Published 7 June 1998 Style Magazine 256th article
White night: Michael Winner, Marco Pierre White, Mati Conajero and the Criterion chef Richard Phillips (Vanessa Perry)
When Manco Pierre White told me he was taking over the Criterion, a restaurant in Piccadilly Circus, I said: "Ridiculous! You can't park, you have to walk through those night-time oddities that hang around Eros to get there . . ." Needless to say, Marco ignored my advice, opened up, and has done splendidly.
After deciding that the Rolls and chauffeur should wait on a taxi rank at the northeastern end of Lower Regent Street, I walked the few paces to the Criterion, safe in body and spirit, as it was lunchtime and not raining.
People always say the Criterion is such a lovely room. I think it looks like a Victorian gents' toilet. That still places it well above the visual standard of most new restaurants. They all seem to be decorated by the same man, whose name I forget, who obviously got a job lot of yellow paint from the Dulux catalogue and has been splashing it about ever since. The original Fulham Road was typical; the Canteen is saved by Michael Caine's imaginative additions and, incidentally, has recently acquired an absolutely outstanding new chef, Raymond Brown.
The clientele of the Criterion looked to me like the public you see on quiz shows. The menu bears a large cartoon of Marco, with his favourite slogan: "To know how to eat well, one must first know how to wait." As far from the Winner philosophy as you can get. Marco said: "You never have to wait here." "I'm waiting for my Coca-Cola," I said. "They're doing the sliced lemon for you." said Marco. "They got the ruler out, that's why we're waiting," said his beautiful girlfriend, Mati. She Works at the Criterion in the evenings. That's a good reason for going there.
We got only one set menu between four people. Vanessa ordered the cabbage broth. "I didn't like it last time I had it," advised Marco. "What do you mean, you didn't like it? You own the place!" I said. Marco recommended some special skate from the a la carte, but I decided to have fried skate from the set menu. I took Marco's advice and had balloltine of salmon to start. It was very good. The bread was awful.
I surveyed the room. Various upper-class shoppers had arrived with carrier bags. "I'm normally at the Ivy for Saturday lunch," I said. Marco looked as if that was something on which he wished to have no opinion. "They do corned beef hash," he finally remarked. I nodded. "We're thinking of having that at the Mirabelle, but we can't because it's not right for us, is it?" "Well, you come from a slum in Leeds, Marco, so you're very posh," I said. "But I'm just an ordinary person and we like corned beef hash." Marco found that amusing.
Vanessa didn't like her soup. "It's Paul Gaylor's recipe, it's not one of my recipes," said Marco. Then he started piling the used plates up and put the knives and forks on top. Didn't look to me like a man who enjoyed waiting.
Vanessa found her main-course haddock very good. My fried skate was dodgy, but I'd been given a side order of chicken consomme with brioche dumplings. That was lovely. Then I finished with two jellies - red fruit and Sauternes jelly - and I had a bit of treacle tart. All superb.
I'm not surprised Marco made it work, really. And if you're addicted to gold mosaic ceilings and Victorian Arab decor, you could even find it wondrous.
The serious matter, reported by one of our readers, that my signed photo was taken from the walls of the Splendido in Portofino to be replaced by Dame Maggie Smith, caused me great angst. I telephoned Fausto Allegri, the concierge. He denied this hotly. "Of course your photo has not been moved, Mr Winner," he said. "Your photo is in my heart." "Never mind that, Fausto," I said. "Is it still on the wall?" "Of course it is," said Fausto. "We would never touch it."
I don't know why, but I viewed that with considerable suspicion. Still, Maggie Smith is my favourite actress. She's the only person to appear on stage who always gets me a profit on my theatrical investments. Usually being an "angel" is a total disaster. I remember staying at the I Cipriani when Maggie was there. We were chatting. She looked round at the tourists in Venice. "There can't be anyone left in Kyoto," she remarked.
If you go to the Splendido, let me know who's on the pillar. It's to the right of the reception, just in the lounge area. I don't mind at all if it's Dame Maggie. A lady that wonderful and witty can take my place any time.
I agree completely with your views on Reid's Hotel in Madeira (Style, May 3). I stayed there for three weeks some years ago and it was awful: worn, shoddy and not up to standard. Apparently, from reading your article, it still is. It used to have a brilliant reputation, but I was very disappointed.
Diana Taylor, South Wirral
I am a regular reader of your column and normally enjoy it, but in your recent handling of Reid's Hotel I think you were unfair. I have twice stayed at Reid's and on both occasions my room was comfortable, with flowers, fruit and super sea views, and perfectly adequate room service and porterage. The pools, tennis courts and gardens were delightful and the buffet breakfast was excellent - except for the canned orange juice, about which I agree with you. Like the Splendido in Portofino, Reid's is part of the Orient Express group. Unlike the Splendido, however, it doesn't cost £375 a night for half-board. If money were no object, I would probably follow you to Portofino, but I will also be visiting Reid's again.
Leo Katzen, London NW3
Regarding your comments on Reid's Hotel, I would suggest that when you go overseas you should order local produce. It is not proper to order smoked salmon or John Dory in Madeira. I might add that if your bathroom was dirty, you should have discreetly called the manager and said: "Sorry, old boy, but a monkey had a bath before I arrived."
P E Varea, Bideford, Devon