Published 4 July 1999 Style Magazine 312th article
Head start: Michael Winner with Simon Murphy at the Meridien Victoria & Albert (Vanessa Perry)
When restaurants and hotel groups change hands, things are never the same. Take Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin. Before they sold the Ivy and their other superb restaurants to the Belgo group, I used to have a pleasing chat with one or the other nearly every Saturday lunchtime. On my first visit following the sale, the manager said: "Mr Corbin's sorry, but he won't be in today." Then a couple of times the Ivy doorman came out with much the same. Then nobody bothered to say anything because it was obvious I was never going to see Messrs K or C at Saturday lunch again. The Ivy remains truly excellent, but the temporary loss of the host is a pity. I saw Chris Corbin one weekday. When I mentioned this, he said, charmingly: "I have a family. I like to be with them." Can you imagine anyone choosing to be with their own family when they could be with me? Unbelievable.
I ruminate thus because I recently visited two hotels in the Meridien Group. This is not an organisation I know well, although I'm aware that when Granada took over Forte they acquired the Meridien hotels, added the name to some of their own, and life continued without serious palpitations. My first stop, on a recent tour to meet the people, was at the Meridien Victoria & Albert in Manchester. This is a delightfully froufrou, overdecorated oddity with rooms named after Granada TV series. My suite was the Wealth of the Windsors, which the deputy manager, Simon Murphy, assured me was something to do with Brideshead Revisited. It overlooked a car park, a canal, some of the dreariest modern buildings I've ever seen and Granada TV studios' exterior set of a hospital.
The shower curtain had great swags and curls on it, as if designed for a grand ballroom. The lobby boasted strange statues of Victoria and Albert. "It's perfectly pleasant for a commercial hotel," I dictated into my tape. Dinner for 30 people was adequate, if unexciting. The most memorable item was the cheese straw. The gentleman on my left said: "That's a canape, is it?" The wine waiter informed him it was an amuse-bouche or an amuse-gueule - a form of appetiser. The cheese straw had two bits of raw asparagus on it and some other stuff I couldn't identify. We followed with terrine of smoked salmon served with Fleetwood crab. When I asked the assembled multitude if they thought it pleasant, one gentleman held up a piece of plastic he'd found in it. He didn't say it was unpleasant, he just held it up. I think they did fine for a not top-of-the-range hotel. I was particularly impressed with Mr Murphy, who'd obviously been told to watch my every move. He was cheery and hospitable.
My next Meridien hotel was the Shelbourne in Dublin, a classy place I've always admired. It has a marvellous, old-fashioned Irish elegance. The communal rooms are as buzzy as anything, with guests and locals meeting for tea, drinks and whatever. The Princess Grace suite is exceedingly stylish with an air of faded grandeur that I greatly like. Here I went totally bananas. It isn't often that I scream and shout, I but I made up for lost time on this occasion. I'd written to the French manager, Jean Ricoux, explaining that I required a laptop and printer in the room, as I had to write a political column for urgent delivery to a national paper. He wrote back assuring me it was taken care of. When I arrived at 11pm there was no sign of it. Mr Ricoux was unavailable to take the full blast of my wrath, so I screamed hysterically on three separate occasions into his voice mail. That made me feel better. Then I went to bed, got up early and started making more noise. Eventually the computer and printer arrived.
Breakfast was poor. A lot of detailed fuss was needed to get fresh orange juice. A horrid tin tray was dumped on the grand dining table and I was left to lay out the plates and cutlery. The toast was awful and there was no butter. Hotel people kept phoning and asking if I'd meet Mr Ricoux. I said: "No thank you."
But I do give him many brownie points. When he got Winner letter 23B complaining madly, he apologised. "Your comments have been taken very seriously indeed and where necessary corrective action has taken place in the departments concerned." he wrote. Good for you, Mr Ricoux. That's what I call a real, cool professional - unlike those wobblers at Cliveden, who blow up over the target at the first sign of gunfire.
It seems to me that your mission in life is to expose the miserable treatment that we endure in this country. You should be given a government position promoting better service and value for money in the hotel and catering industry. Maybe you could suggest as much next time you are up at Chequers.
Geoff Mackay, via e-mail
I am considering compiling a guide to those restaurants that have been trashed by Michael Winner, the idea being that the self-styled great man - like lightning - is unlikely to strike in the same place twice. The guide should find a ready market for those who enjoy the finer things in life, but do not wish to be troubled by loutish bores or have their peace and quiet disturbed by horrendously noisy helicopters.
Philippe Boucheron, Droitwich, Worcs
It has been well publicised that Ludlow has more Michelin-recognised restaurants than any area outside central London. Earlier this month, four of us went to the one-star Merchant House. It was not that it was outrageously bad, it was just ordinary, indifferent and totally unmemorable. Apart from the total lack of imagination, the portion size, even by the most benevolent of modern standards, was risible, and the atmosphere is granny's parlour in the 1930s. Dozens of unrecognised London restaurants provide better - at significantly lower cost. Do you think Michelin inspectors apply lower standards to provincial establishments?
Dennis Smith, via e-mail
My wife and I find your sustained criticism of Cliveden verging on rancour. We are astonished and suspect that crossing you personally could be to indulge in a "death wish". We have stayed at Cliveden twice for short periods and have found it delightful and special. Our experience of the staff, general restaurant and health centre at all levels has been excellent. We have had no dirty glasses or "off" food and have eaten a few times in Waldo's, Cliveden's Michelin-starred restaurant. The gardens and surrounding countryside are magnificent and we are thankful that they are owned by the National Trust.
Don Tierney, London W14
I loved your article about Cliveden, but I feel you missed the point. Locals know that it caters solely for the nouveau riche who simply must be seen to be there. Those with a discerning palate eat less visibly elsewhere.
Susan Eyles, Maidenhead
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