After a recent visit to Harry's Bar, Venice, simply "the best restaurant in the world", how disappointed we all were mediocre food, indifferent service, no ambience whatsoever. Now, if Mr Winner meant Harry's Bar, Florence yes, we agree, superb!
John and Barbara Binns, Halifax, W Yorks