Published 13 July 1997 Style Magazine 210th article
I was stranded in a car park in Barton on Sea. The convertible Mercedes rented for me by the excellent manager of Chewton Glen, Peter Crome, wouldn't go from P (park) to D (drive). We checked the instruction manual, moved the windows up and down, jerked the car a bit. Nothing. However foolish we might look, we had to call the hotel.
Mr Crome appeared with a uniformed hotel man. The uniformed one spoke. "Mr Winner, you have to put your foot on the brake pedal, then the car will go into gear," he explained.
"Doesn't say so in the manual," I muttered peevishly. "Haven't done that all day."
Never mind, I could drive off. We'd decided to forego a posh dinner at Chewton Glen and take our chances. Vanessa had requested a brief walk by the sea. Now, we proceeded along the coast, but the only inn that served food on that stretch stopped at 8.30pm, and that was the time. So I cruised down the main drag of Highcliffe, Dorset.
"There's something!" I exclaimed, jamming my foot on the brake.
There was a screech of tyres behind. Two young man in a Jeep yelled something deeply unpleasant.
"Entirely my fault," I said. "I'm so sorry, I'm a terrible driver." I say that a great deal, so I'm rather good at it. Then I continued down the street.
There it was: Erties Fish and Chips. Large gold letters standing out from a bright red background with four lights extending over them. Next door was a Methodist church. "No Parking. Private Property", it said of the area in front. I pulled into a gap labelled "Reserved for Organist".
We walked into Erties. A stand-up wooden sign in old-fashioned lettering read "Wait here to be seated". A waitress showed us a table for two; I sat at one for eight. The large, plastic covered menu confused me. A blackboard announced Bertie's evening specials (the B was missing outside): tuna steak or rock, £5.75, lemon sole, halibut steak, skate wing, large haddock with chips, £5.95. I was baffled. "Is the owner in?" I asked the waitress.
"Yes, Rob's upstairs," she told me.
"What's he doing there?" I asked.
"Watching telly," she replied.
Seemed a pity to disturb him, so I walked into the kitchen.
A chef opened metal drawers revealing frozen cod.
"That's not on the board," I said.
"Outside, the catch of the day's the special stuff; cod's a regular thing," the chef explained. "Anyway, it's all frozen, except the skate."
It was a tough choice: beef and onion pie, steak and kidney pasties for £1.20, black-pudding fritters, 40p, fishcake burgers, 99p.
"Do you make them here?" I yelled.
"Yes," said the chef.
"I'll have one, and some cod, chips and mushy peas."
Vanessa ordered the rock. My Coca-Cola came with lots of ice. I guessed it was from a large container, not a tin or bottle - we experts can tell. I was right.
I admired a sign, high up on the extreme left, with a pointing hand that read: "Please pay here". It pointed to the "Wait here to be seated" stand-up below.
My cod had that too-long frozen taste, but Vanessa's rock was first rate. We both had two enormous pieces, enough for a group. The chips were superb, made on the premises. "We get through two and a half tons of potatoes a week," obliged the chef. the mushy peas were good, too.
I had trouble pouring the vinegar.
"It helps if you take the top off," said Vanessa.
I'd made a mistake with the fishcake burger - I'd said yes to mayonnaise, which wiped out the taste - but when I got a bit on it's own, it was fine.
I went to another kitchen to examine a syrup sponge, melancholy in a refrigerator. I ordered it together with some New Forest ice cream. It arrived microwave hot. I only ate the syrupy bits on the outside of the sponge and the ice cream. I liked it, but Vanessa said it tasted of spray cream that comes out of a tin. She's much fussier than me.
We rounded it off with cups of Assam and Kenyan Ty-Phoo tea.
The stand-up sign had been turned around to read "Restaurant Now Closed".
"They're mopping the floors," I dictated into my recorder.
"Do you mind us doing that?" asked a waitress, hearing me.
"Not at all," I said. Then for no reason: "Does Rob the boss have a wife?"
"Yes," said the waitress. "She's gone away."
"Permanently?" I asked.
"To see her daughter in Majorca," was the reply.
None of my business really. We Scorpios are just unbelievably nosy.
It is a pity that Dr Richard Sparks (Style, June 29) did not enjoy his meal at the Walnut Tree near Abergavenny, but we feel that he missed the point. The Walnut Tree is not a pretentious temple to the latest superchef. It is a simple country inn, run for 35 years by Ann and Franco Taruschio. We go there for the wonderful food, the lack of ceremony and the irreverent banter from the waitresses - not for silver service.
Sally and Mark Bailey, Ross-on-Wye, Hereford
I read Michael Winner's weekly column with a mixture of irritation and amusement, but the places he describes are usually out of my league in terms of price. I was amazed and delighted, therefore, to read of his visit to Royal Oak Farm near Oxford (Style, June 22). I know it well, and totally agree with his appreciative comments. Michael Winner is obviously no snob. My faith in human nature is restored.
Hilary Hills, Woodburn Green, Bucks
Last month, I tried to book a table for lunch at Deane's Restaurant in Belfast and was told that it didn't take bookings for lunch. In spite of this, I took a business colleague along and we were shown to a table for two. Before we could sit down, we were told that this particular table was booked, and were offered seats side by side next to some pillars instead. When we inquired again about the booking policy, we were told our original table had been "booked for somebody important". However, when we left at 2.15pm, the "somebody important" still hadn't made an appearance. I have since cancelled an earlier dinner booking.
Edgar Martin, Jordanstown, County Antrim