Published 5 March 2000 Style Magazine 347th article
Cafe society: Miss Lid, Michael Winner and Kim at the Intercontinental (Alan Birbeck)
The general manager of the Mayfair Intercontinental Hotel turned to me and said: "Get out!" And that was years before I became a hobby-food-writer. He was distressed at film lights, cameras, extras and even at Michael Caine and Roger Moore being in his lobby. His lady PR stood by, trembling. "If you impede the progress of filming," I said with experienced calm, "you will be served with a High Court writ claiming a quarter of a million pounds' damages. We have a contract with you signed by Miss X [I indicated the PR] and we are acting upon it." The general manager barked, "Come with me!" to the PR and walked off. I assume he strangled her, because we never saw either of them again. But I retained pleasant memories of the Intercontinental Coffee House Restaurant. I would wander in at all times nicking excellent snacks before returning to the camera. At the end of the day, I'd say: "How much money do you want?"
As I'm increasingly decrepit, I now eat before the theatre so I can get home to my cup of cocoa. I've been frequenting the very excellent J Sheekey, about which I have only one complaint: their menu advertises grilled sole with a bearnaise sauce. A bearnaise sauce usually accompanies steak. I can think of no two more disparate constituencies than steak and sole. Bearnaise is vastly unsuited, heavy and absurd to put with fish. I tried it and found it odd in the extreme. For customers with taste, tartare sauce should be listed as a replacement.
Prior to a theatre visit to Fosse (very good) one Saturday night, I decided to grace the Intercontinental Coffee place. I arrived at 5.42pm. Kim, from South Korea, in a green blazer, greeted me most charmingly and said the buffet wouldn't be up until 6pm, but we could order from the a la carte. She said it would take 10 minutes to squeeze two fresh orange juices. I checked what was on display: a very fresh-looking fruit salad, desserts and some light and dark fudge in a bowl. I like fudge; it was good. Biljana from Macedonia, in a striped waistcoat, took our order. After that, food appeared all over the place. Miss Lid tried sushi from the buffet and said it was marvellous. I grabbed everything as the waitresses carried it in. "What's that?" I'd call out and it would be brought over for me to taste. Cubes of saute potatoes, stir-fried lamb and prawns in Thai curry sauce (got a bit of that on the tablecloth), carrots, clear chicken soup, egg and dumpling soup, confit of duck legs and then the ordered course of roast maize-fed chicken with bubble and squeak and shallot and white wine chicken jus. I finished with some very nice chocolate-chip cookies.
The food ranged from good to acceptable. The main problem is the room itself, which is stuck in an ugly part of the 1970s: sort of fake Georgian with prints of jockeys. I think a coffee shop should have more snacky things, be open all day, which this isn't, and not worry about tablecloths and flowers in little pots. The hotel PR is obviously aware of this, because she wrote to me: "The current decor is rather old-fashioned and we hope to completely update it."
When I later wandered into their posh restaurant, Le Souffle, the manager said they'd had tarting-up plans for ever, but nobody ever did anything. Bass plc bought the place two years ago. They should definitely spend a few bob. It all looks dowdy. The lobby was full of French doctors wearing signs and here for a conference. My ﬁlm people were much more interesting.
As I'd left early, having panicked incorrectly about the time, I wandered over the road to The Four Seasons, intending to have a coffee. A sign read: "We are delighted to inform you the lounge is being refurbished." I hope they take the awful panelling out. I've always found the staff at The Four Seasons totally superb. That evening, a cheery doorman stood by a small table of towels and water there for hotel guests who'd been jogging and staggered back so exhausted they couldn't make it into the lobby without a fix.
So I went to Claridge's for some mint tea. At 6.55pm there were still people finishing their full-scale tea. A birthday party was starting in the grand reception room behind the lobby. Dozens of kids ran through to it in varied clothes and trainers. I remember the days when you had to wear a tie just to enter the place. It's nice to see things improving.
Mrs Ceri Brooks's letter about the Savoy (Style, February 20) struck a note. In November, three friends and I were served an inedible tea (£19 per head) at the same hotel. After writing twice, I eventually received a letter inviting me and one other to a return visit, as long as we did so between Monday and Friday. Originally embarrassed at having to exclude two of our party, I find instead that it is proving difficult to persuade anyone to take up the offer.
Deborah Williams, Claygate, Surrey
My brother and I recently had an extraordinary experience at a pub in Battersea, London. My brother ordered a steak sandwich, medium rare. When it arrived, it contained the toughest piece of steak he had ever had. When the waiter asked if he had enjoyed his meal, my brother replied: "No, the steak was too tough." The waiter disappeared, and a butch waitress arrived demanding to know what was wrong. He told her. She was then replaced by an even butcher woman - the manager - who slammed the half-eaten steak down in front of him, shouting "What's wrong with that?" She waved the meat around in front of my brother's face: "Look, it's medium rare, just as you ordered." "Yes, I know," said my brother, "but it's so tough, it's inedible." "No, it's not," she said. "Oh yes it is," he replied. She marched off, only to be replaced by the chef, who stormed: "What's wrong with my cooking?" By now, I was helpless with laughter, convinced we were in a Basil Fawlty style sitcom. The chef sat down with us and poked the steak, while my brother pointed out its faults. In the end, the cost of the sandwich - all of £4.65 - was refunded. I don't think we'll be going there again.
Antonella Lazzeri, London
The king asked the queen and the queen asked the dairymaid: "Could we have some butter for the royal slice of bread?" Michael Winner, however, just sat there regally expecting the waiter at the Halcyon (Style, February 13) to notice he was butterless. The result? The king, deservedly, got his butter. Michael Winner didn't.
Len Tyler, Findon, W Sussex
Please do not ever go to Simply Nico in London. Not only would you be butterless, you would be breadless, saltless, pepperless, waiterless, and pudding/cheeseless. On paying, you will also be cashless.
Sarah Keighley, London