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Bill of wrongs

Published 21 May 2000
Style Magazine
358th article



Manoir of speaking: Raymond Blanc, left, with Michael Winner

I've mentioned more than once how delighted I am to pay the bill for whomsoever may have the pleasure of my company at lunch or dinner. To every generality there's an exception. I had a call from my very dear friend, the wit and brilliant writer Laurence Marks. "I'd like you to have lunch with Maurice [Gran his television writing partner] and me at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons," said Laurence, suggesting a Sunday many weeks ahead. "I'll ask Nigel Dempster." That was nice: I greatly like Nige. Apparently, Messrs Marks and Dempster met on a freebie hotel trip and hit it off splendidly. Marks and Gran are famous as two of television's most successful writers and producers.

Later, Laurence phoned to confirm. "Who's coming?" I asked in case there'd been a change. The only addition was some PR lady who apparently found Laurence and Maurice luxury hotels they could travel to gratis and write kind things about in newspapers. What else can you do if someone else is footing the bill? Only I pay my way everywhere and can therefore regale you with the whole truth, however awful it may be.

I presented myself at Le Manoir with Miss Lid the Third. Already there were Mr and Mrs Marks, Mr and Mrs Gran, dear Nige and two ladies, one of whom, Jo Vickers, was the PR for Le Manoir. I have great non-admiration for people in PR. The waiter presented Laurence with the wine list. He said: "You choose. Michael." "Not likely!" I thought. "I'm not the host!" I declined. The waiter said Raymond Blanc would select the wines.

Lunch was superb. the best I've ever eaten at Le Manoir. There were eight courses, including freebies, coffee and chocs. Watercress salad with pan-fried foie gras, baked Perigord truffle in a brioche, pan-fried sea bass with toasted langoustine, roast loin of venison . . . I could go on. A waiter appeared and gave me the menu on which Raymond had written the wines. "I don't really need this," I said. "Because I won't be reviewing. This is a private visit." "Oh we'd really like you to write about it," said Ms Vickers from somewhere down the table.

Around four o'clock, Nige had to return to his office. A bit later, I decided it was time to go. "Laurence," I said, "who is paying the bill?" There was a silence. "Er . . . why don't we share it?" said Laurence. My first thought was: "I'm only two people. I didn't ask anyone here. I thought I was a guest." But I speedily put that aside. "I'll be glad to settle the bill," I said, and duly called for it. I was truly happy to pay for Laurence and his wife, Maurice and his wife and dear Nige. I presented my credit card without looking at the bill. After a while, the credit card came back and I signed it. When I got home, I saw I'd paid more than £1,000 for nine people. Nige rang me the next day. "You missed the best bit, darlink," I said. "I paid for the restaurant PR. That's unbelievable, isn't it?" "You didn't pay for one restaurant PR," said Nige. "You paid for two of them. The other lady was her assistant."

When Raymond Blanc rang, I congratulated him on the meal. He was appalled that I'd paid for his PRs and offered to reimburse me. "Please don't," I said. "It's not the money. It's just not normal for restaurant PRs to expect the food writer to pay for them."

I made my views known to Ms Vickers. "You were on duty. You were immensely quick to talk when you wanted the restaurant mentioned. When it came to the bill you stayed very silent."

"The Manoir shouldn't have put me and my assistant on bill," said Ms Vickers. "Who told them not to?" I said. "You certainly didn't." Later, Raymond sent me a cheque for £250. I made it over to my charity, the Police Memorial Trust, which puts up memorials to police officers slain on duty and is placing in The Mall a National Police memorial designed by Lord Foster.

Laurence rang me, surprised that the PR had me pay for her and her assistant. He asked if I would be his guest at the Mason Arms in South Leigh, Oxfordshire. I look forward to it, as long as no public relations people are present. Ms Vickers is doubtless preening herself. By making sure I paid for her and her assistant, she got Le Manoir written about when otherwise it would not have been. She probably considers this a triumph. I've got news for you, Ms Vickers. It isn't.



Letters

Jane Stevens (Style, May 7) has it all wrong. Children should not be allowed or tolerated in restaurants. As a parent, you spend the first 20 years bringing up the noisome brat and the next 20 keeping it out of prison. For that, they show little or no gratitude - and they expect to be taken out to eat. Children have their place. It is not in or near any civilised eatery.
David Martin Hird, by e-mail

I have always regarded Mr Winner's lifestyle with amusement rather than awe, but I fail to comprehend why he threw away the brochure given to him by Tanya Rose (Style, May 7). I cannot imagine discarding anything given to me by a lady as beautiful as Ms Rose, corporate or otherwise. Should the lady in question buy me lunch, I am sure I would cherish any correspondence.
Stephen Hiatt, Hook Norton, Oxon

Like Michael Winner, I am a great believer in complaining when things are not right - and sometimes it pays off in spectacular fashion. Last month, I booked a table for 18 in the Rib Room at the Hyatt Carlton Tower hotel to celebrate my parents' diamond wedding anniversary. I was told to call back a few days before the event. When I did so, however, I was told that they would have to put us on separate tables. I was thrown into panic and spent the whole evening searching for a restaurant that could accommodate a large party. When I eventually found one, I called the food and beverage manager at the Hyatt Carlton to let him know what I thought of his hotel. He was most concerned at what had happened and did everything he could to put things right. It was then that he and the general manager came up with a most generous offer. They arranged for a cake and flowers to be delivered to my parents' home, then a chauffeur-driven car to take them to the restaurant and back to the hotel, where they were put up in a deluxe room with superb views across London. They also laid on a meal for five in the hotel's Rib Room the following day. This sort of positive response surely demands a pat on the back for all concerned - and perhaps even a mention in Michael Winner's column.
Jo Martin, by e-mail

Would Michael Winner please do Kingston upon Thames? It's a disgrace.
Beethoven, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey

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