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Beef of the day

Published 23 February 1997
Style Magazine
190th article

Shaker and mover: Michael Winner and Frances McNamara at St James's restaurant in Fortnum & Mason (Vanessa Perry)

I apologised to Mr Elliott on the way out. "I'm so sorry I pinched your table," I said. He was very gracious. More than I would have been in the circumstances. He stood up, even though he'd just been served his main course, shook my hand and said: "That's perfectly all right, Mr Winner, I didn't know anyone knew about it." A real gem. What had happened was this. I had phoned the St James's restaurant in Fortnum & Mason. Because it was so marvellous for tea, I decided to try it for lunch. This turned out to be a grave error.

I arrived at 1pm to find it more or less empty. A number of tables had reserved signs on them. The maitre d' of the day, Annette McCready, ignored me. So I wandered round until she eventually showed me some very dull, available tables. "What about that one?" I asked. "That's reserved," She advised. "Oh well, I'm going to sit at it," I said. This was somewhat rude, but I'm not perfect and nor are you. Ms McCready looked worried. "Nobody's going to fire you," I said. "Whoever was going to sit here can sit there," I pointed to an inferior table opposite. "It's Mr Elliott," she said. "He comes in every day."

We were dealt with, and I mean that in the best possible way, by a wonderful, old (sorry, ma'am) Irish waitress, Frances McNamara, whom I've known for a long time; she's been there for 17½ years. She is exemplary. What a mover! We both had cold cucumber and mint soup. It was good. I then had Lady MacLean's beef stroganoff. I've no idea who Lady MacLean is, but she knows absolutely nothing about beef stroganoff. It was revolting. Tough, tasteless beef, a horrid sharp sauce; I won't go on or I'll get upset.

Vanessa went straight on to A Selection of the Finest Cheeses from Our Food Hall. She was looking forward to that. It was obviously a bad day in the food hall. They were a disgrace. Four cheeses, all boring, laid out on the plate. She reminded me of the greatest cheese trolley in the world at the Barbizon Inn in the near-to-Paris village of Barbizon. It's an incredible place. I know many of you went there when I recommended it some time ago, because you wrote and told me so. Nobody was disappointed.

Back at the lunch of dread I went on to bread and butter pudding with double cream. It was like a soft mousse, no sign of crispy bread, the double cream was presumably in the pud, because it was surrounded by custard. It wasn't awful but it was well on the way. The event was not saved by some excellent choccy mints in silver paper.

Throughout this I had watched the very elegant Mr Elliott in a dark blue blazer, light blue shirt, with a lady friend in a red blouse. They first settled in the lounge outside. When I'd come in, I'd asked Ms McCready, pointing: "Who's that table reserved for?" "You," she said. "Well, Mr Elliott can sit there," I'd replied. I now saw him move to my ex-table, feeling guiltier by the minute.

After apologising to Mr E, we went on to the men's shoe department, as Vanessa wanted a shoelace to hang some Victorian jewellery from. Three assistants talked together in the men's clothing bit. Nobody at the shoe department at all. "Is the shoe department closed?" I asked, after a while, in a loud voice. One of the assistants looked up from his conversation, unhappy about my intrusion. He went towards the shoe bit. "If you're on strike you should be walking about with a placard," I said. I'm like that if, in a posh shop that promises service, they're behaving like twits. I'd had an absolutely dreadful lunch in a more or less empty restaurant, I certainly wasn't going to take any nonsense somewhere else.

As well as valuable oil paintings on the restaurant wall and booklets about how wonderful their clock is with Mr Fortnum and Mr Mason popping out into Piccadilly every so often and bashing something as it chimes, they should get their fourth-floor restaurant fixed and keep the store staff on their toes. I had a similar problem a few weeks earlier in the luggage department. Vanessa was struggling to open bits of a suitcase on wheels, chained to a rail. Eventually an assistant came over and said "Are you interested in that?" "We're not opening and closing it as a hobby," I replied dryly. Fortnum's needs me in a bit more. It's a nice place, I could get it shipshape in no time.


On February 2, Michael Winner wrote about lunching with Roger Moore at Cliveden, Berkshire. He stated that he preferred to be anonymous but that a large group had stared and whispered. Did it not occur to him that the interest was Roger Moore? As for his preference for anonymity, I gather from other articles that he tends to make a great fuss with his seating arrangements, thus attracting maximum attention. The previous Sunday he told us that the manageress did not leave her office to meet him and the food and service were not to be recommended. If I ran a restaurant famous enough to warrant a visit by Mr Winner, I would do the same.
P S Scarborough, London, SW7

It is sad when restaurateurs think they are greater than those who eat at their establishments - do service and client satisfaction stand for nothing? I recently took my husband out for a not inexpensive birthday dinner at Marco Pierre White's Criterion restaurant in London. It all went well - until we got to the pudding. My husband ordered the individual tarte tatin with ice cream and, being a lover of ice cream, he requested an additional scoop. "I am sorry, sir, we cannot possibly let you have another scoop," said the waiter. We called for the manager, who again turned down the request, telling us that they only had enough ice cream for everyone in the place to have one scoop. Both of us said that we would be happy to pay for the additional scoop, but even the lure of money was turned down and when we dared to suggest that this might not be wonderful client service, he told us "that is just your opinion".
Kleshna Rhind-Tutt, New Malden, Surrey

I wonder if Michael Winner has tried Reid's hotel in Madeira? We booked a week at this renowned hotel and paid extra for a superior room. There was no safe in the room, no flowers or fruit, and no chocolates. The pillowcases were darned and patched in several places. The bathroom tiles were cracked and broken, and the shower was antiquated. Dinner was also disappointing. We tried all the restaurants during the week: napkins were not placed on our laps, no petits fours, no souffles or crepes were offered. The week could only be classed as three-star, most definitely not five-star luxury, as the hotel claims.
M Thomas Meopham, Kent.