Published 12 January 1997 Style Magazine 184th article
Small talk: Padraic Og Gallagher, left, with Michael Winner, seated, Vanessa and three of his party (Adam O'Keefe)
You might think that if you took private jets, a ludicrously expensive habit I have recently become hooked on, the catering would be memorable. Caviare here, vintage Krug there, an air hostess who made Christie Brinkley look ugly. No such luck. At a cost of about 30 times that of a shuttle fare, on my trip to Dublin, the co-pilot turned and said: "Do you want anything?" "Anything" was the plastic tray of clingwrapped this-and-thats on rolls, or some cakes and fruit, plus usual drinks. At least the this-and-thats were fresh. On the trip from Dublin to Inverness amazing variety was provided by chocolate muffins in a Pizza Hut bag. So much for the high life.
The only thing I pine for when private jetting is the little games I play with British Airways cabin crews. Pointing to something on my food tray, I say: "What do you think that is?" They're terribly sweet. They taste, offer a view, ask the pilots and other staff, and come back with multiple answers. It passes the time splendidly. As for the waiting, walking, lack of information and delays at airports, that I can live without.
I was going to Dublin to address the Trinity College Philosophical Society on the subject I am most expert on: me. I'd asked them to book dinner somewhere not touristy, off the beaten track. Nick Royle, the secretary of the PS, chose Gallagher's Boxty House and Shebeen. Shebeen means an illegal drinking club, which it wasn't. Boxty our driver knew of, but poured scorn upon. "It's something to do with potatoes," he said grandly. "Throw it over your shoulder and you'll like it." All agreed it was a traditional Irish dish.
When we got to the picturesque "Olde Dublin" street a group of undergraduates waited anxiously. "Let's go for a drink," said one. "Why?" I asked. "It's 6.15 and my lecture starts at 7.30!" They looked nervous. The restaurant had apparently ignored their booking. There would be a half-hour wait.
"Can you do something?" asked Nick hopefully. "Did you tell them I was with you?" I asked. "We wanted to surprise them," said Nick. "I'll surprise them," I said, setting out for the swing doors. The students followed. "You stay here," I said. "I'm better at this on my own."
Gallagher’s had Irish music, people sharing long tables, and was full of American tourists. It was a pleasant room with a bookcase and a rustic quality. "You the boss?" I asked a man who turned out to be Padraic Og Gallagher. "I've come all the way from London . . ." "That's why I think you should have a drink," he said. "That's why I think I should have a table," I replied, in my not-to-be-messed about-with voice. Mr Gallagher recognised me; I could sit downstairs as long as I was out by 7.15. So I beckoned the lads in, four of them and two of us, and we went downstairs to another room with nobody in it.
There was bottled Guinness and tap Murphy's, so I had Murphy's. I think both Guinness and Murphy's are superb. Murphy's is a bit lighter. Boxties were widely listed on the menu, so I ordered a beef and Beamish one, Vanessa a fish, someone else corned beef and cabbage, and a man who said he'd never have a boxty ordered one anyway. I waited with interest to see what they were. In spite of hurrying us they took rather a long time to come. The waitress had said we didn't have time for a first course. So we sat while we could have been eating one.
Boxty turned out to be a potato pancake with whatever in it, supported by cauliflower, turnip and salad. Views were: "a bit plain", "no colour at all", "very tasty" - that was the man who had corned beef and cabbage. The bacon and cabbage one was "nice". Nick’s was "a bit bland", Vanessa's "ﬁne" and mine "no problem, not historic". I followed with an extremely good bread and butter pudding with raisins. It was now 7.15 and we'd finished, having arrived at 6.20. Nobody else had appeared in the room, so we stayed for coffee.
A perfectly pleasant meal helped greatly by the company. The lecture was full of laughs, very bright people. Then back to the Shelbourne. This is a smashing old hotel, built 172 years ago as houses, but never occupied as such. I was shown into its best rooms. "It's the Princess Grace Suite," said a nice German girl, opening the door. "She really stayed here." "Yes, well, look what happened to her," I remarked.
The breakfast was good, the atmosphere excellent. Late at night I had a draught Guinness in its Dublin-type, old-looking bar. Well, I was a tourist, why shouldn't I?
I was interested to read Mr Winner's comments following his lunch at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, London (December 15). In April, 1996, my wife and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. As we had had our reception at the newly opened Royal Garden in April, 1966, I thought it might be a nice idea if we returned there, a few pounds heavier, 30 years later. As the Royal Garden and ourselves were sharing similar anniversaries, I approached its banqueting manager and he seemed delighted that we wished to return, to the extent that we were invited to be guests of the hotel at their restaurant called The Tenth. We had a delightful meal (although we, too, disliked the decor) and promised that we would return, and not in another 30 years. Quite recently an opportunity to return to The Tenth arose. On phoning the hotel to book a table, I got through to their main switchboard at 5.30pm on a Monday, but the operator was unable to get any response from the restaurant. I was informed that nobody was available and I felt he was somewhat embarrassed. I left my office telephone number and asked to be called back. About an hour later I picked up their return message, which simply asked me to call them back so that they could deal with my reservation. This I did, and the following is the almost verbatim conversation that took place: Me: "I have been asked to call you to speak to Mr X (his name now escapes me). It's about a reservation I wish to make for dinner tomorrow night." Negative voice: "Your name?" Me: "Mr Austin." Negative voice: "Who?" Me: "Mr Austin." Negative voice: "Hold on." Then, aside, clearly audible: "There's a bloke called Austin who wants to speak to you." Pause. "Isn't he the s- that got the boss to give him a freebie when we opened in April? Wanna speak to him?" Pause. New positive voice: "Hello, Mr Austin, thanks for calling back..." The rest of the interchange is best left out. Suffice it to say that I received a profuse verbal and then written apology by their director of food and beverage. However, all I really wanted was an apology from the individual concerned who, single-handedly, demolished the image of the hotel that had, for 30 years, held fond memories for us. Perhaps the hotel should have invested some of the thousands spent on marble and glass into something akin to staff training. And perhaps, also, as we were all taught when we were young, it is unwise to accept gifts from strangers.
Michael Austin, Pinner, Middlesex