Published 5 September 1999 Style Magazine 321st article
All aboard: Michael Winner with Marco Pierre White and his daughter Letticia at the Titanic (James Holdsworth)
In a business where badwill exceeds all, the expectation of failure was never more gleefully anticipated than when Marco Pierre White announced the Titanic. Fellow restaurateurs and chefs rubbed their hands at the thought of Marco's downfall. "Nobody wants those places any more," was the average message of condolence. My own part in the affair is little known. Marco, with his friend and occasional partner, Jimmy Lahoud, visited my house on the way to check out my local restaurant, The Belvedere, which Jimmy wanted to buy. There followed the longest negotiation in history, now hopefully resolved. "Will you open the Titanic for me?" said Marco. "I'll give a donation to your police charity." Terms were duly agreed.
The opening was a Tatler party-night. This didn't please me because I'd just had a legal settlement, damages and an apology from them. The afternoon before, I rang and spoke to Marco's PR lady. "What exactly is happening tomorrow night?" I asked.
"I've just been told you're opening the restaurant half an hour before the party," she said.
I was surprised an event of such importance - me cutting a ribbon - was unknown to all. Marco rang. "Marco," I said, "nobody knows I'm opening your restaurant."
"I do," said Marco. "Matti [that's his girlfriend] knows, Vanessa knows. And you know."
"That's four people in a city of six million!" I responded. "It's not enough, I won't be there!" I mean, per-lease! A man of my magnitude cutting a ribbon in front of Marco and two bored waiters - really!
In spite of my absence, the Titanic, to many people's immense disappointment, was a great success. Spice Girls and other highly important celebrities were seen there. I had no plans to go. But many months later I was to say a few words at a dinner patty at the Mirabelle to celebrate Marco's 21st year in the kitchen. Then my review of the Mirabelle came out in which I praised it massively, but slagged off the corned beef hash and the Mirabelle waffle - one of the most horrible things I've ever eaten and now removed from the menu. Suddenly Marco and Jimmy were not returning my calls. There I was in front of the mirror rehearsing emotional words of praise for Marco on his big day. But was I still invited? At the last minute, I was. But the venue had changed from the Mirabelle, which I greatly like, to Saturday night at the Titanic. Not my sort of place at all.
I was pleasantly surprised. The Titanic is a wonderful room, full of old-world charm. Very buzzy. An enormous bar area, then dining on two sides of a central, oval bar and, at the back, a lounge, visible to plebs like me, for the stars (all of whom were off duty, although Chris Biggins, at our table, swore he'd witnessed the presence of Chris Evans as he came in).
The food was very nice. My fried calamari were excellent. The hamburger, which Marco assured me was the best in the world, was a bit overdone, but the bun was superb. The sticky toffee pudding was not historic, but pleasant. Marco did his usual act of stacking plates up the minute they were empty and having them removed. He took my bread plate away with the bread on it and, when I complained, he said: "It's the same bread we have at the Criterion and the Mirabelle and you don't like it anyway." He added: "The less we give you, the more chance of success we have." I thought that was very funny.
The wines were beyond belief. I forget what year the Mouton-Rothschild was, but the Chateau d'Yquem was 1921. I had a very jolly time indeed. The paying customers seemed to enjoy it, too.
I returned weeks later to take the photo. It was early evening, less noisy, still very lively, with pretty girls and seven o'clock diners. I noticed the TV screens showing fish and whales. "And sharks," added Marco, "because if you're at the bottom of the ocean that's what you'd see."
Marco's extremely pretty, beautifully behaved and highly charming nine-year-old daughter Letticia was there. We went on to Quo Vadis, another Marco eatery, with the Ivy's marvellous ex-maitre d', Fernando Peire, in charge. I'd been once before and found the food iffy. This time it was excellent.
Marco ordered Chateau Margaux 1961, one of the great wines. "It's the year Daddy was born," he said offering some to Letticia. She sipped it, pulled a face of total disgust, stuck her tongue out and returned to normal only when she'd forgotten about it.
If this girl thinks Margaux '61 is awful, some man's in for a very interesting time.
After a recent visit, I can only concur with Mr Wells's opinion of Haagen-Dazs in Leicester Square in London (Style, August 22). The place is not a restaurant - it is a tourist trap.
Laurence Wilmes, Luxembourg
I rarely read Michael Winner's column as I dislike the man, but I was exhorted to write to him by my husband, as we have just returned from an excellent stay at the Malmaison hotel in Glasgow, which Mr Winner slated (Style, August 15). Our room was very comfortable and contained all the facilities one could wish for. The continental breakfast consisted of freshly squeezed juice, fresh fruit, yoghurt, muesli, croissants, pains au chocolat and Danish pastries - all fresh - and the coffee was excellent. The staff were kind, considerate and friendly, as you would expect from Glaswegians. Altogether, a most enjoyable stay, and one that we would be more than happy to repeat.
Betty Thomason, Beverley, E Yorks
Any resemblance between the Malmaison that Michael Winner had the misfortune to visit and the great Malmaison restaurant in the old Central Hotel, Glasgow, was entirely accidental. I dined there in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was run by the legendary maitre d', Luigi. One evening, my host suggested that we order a pair of grilled kippers for dinner. Luigi turned not a hair and duly served the kippers himself, each topped with a poached egg. Alas, few of Luigi's calibre still exist.
Cyril Jacobs, Hove, E Sussex
During a recent stay at the Hotel Hermitage on Elba, we were charged £75 for a grilled lobster weighing 1.1kg. When the beast arrived at the table, I actually asked where the other one was as it looked rather small for two people to share. No mention of the price was made either on the menu, or by the waiter. I only discovered the extent of my folly when I saw the charge on my hotel bill. The management assured me that this was the market price. Surely this must be a record? Or do you know otherwise?
Nicholas Silver, London
Great column. Great humour. But tell me, who is the shapeless, grey-haired old tart that features in all your photos?
Trevor Judd, Romsey, Hants
As an expatriate living in Florida, I read your column every week via the internet edition of The Sunday Times. Did you know that your cyber-fans are denied the photograph that normally accompanies your column in the printed edition? Perhaps you would consider reinstating it?
Jake le-Barrelle, via e-mail
Send your letters to Style; or e-mail: michael.winner@ sunday-times.co.uk