Published 17 January 1999 Style Magazine 288th article
Go Westbury: Michael Winner and Vanessa Perry (Kate Sowter)
I do not know Mr Elliott Bernerd. I've never set eyes on him. I met his ex-wife at La Reserve do Beaulieu once; she was very cheerful. His daughter, whom I also haven't met, moved into one of four terraced houses whose gardens run down to my back garden wall. I normally object to every planning application in my conservation area, acting as local snoop for The Kensington Society, an excellent organisation that tries to protect what is left of old Kensington. But when Elliott's daughter and her hubby applied to make a terrace out of a flat roof, I was unusually noncombative, although I thought of writing to them saying that, in my opinion, more than four people with drinks and cocktail canapes constituted an environmental hazard.
I mention this because I recently took tea at the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair, which Mr Bernerd's company, Chelsfield, bought a while ago. Mr Bernerd is delightfully acquisitive. When he bought Wentworth Golf Club - now famed for its temporary proximity to General Pinochet - a friend of mine, very British and plummy of voice, worked for Mr B. He went to see them as an advance guard. "Is this a very exclusive club?" he asked. "Well," said Wentworth's representative, "we try to be. We don't like to have too many Jews." "This is your unlucky day then," said my friend. "You've just been bought by one." I've heard him tell this story with great relish many times, and smiled in recollection as I walked under the Westbury's tacky sign in what looked like yellow stick-on lettering saying Bar Lounge with the word Polo in larger letters underneath.
As you enter, there's a table with some newspapers. I grabbed The Sunday Times and sat in the corner of a light, wood-panelled, low-ceilinged room - "Not a place of beauty," I dictated. Mind you, next to the new bar at Claridge's, it's Versailles. We ordered two full afternoon teas at £12 each. I'd chosen an armchair, which I kept falling back into. I prefer upright chairs. Very prompt and charming service. "Good cup of tea," said Vanessa, adding of a smoked salmon sandwich: "That was horrible, it tasted old." The scones were cold, but other than that very good. The sandwiches were acceptable; it seemed as if they'd been in the fridge. An iced tartlet cake was passable, a meringue chocolate cake okay. I liked the flapjack. "Er, tastes like it's gone wrong," said Vanessa. "Too sweet." "I liked that," I persisted.
I took a stroll through the narrow bar full of lively people, into a cold marble lobby and then to what I remembered as a very pleasing dining room. It had apparently been "cut up" and reduced to a nasty oblong box by Forte, the previous owners. Quite unsuitable for what should be a classy hotel a few yards from Bond Street in one of the best locations in London. A lady was there. "I'm looking to see how many this seats," I said. "If we push we can seat 56," said the lady. It was laid for 38. She was charming, German. Her name was Francesca, the restaurant manager. "My real name's Franziska, but it's easier for the English to say Francesca," she explained. "For lunch we have 25-30 covers and for dinner around 25, so we're still low cover-wise." I tut-tutted sympathetically.
This place is supervised by Willy Bauer, who was managing director of the Savoy. He's no fool. He should give it a jolly good shake-up, posh it up a bit. I have fond memories of the Westbury. I used to put some of my movie stars there. I wouldn't now. Mr Bernerd also bought the Westbury in New York. He turned that into apartments. He must have made a few bob. Why not spend it on the London hotel? It's pleasantly serviceable, but for a man who's chairman of the South Bank Centre, the purifier of that horrid concrete jungle, he should realise "charity" begins at home.
I returned to the Polo Lounge, took the News Review section and plonked it on the adjacent, uncluttered table. Then I took an upright chair from a third table and sat down for a good read. The bill was £24. It announced "No service charge. We believe you should reward good service personally." I gave £6 because I thought the two ladies had done very well indeed. Now it's over to you, Willy and Elliott. Go on, create a gem. You've got a way to go. In the last Ronay guide you weren't in London's top 30 hotels. In the current AA Guide you get one rosette when the top is five. Try harder, chaps.
I nearly choked on my cornflakes when I read Mr Winner's column on Portofino (Style, January 10). There he was, railing against billionaires "sitting high up on their decks, drinking cocktails and looking down on us peasants". The words pot and kettle sprang to mind. Mr Winner may be only a multimillionaire, but he seems to spend much of his time in just such a position.
Elizabeth McKee, Glasgow
I am truly sorry that thoughts of your own mortality marred your Christmas festivities (Style, December 27). However, I am possibly unique among your followers in being a fully qualified embalmer, as well as a lover of food. I would be prepared to travel to any destination to attend to your final requirements and would suggest a pre- funeral meal of smoked salmon and beluga caviare followed by chateaubriand and a first-class cheeseboard. Seeing as you have survived, perhaps we could get together to discuss your final arrangements in more detail? And don't let Vanessa try a DIY job: it can get very messy if attempted by the unqualified.
Philip Williams, Leeds
I thoroughly endorse Mr Winner's report on the Churchill Arms, Paxford (Style, December 27). My duck breast on pureed fennel was delicious. If I had known that I was sitting in the seat, by the log fire, soon to be occupied by "the maestro", my meal would have reached new heights.
Kate d'Anch Smith, Cheltenham, Gloucs