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Fishy Business

Published 30 April 2000
Style Magazine
355th article

Bentley does it: Michael Winner with Irene Rodriguez at Zia Teresa (Mrs Lagoudakos)

I'm a simple soul. I only want to have fun. I go to restaurants solely in the hope of having a nice time, good food, pleasant service, interesting atmosphere. I never go because I have to be somewhere for this column. I tell you only about places I voluntarily attend in my private life and where I pay full whack - and frequently more. Surprisingly, many restaurants absolutely refuse to give me a bill. This costs me a fortune because, not wanting anything for nothing, I feel obliged to leave cash gratuities for far more than the meal would have cost.

One totally adorable lady restaurateur keeps declining to give me a bill. When I left £100 on the table she rushed in, took it and gave it back to me. So, after the next lunch, I had to go to Barkers and buy something I didn't want just to acquire a box to use for a present. Then I took an expensive silver period ornament from my house, wrapped it, and dispatched the driver to her restaurant with it. The next time I went in. I begged the lady to give me a bill. "If you were at my house you wouldn't pay," she said endearingly. "This is my house."

"Please Mrs X," I said, "you'll end up with everything I own: the paintings, my television sets, the three-piece suite. I beg of you - let me pay!" I simply cannot afford all this hospitality. It will bankrupt me.

All this has absolutely nothing to with the Zia Teresa in Hans Road, opposite the west side of Harrods. I've been going there on and off for over 40 years. It still looks like the archetypal Italian restaurant of the mid-1950s. Wrought-iron chandeliers with coloured bulbs, hanging copper pots, a bar, wooden banquettes, the walls full of postcards, which may or may not have been sent by satisfied customers. I went mostly in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Taking a trip down memory lane, I recently attended with Mrs Lagoudakos, whom you may recall is my chief receptionist and an ex-Miss United Kingdom. Mrs Lagoudakos hails from the Wirral, so on the few occasions I am munificent enough to take her out, she looks forward to eating well. On this occasion she was disappointed. The Zia Teresa was never posh; it's part of the Spaghetti House group. But it used to be robust, cheerful and with very pleasant food. I started by asking for one of my favourites: spaghetti with meatballs. Eugene Torretti, the manager, said: "We don't do them any more." "Why not?" I asked. "People stopped ordering them," said Eugene. Well, I thought, they didn't stop ordering them at Scalini. I've had marvellous versions of them round the corner in Walton Street.

We were recommended asparagus. It was very thin, tasteless and coated with melted cheese. The finger bowls were optimistic. You'd have had to prise the asparagus from the cheese and it was so stringy it would have flopped over if you tried to pick it up. My breadcrumbed veal was tough and of no taste. The tomato sauce with the spaghetti was just a pasty mush with a strange, tangy flavour. The coup de grace was Mrs Lagoudakos's dover sole, which smelled strongly of fish. Fish should not smell of fish. This usually means it's not fresh.

Miss Lid had some very smelly fish at Claridge's recently, which greatly surprised me, as I'm a great admirer of the hotel and the food is invariably excellent. Neither lady ate their fish: both portions were sent back. At Zia Teresa, Mr Torretti returned and said: "It's the smell of the grill not the fish," which struck me as a very odd excuse. If true, who wants a smelly grill whiff on fish anyway?

Everything was a disaster, except for a cheerful waitress called Irene Rodriguez. First, she saved me by pointing out I'd left the Bentley lights on. Then she sat brightly behind the cash desk. "I'm in a break," she said. "Everybody comes this side." I'm not sure what Irene meant, but Mrs Lagoudakos took our photo anyway.

The next night I took her to Harry Morgan in St John's Wood High Street, where the fish is usually superb. For the first time ever the batter tasted hard and greasy, as if the oil was not fresh. Also, the chicken soup with noodles was poor when it's usually historic. I only go to Harry Morgan about once a year, but a regular fan told me he'd recently been very disappointed with them. Poor Mrs Lagoudakos. Two rotten dinners in a row. And with someone restaurants are meant to fall over themselves to please. There ain't no justice any more.

Winner's letters

You are absolutely right, Michael. Fanta does taste different in Marrakesh, as indeed it does in Marbella or Morecambe. Unlike Coca-Cola, which was "invented" by us and is therefore universally the same, God created the orange and all its various tastes and colours. Eat an orange from North Africa and one from Jaffa, and you will experience different tastes. The variations of Fanta have been created to best satisfy the different tastes and habits of each society in which it is sold. It's horses for courses. I hope it doesn't disappoint you too much that our research supports the formula for UK Fanta - it's the taste and colour that the majority of British drinkers tell us they want. The natural conclusion, of course, is that a well-travelled, cosmopolitan man such as yourself has obviously developed Moroccan taste buds. Hopefully the enclosed case of Coca-Cola, which I hear you enjoy, will help lubricate your thoughts for your next crusading column. My colleagues in Morocco are organising a case of their sun- drenched drink so that you can remember your trip every time you drink Fanta. Marrakesh is, by the way, one of my favourite places in the world. I have been there often and I hope the next time I'm there we can enjoy a Coke together.
Douglas N Daft, chairman, The Coca-Cola Company, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

PS: My wife has already enjoyed the shopping - unfortunately!

On a rainy Monday night in Bruges recently, my wife and I decided to try Breydel de Coninck, as recommended by Mr Winner a few weeks ago. The mussels were superb, as were the service and bill - as I am sure the hordes of other British customers (all clutching their copies of Mr Winner's article) will testify. And I thought I was the only one who took any notice ...
Karl Haycock, Windsor, Berks

Given the many gripes that Michael Winner receives about disappointing and arrogant service in restaurants, it seems only fair to highlight great service when it occurs. I recently ate at the Real Greek in east London, where a waitress accidentally touched my head while clearing plates from an adjacent table. It was nothing and I did not complain. She returned to insist on giving us a free bottle of wine with our meal - both of which were excellent.
Tony Simmons, by e-mail

Send letters to Style; or e-mail: michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk