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Joining the masons

Published 3 March 1999
Style Magazine
295th article

Ladies who lunch: Michael Winner with the women from Dundee at the Fountain restaurant (Vanessa Perry)

The greatest hole in what is laughingly known as the hospitality industry is the lack of cafes, snack bars, superior sit-down delicatessen joints. Call them what you will, I mean places where you can order simple stuff without feeling you're in for all the formality and trauma of a main meal. New York is full of them, Paris has them by the score. In England, I can think of none, except for the Fountain restaurant on the ground floor of Fortnum and Mason. This remains delightfully old-fashioned and grossly politically incorrect The panelled murals show peasants of various colours, excluding white, carrying sacks, working in the fields and generally doing manual labour, while a couple of ponced-up 18th-century Europeans visit and receive deferential cap-doffing treatment.

There's a nice new manager, Sunil Sood, who tells me he's been there three years. I found the last lady insufferable, so I stopped going. Thus Mr Sood is new to me. He offered a pamphlet informing me the murals "entertain the fanciful idea of Mr Fortnum and Mr Mason visiting the appropriate growers and merchants of tea, coffee, cocoa and sugar with a purpose of personal selection for their renowned London shop in Piccadilly". As far as I'm concerned, it was most renowned for its Mont Blanc. A riveting, nay historic, dessert of meringues with a chestnut filling. They don't make them any more but the welsh rarebit was very good. I had two slices with grilled tomatoes and fried eggs. I'd asked for the bacon crisp but it came soggy, as I feared it would. When I was last in they did exceptionally good waffles, but that's another thing no longer on offer. "We stopped a year and a half ago," volunteered Mr Sood. "They weren't a big seller. The apple pie is very good." I could see no connection whatsoever between waffles and apple pie. "Is it made here or is it bought in?" I asked. "Bought in," said Mr Sood. Vanessa ordered the apple pie, I asked for a milk chocolate and Earl Grey mousse with ice cream. I'd describe the apple pie as reasonably good shop-made bought-in apple pie: it's quite sweet. On an apple pie scale of 10, I'd give it a strong six at most. My mousse was okay, a bit cloying but . . . "This pie is a bit gooey, it's not crisp enough." said Vanessa, not realising I'd gone well beyond that.

At this point Mr Sood became terribly active. He told me the afternoon tea included sweet potato and saffron soup, hamburger and chips and a lot of other heavy stuff. They also do an ice cream tea with two large scones and an ice cream in a chocolate bowl. In a complicated exposition I learnt something, I forget what, could be replaced with madeira cake. "A lot of people who come in for tea have skipped lunch," said the all-seeing Mr Sood, "so we have to give them good value. On the fifth floor they're doing the classic afternoon tea with tea service. Here we're doing something more robust. We want to offer a different product." This was all getting much too clever for me. My eyes wandered round the other diners, mostly elderly. Next to us was a group of four ladies from Dundee who'd come down to visit the theatre. Typical Fortnumers, I thought, and had my photo taken with them. Mr Sood continued his discourse. "You know when I phoned the switchboard girl didn't know your name," I interrupted. "The normal girl had popped out for a couple of minutes," said Mr Sood, like a flash. Can't spook him. He left and the waitress came for the bill. "Is this your first time in the Fountain restaurant?" she asked. "I've been coming here since 1942," I replied. She was Kirsten, from Boston, so you can excuse anything. "It was a pleasure meeting both of you," she said cheerily as we left.

On the ground floor surrounded by pies and jars, men in tail coats nodded to me. I walked up a few stairs to another restaurant I'd never really noticed, above the Fountain. It's called the Patio. The oriental lady who greeted me was unbelievably brusque and dismissive. I asked what her position was and she said "I'm based here temporarily." When I asked her position again she went to the phone. Maybe to call for help. I spoke to what appeared to be her boss, a dark-haired man in a black suit. "What's her position?" I asked. "Trainee manager," he replied. "Knock her off the course," I said. That's my purpose in life. To spread happiness.


Is it true that Michael Winner was the food critic who awarded a well-known and expensive eatery the novel award of Black Belt for Cuisine? Asked by the chef what he meant, Mr Winner supposedly replied: "One chop and you're dead."
J Reddell, Brentwood, Essex

With reference to Seamus Donnelly's letter (Style, February 14), how unfortunate that your meal at Novelli in west London should have been spoilt by the vision of breastfeeding mothers. As one such "well- educated" breastfeeding mother myself, with no wish to be incarcerated in my home, I can offer you one piece of sound advice: if you don't like it, don't look.
Cathy Howard, London

I can think of no restaurant recently visited more deserving of your sparkling treatment than the Bistro in the Oxo building on London's South Bank. Our party - a journalist, an opera producer and a retiring academic - was hardly grand, but we weren't exactly in football colours, either. Perhaps the maitre d' treats all his twentysomething guests brusquely. I dithered over the wine list and was snappishly told: "You want that one?" The food was rather good, though my duck could have been juicier. That we had far better meals (with charming waiters) in Italy last year for a tenth of the cost doesn't really rankle. That we had a better meal for a third, in Shepherd's Bush, does.
Mrs J E P Taylor, London