Brief encounter: Michael Winner with Jenny Agutter at Cliveden (Vanessa Perry)
The worst review I ever gave was for one of my favourite restaurants, Bibendum. After a rare, ghastly experience I went back happily. (Once with an actor so famous he sat facing the corner, back to the room, for fear of being recognised.) I mention this because last November I went to, Cliveden, famous ex-Astor home, with Roger Moore and Christina Tholstrup. Vanessa had chickenpox so was excused eating.
So I telephoned one recent Saturday. After a long delay I got Andrew Anthony, front-office manager. "Can I have a table for two for lunch tomorrow?" I asked.
"People book a long way ahead to come here," was the curt reply.
I was not seeking a report on the business situation in general, I was asking for a table. "I'll call you back," said AA.
After a period lengthy enough to put me in my place, he said: "You can come but we haven't got a table by the window."
That meant they were offering a lousy table. "Could you improve it?" I asked.
"I'll speak to the restaurant manager," said AA snootily.
"Ask the general manager, too," I suggested. He's Stuart Johnson, a thoroughly good chap. Mr Johnson sorted it out.
On Sunday I found myself in a long queue of the most awful, suburban cars, held up at a checkpoint while a man in a cardigan carried out lengthy conversations with each driver. It was like being vetted to enter a car boot sale in Basildon.
"Go on the wrong side of the road, shoot past him," I encouraged Vanessa. Her Mazda MX5 roared. He tried to stop her, but no chance. In the grand hall of Cliveden I told Stuart how surly his Mr Anthony had been.
"Not everyone can be good on the phone," he responded.
"Goodness me," I thought, "if a front-of-house manager can't be good on the phone what is he meant to be good on? The clarinet?"
To calm myself I ordered two buck's fizzes. "Are these oranges squeezed in the kitchen?" I asked when they arrived. "They're from a bottle," the waiter said. I sent them back asking for oranges to be squeezed by hand. Smart appeared. "We do squeeze the oranges ourselves, I assure you," he said. Why not tell the staff, I thought? Happily, Cliveden's home-made crisps are the best in the world. We entered the dining room and sat facing the parterre, sweeping grounds as far as the eye could see. But what was this bespoiling them? People! People in shorts, people in jeans, people with prams, people with children, with video cameras . . . It was, as the saying goes, like Hampstead Heath on a bank holiday. This had been an unsullied landscape when Rog and I were there but, apparently, being National Trust property, it is open to the public until 5.30pm on Sundays.
I diverted my attention to some excellent melba toast. Starters, cream of parsnip and chestnut soup for me, locally grown asparagus for Vanessa, were historic. I requested a bottle of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1966 at £295 including Vat and service. Cheap at the price! Not so the lunch. At £42.50, it is 30% more than Claridge's or the Dorchester.
Vanessa's main course fish arrived covered by a silver bowl. Thus it sat. My food was nowhere to be seen. As fish goes off by the second, I encouraged a waiter to take the top off and let the poor girl proceed. She found the grilled cornish sea bass almost inedible. "It's no good at all," she said. It tasted not fresh and had an odd texture. My roast beef was pretty good - the parsnip and carrot puree superb, though the yorkshire pud was flabby and tasted of some unrecognisible odd ingredient. Vanessa's hot chocolate sponge was great, but she didn't like the drambuie ice cream. I had okay passion-fruit mousse with coconut ice cream as fine as I have ever tasted.
"Do they make it here?" I asked the waiter.
"Yes, you can always tell a place by its vanilla ice," he said.
"Vanilla? I'll have some," I announced. It was desperately disappointing, heavy, over-vanillary,sickly sweet. Marine Ices vanilla stays well supreme. By the time we'd finished, they were serving tea in the lounge so I nicked a sweet biscuit. Totally superb! An eclair went by left to right, so I grabbed it. That was mediocre and had been in the deep freeze.
Then in walked that wonderful actress Jenny Agutter, married to John Tham, superboss of Cliveden. She was as beautiful as ever. Cliveden is terrific, too. But forget summer Sundays - day-trippers even come into the house!
We left in Vanessa's car. "They could have washed it," she said.
"Why?" I asked incredulously. "It's not a car wash."
"Well, they had the time," she responded.
Some people are never satisfied.
Recently I took a party of 11 to Benihana in London W1 and experienced one of the most extraordinary incidents I have ever witnessed in a restaurant. It occurred after the main course had been served to everyone, at least five of whom had ordered chicken, except myself. After they had begun to eat, the chef realised I had nothing in front of me. He looked at the table and then told me he realised his mistake - he had given too much chicken to the others. He proceeded to scoop up some chicken from each of the other chicken eaters at the table - while they were still eating - and placed a plate of this before me and walked off. I should have said something there and then but, as I was with clients, I didn't want to cause a scene. Besides, I was speechless.
Lori Rault, London SW10
I have enjoyed Michael Winner's column for quite some time, even before I ended up in prison. He raises the argument for better quality food with a professional finish. Better to criticise than stand by and watch restaurateurs cut corners and serve overpriced shoddy food as this, basically, is theft.
Michael Crosby, HMP Maidstone, Kent
Michael Winner has at last said something sensible (April 20). Anyone who pays £10,332 for a flight does deserve all he gets.
T Chadwick, London W14