Published 26 December 1999 Style Magazine 337th article
Food with a view: Michael Winner with, from left, Tessa Ferguson, Jeremy Hollingsworth and Jimmy Lahoud (Miss Lid the third)
I first visited the Belvedere in 1947. It was part of a bombed Jacobean mansion in what is now Holland Park, then privately owned by Lord Ilchester. Everything around belonged to him. In Melbury Road, bordering the park, each house was a masterpiece of Victorian architecture. Mine was designed by the famous architect Norman Shaw and built for the Victorian artist Sir Luke Fildes. When I moved in the area was full of film directors. David Lean lived behind, Michael Powell was opposite. Now it's full of BMWs.
I'd clamber over the fence and play in the grounds of Holland House. It could easily have been restored. But this was after the war. We were going forward to a greater world. Victorian and other old buildings were demolished massively in the mid-1950s when building materials came off ration. Then Lord Ilchester died and his heirs started selling the land. Hideous blocks of flats sprouted. The Belvedere became a restaurant run by the J Lyons group. It was a marvellous building, the interior beautifully done out with very comfortable chairs and the environment of a gentleman's club. The food was ghastly.
Ten years ago a Swiss friend of mine, Dieter Abt, bought it. Dieter knew nothing about restaurants. He totally redesigned the place, making changes to the windows and the enhance and carving up the main room. Only a non-genius could erect a wavy interior wall in front of historic windows looking onto a park. He achieved suburban denigration of a lovely Jacobean building. The food was no better. His company went into liquidation. Dieter was charged with fraud. I always said he was too stupid to be fraudulent. He rather liked that. He intended to have it brought up by the defence at his trial. In fact, the case against him collapsed in days.
John Gold and Bill Ofner, two heroes of British club life, then bought the lease from the liquidator. Johnny Gold should be made a lord for his services to London's social life. His Tramp discotheque remains "in" after 30 years. At the Belvedere he added a superb set of celebrity photo-portraits by Terry O'Neill. I wonder why mine was above the entrance to the toilets? Johnny attracted the glitterati, the food was good if not historic, but he was approaching the time when sensible people cash in and retire. So some years ago, well before most people knew it, Johnny sold out to a Scots pub group, staying on to front the enterprise.
I could always find something nice to eat and a good atmosphere at the Belvedere when Johnny was fully in charge. When the Scots took over it was tarted up a bit; some horrific oil paintings were added. It looked even tackier. They brought in staff who were inefficient and rude. One of the worst meals I ever almost ate was some extraordinary deep-frozen rabbit thing preceded by a grotesque risotto. The rabbit was sent back. I never went in again.
Then, recently, a restaurateur with the wonderfully Runyonesque name of Jimmy Lahoud bought the Belvedere. He owns L'Escargot in Soho and the nearby Quo Vadis jointly with Marco Pierre White; he's a partner in the Mirabella with Marco Pierre White and also in the recently opened Sugar Reef. The president of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud, is Jimmy's second cousin. His girlfriend Tessa Ferguson owns the Blue Room, an excellent coffee and sandwich place in Soho.
I dined with them recently at the Belvedere. It still looks awful, but Jimmy is closing it in February for improvements, and reopening at the end of March. The chef, Jeremy Hollingsworth, earned a Michelin star for Quo Vadis. He's spectacularly good. I've waited 52 years for someone like that. My house is only a few paces away. Properly run and redesigned, the Belvedere could be one of the greatest restaurants in London. Everything I've eaten there indicates it will be. From the foie gras to the tarte tatin of endives with sea scallops, the starters are superb. My main course, honey-glazed duck, was good; so, too, was roast chicken from Bresse. The fresh fruits in champagne jelly were unbeatable, the other desserts equally fine.
Jimmy plans to restore much of the period elegance, redecorate entirely, get permission to floodlight more of the adjacent park, and change the horrendous chairs. All excellent ideas. Only one thing worries me. He's taken on the decorator David Collins: he who did the awful Claridge's bar and a host of other dreary, bland-looking restaurants in London. I'll just have to go there and eat with a blindfold. Sit down the reader who said: "From the way you describe the food, I thought you did that already."
I was surprised by your correspondent John Nagenda's interpretation of your giving £50 to a lady in Lacock (Style, December 19). As I understood it, you gave the £50 for the church. If, however, you are giving out 50 quid to any woman who says it's an honour to see you, would it be possible to have a copy of your daily itinerary? I'll be there on every corner with a compliment.
Jane Derwent, Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne
Maybe, in future, head waiters called upon to deal with wobbly tables should carry not a severed cork - as suggested by Jackie Sherfield (Style, December 5) - but a saw. The only sure way to avoid the wobbles is to ask for a three-legged table, which cannot rock.
P Paterson-Brown, by e-mail
I was interested to read your recent correspondence about "too fresh" fish. I was a committed sea fisherman for 50 years or so, and it was always the custom to hang freshly caught white fish (for example, cod or whiting) in the garage overnight. The flesh proved too soft and wet if cooked the same day as the fish had been caught.
L Armitage, Sunderland
Why doesn't Michael Winner stay at home to dine, rather than taking up valuable space in restaurants that are so obviously below his gastronomic requirements? By doing so, he would not only be able to have the table of his choice every time - and eat bubble and squeak whenever he wanted - but would also leave restaurant tables free for those people who enjoy eating out as the treat that it is.
Maureen Richards, by e-mail
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