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Pay as you learn

Published 1 June 1997
Style Magazine
204th article

Taking the queue: Michael Winner with, from left, Jackie Kough, Sally Campbell and her daughter Emma (Vanessa Perry)

I think the National Theatre does a terrific job. Not only are the productions invariably excellent, but they've managed to take an awful building, which looks like an unfinished car park, and jolly it up no end with musicians, exhibitions, bookshops, stalls and three places serving food and drink. I've only eaten once in the main restaurant, the Terrace Cafe, and it was dire beyond belief. I am told it has improved, but I'm not about to find out. The other two are cafeterias, both rather good. In the intervals, I restrict myself to a Coca-Cola in the VIP room, which is excellently run by John Langley and Nick Huggins. As I frequently arrive early, being punctilious to a fault, it is then that I grab a snack from the Lyttleton buffet. Often I am put off by the queue. Recently, I invented a way to get to the front without offending people. A lady was at the cash desk with her tray, just about to pay. I went up to her. "Excuse me," I said. "You have won tonight's prize. I am going to pay for your food."

"Oh, good," said Sally Campbell, there with two children. "I only have £7, not enough to get coffee. Now I can have one."

"Indeed you can, and anything else you want," I said gallantly, "and I'll have a coffee and a piece of carrot cake."

Thus I got served without delay for £7.50 extra. Perhaps I should wait until someone comes along with just a lemonade - but that would spoil the fun. There is an excellent choice at both the Lyttleton and the almost adjacent espresso bar. The buffet's open until 11pm; the espresso bar closes at 8pm.

In London there is a huge lack of nice cafe-type places where you can eat without a performance. Paris is full of them - stylish, good food, casual. From Les Deux Magots to Le Fouquet's through hundreds of others, most with tables outside. The weather is no worse here, but cafe society is next to nil. If you just want a simple snacky thing, where do you go? The Fortnum & Mason ground floor is okay, Richoux is nice but twee, there are a few in Soho, but central London exhausts me. New York has many diners - excellent they are, too. Garfunkel's is not really what I mean, although I was pleasantly surprised by breakfast at their London airport branch when the Concorde flight was late and Mick Jagger and I went in for a fry-up. It was rather chic. Lady Victoria Hervey was at the next table with her mum, Sir Anthony and Lady Carole Bamford close by, but I doubt that's the usual clientele. Mind you, I don't care if a place might be full of jewel thieves and muggers as long as it's good and they leave me alone.

To show I possess the common touch par excellence, I recently visited the Cafe Le Jardin in Kensington High Street. This certainly doesn't have a garden - the outside chairs are inches away from the high street traffic fumes. It's a place I checked out some years ago when it was being decorated prior to opening. A very nice Egyptian chap was the owner, so I'm sorry to report that all was not well with my meal. I started with a vanilla milkshake that was memorably awful: watery and tasting of cardboard. My friend Nick Mead had lemonade, supposedly made with fresh-squeezed lemons. He liked it greatly. There was then a very long wait indeed for a meze. The lady at the next table, who'd arrived after us, got her first and second courses while we had nothing.

I mentioned this to the waitress, who said: "Well, it's very busy." I noticed many empty tables. When the meze finally arrived - four mushy things with warm pitta bread - it was pretty good.

While we waited for the main course, they started digging up the road, four mounted policemen went by from left to right and a lady passer-by came up to me and said: "I've got an absolute horror story about living in Shepherd's Bush. Can I tell you?"

I was unenthusiastic, but she persisted and said she'd write, adding as she left: "I lost my case with the ombudsman."

After that, Mr Mead pronounced on his main course: "This is horrible: the worst spaghetti bolognese ever." My baked potato and chilli was passable. Nick's carrot cake was "seriously average", my chocolate chip cookie was revolting, and a chocolate eclair tasted of scientific manufacture gone wrong.

"That's one of the most awful meals I've had in years," opined Mr Mead as we left "It tasted like it was all from a packet."

He was about right. That's cafe society, UK version, for you.


I have been a fan of Michael Winner's for many years, and defend him when friends accuse him of pomposity. Last year, I begged my father to take me to 21 Queen Street in Newcastle, as I knew Mr Winner had been there. Although I did not indulge in any chef-baiting, I did my fair share of waiter-hassling, and identified the table he had chosen. I enjoyed myself so much that my father promised to take me again. However, true to form, he is "too busy". Perhaps Mr Winner would do me the honour of accompanying me in his stead? The choice of venue would, of course, be up to him.
Juliette McAuliffe, Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne

Michael Winner revealed (Style, April 20) that he had paid £10,000 for an air taxi to get him to Nice in time for lunch. Finding the in-flight sandwiches offensive, he then paid a further £1,000 to fly home in a different plane. Why does Mr Winner feel the need to flaunt his wealth so ostentatiously? Could it be that he is the model for Harry Enfield's "I can't help but notice that we are considerably richer than yo" character? I think we should be told.
Lesley Eames, Portishead, Avon

You recently published a letter from a reader who had had food removed from their plate by waiters in the middle of a meal (Style, May 4). I had a similar experience last November at the Dorchester. I was eating the main course when the waiter came up and removed one of the two very small rosti potatoes from my plate. When I asked him what was going on, he told me that he had got the portion control wrong, and couldn't return to the kitchen for more as he would be severely reprimanded. This struck me as very poor coming from a hotel of this calibre, and also rather unhygienic.
Mrs D Crow Elstree, Herts