Published 4 April 1998 Style Magazine 249th article
The cast of friends: Michael Winner and Marco Pierre White at the Oak Room (Max Palmer)
I am a great believer in the saying, concerning divorce: "Who gets custody of the friends?" When, some three years ago, my friend Michael Caine fell out with his partner Marco Pierre White, I knew where my loyalty lay. I'd known Mr C for over 30 years. I could not speak to Marco, nor go to his restaurants. I did send him and his girlfriend, Matty, Christmas cards, which they noticably did not reciprocate. So I was pleased when the phone rang recently and it was the missing Marco. He was outraged at the untrue version, being put about by a disgruntled chef, of a restaurant visit we had made together.
He turned to how he regretted his bust-up with Michael Caine, saying he knew full well, and appreciated, that it was Michael who had led him from a commercially unprofitable operation in Wandsworth, first to the Canteen and then to the Hyde Park Hotel, where he was to achieve his third Michelin star.
As St Matthew observed, "Blessed are the peacemakers" - in this case, me. Mr White wrote a very nice letter to Mr Caine, Mr Caine wrote a most gracious letter back, calm and beauty was restored, and I found myself a few days later in the Oak Room of Le Meridien, where Marco now rules.
I was not looking forward to meeting Marco's restaurant manager, Max Palmer. There was once an advertisement to prevent accidents with the words "Keep death off the road". The ghoulish, sombre figure who looked out from the poster was, by comparison with Max, positively jolly. I had suffered Max and his snooty attitude at Harvey's, Marco's Wandsworth pad, and again when Marco opened at the Hyde Park. One of the first disagreements between Marco and Michael was when Marco said to me some months after the Canteen had opened with another maitre d': "I'm bringing Max to the Canteen, he'll look after you." "He'll frighten everyone away," I said. "You don't even have him at the Hyde Park now." As a result, Max didn't get the job, and wrote a marvellous letter to this page from "Cardboard City", bemoaning my new role as "restaurant consultant". Nobody except those in on the act could have known what this was about. "Did you read Max's letter?" asked Marco. "I did. Tell him he's a great letter-writer, but a terrible head waiter," I said jovially.
However, Max was charm and professionalism incarnate on my visit to the Oak Room. A changed man, I even saw him smile - I think twice. As a special treat we let Max take the photograph of Marco and me that adorns this page. Max got somewhat carried away and kept moving from the spot I'd given him "to get the flowers in". I decided, generously, to let that pass.
The Oak Room is large, high-ceilinged and overbright at lunchtime, although I'm told it's more romantic in the evening. The atmosphere was not improved by the fact that, other than myself and my guest, Sir Geoffrey Dear, a man of great importance in the police service, there was only one table of seven men talking about shipping, another table with two men and one more occupied by two women and a man. I thought it a pity that only 14 people had turned up for lunch, because the food was outstanding.
There was an attractive set menu at £29.50 excluding service, but Marco took over and a series of exquisite dishes rained down on me. Seafood mariniere with caramelised squid, a sort of soup. Then grilled Cornish blue lobster, then terrine of fresh duck foie gras, then some oysters, then a main course of pig's head with mash, with various types of pork, which was always my favourite. Even I, glutton of all time, found this a bit much. But I managed to wolf down my caramelised pineapple with ice cream and some petits fours and coffee.
With a half bottle of Mouton Rothschild 1986 the bill for two, including a 10% tip, was £496. The meal over, Marco reflected on his current grandeur, saying "I was the naughtiest boy in the world, now I'm the best behaved boy in the world." Indeed he runs a large empire of restaurants and was always very good at administration and figures beneath that unkempt exterior.
I had dressed in a black jacket and an old silk kipper tie for the occasion. Marco sat back and looked me up and down. "It's good luck for you we don't have a dress code or you wouldn't get in," he observed "Nor would you, Marco," I said. I was rather pleased with that little riposte.
In response to Brenda Love's letter (Style, April 5) on the lack of lavatory paper in a restaurant she visited, might I advise her of the cardinal rule when visiting any loo, be it in a restaurant or at Buckingham Palace - look before you sit down.
Edna Weiss, London NW11
We were at a party recently, engaged in boring highbrow conversation. To spice things up, we told the assembled stiffs that we were presidents of the Michael Winner fan club (cheeky, I know), and that your popularity was set to make you an icon in the approaching millennium. If you don't already have a fan club, we would be willing and able to set one up for you.
Deborah Beavis and Fiona Sweeney, London NW10
My wife and I stay at Michel Roux's Waterside Inn at Bray every year for Royal Ascot week. The highest standards are aimed for and achieved; and it can't be that stuffy - they let us in. We always have great fun, particularly with the Australian waitress. But then we know how to get the best out of places. We're from Liverpool.
Clive Henderson, Liverpool
Mr Winner is quite right when he says that coach parties from Warrington expect high standards (Style, March 29). Our regular trips to Brussels normally end up taking the top floor at Aux Armes de Bruxelles. Equally, we once dined at the superbly situated Gasthaus Petersberg overlooking the Rhine at Konigswinter. The place is so good, it is protected by the German SAS, so I am not sure that even Michael would be allowed in - unless, of course, he came on one of our coach trips. How prescient of Mr Winner to know what appeals to us discriminating coaching folk.
John Gartside, Leader of Warrington Council