Published 18 June 2000 Style Magazine 362nd article
Most welcome: from left, Nino Sassu, Michael Winner and Peitro Fraccari at Assaggi (Miss Lid the Third)
Someone I greatly admire (me) once wrote: "The ambience created by restaurant staff is vastly important. After all, you meet the staff before you meet the food. Sometimes a very long time indeed before you meet the food."
Contrary to myth and legend, I am extremely docile in restaurants. I thank everyone endlessly. I talk quietly. I'm a model of decorum. Only on very rare occasions do I become snappy. This happened recently at the Mirabelle. I'm a great admirer of the restaurant, but not of its general manager, Fred Serol.
I once telephoned to ask if I could have a certain table, to which Fred replied: "I'll do my best." I found this highly annoying. I didn't care if he did his worst. All I wanted was an answer. Do I get that particular table or not? If not. I'd happily go somewhere else. Eventually, I got it, but was left feeling a great favour had been done.
So when I was asked to dinner there by the owner, Marco Pierre White, and his wife, Mati, I wasn't that keen. I received a surly "Good evening, Mr Winner" from Fred Serol; no mention of Miss Lid, who was with me. Then, as we entered the restaurant itself to wait at the table, a young, junior manager greeted me. He smiled warmly. "Good evening, Mr Winner," he said. "Nice to see you again." When I got to the table I decided silence was not golden. "Fred," I said, "you're a dreadful maitre d'. Your greetings are surly at best. I suggest you go to that young man there [I pointed to the fellow who'd met me nicely] and learn how to greet people."
Later Marco and Mati joined us. I didn't mention this minor incident, but obviously Fred had told Marco. Because when he stood by the table later, Marco said: "So Winner had a go at you, Fred."
"I'll tell you something, Mr Serol, which may surprise you," I said. "You will not develop a serious illness if you smile. Nothing untoward will happen. You should try it sometime."
It's odd that Marco Pierre White so often employs non-charming restaurant managers. He had a man called Max at the Oak Room who could have depressed a £10m lottery winner with one glance. By contrast, Marco himself is the most charming of people. I've seen him work his restaurants many times, smiling at customers, being thoroughly pleasant. And Mati, whom I met when she was working at the Canteen, is the best receptionist in the world. Her smile lights up the place.
This set me to thinking of other meeters and greeters who know how to do it. One of my favourites is Colin Smith, the owner of Chez Moi. He won the Outstanding London Host Award from Carlton. "I can’t believe it, Colin," I said. "You never say anything and when you do it's so quiet that nobody can hear it."
"I was a little surprised myself," said Colin with his half smile. He's terrific really. And there are lots of others. Fernando Peire, once a stalwart at The Ivy, but now at Quo Vadis, got my Best Maitre D' Award. He greets you with real warmth and interest. And Jimmy Lahoud's man at the Belvedere, Jean-Christophe Slowik, proves not all Frenchmen are snooty. He's a delight.
Dougal Spratt at Orsino's is good; he has a nice diffident way of making you feel welcome. So do Michael, John and Simon at the Dorchester Grill. Mohamed Ibrahim, the Egyptian in charge of the Japanese Hiroko in Kensington, beams delightfully.
Raj Sharma, who was at Zaika and now wanders around hosting for the group, is superb. Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin know how to stroll through Le Caprice, The Ivy and Sheekey's spreading happiness. And all their staff are first-rate.
Moving into the world of legendary greeters, I'd place Mara Berni at San Lorenzo very high on the list. Plus the food there is excellent. Johnny Gold at Tramp is an Olympic gold medal greeter, so is Peter Crome at Chewton Glen. He always manages a deprecating, funny remark.
But my award for Greatest Greeter goes to Pietro Fraccari at Assaggi. He has that wondrous Italian quality that makes everyone feel special. They keep his partner, chef Nino Sassu, out of the restaurant a lot of the time now. Nino can get a little overagitated by the customers. He once had the cheek to phone me at 8.12pm to check why I was late for an 8 o'clock table reservation. I arrived two minutes later. But Nino's wonderful as well. I admire him greatly. Just don't get on the wrong side of him.
On his visit to Il Bottaccio (Style, June 4), Michael Winner remarks: "To sit among the beauties of Italy in what is no more than an enlarged garage or small aircraft hangar is a total waste of time." Who were these Italian beauties? And what did Miss Lid make of them?
Tom James, Westbury, Wilts
I have just glimpsed Michael Winner's column from May 28, and if I ever doubted his impeccable good taste, I am now in no doubt whatsoever. The photograph showed him proudly displaying his housekeeper Donata's splendid pear and almond tart. What some readers may not have noticed, however, is that it also featured an equally splendid set of talking salt and pepper shakers. When Mr Pepper sneezes "At-choo!", Miss Salt responds "Bless you!" True style will always show through.
Christina Nelson-Boyes, Brighton
Why do restaurants tell you that they are full at a certain time, only for you to arrive later and discover empty tables galore? The London Bridge branch of Fish! did this to me recently, insisting I had to come after 10pm. I was a regular, but I won't be going there again, at any time of day or night.
R Hudson, London
A large bottle of mineral water at the Mise en Place brasserie in Bluewater, Kent, will set you back a cool £4.50. Is this a UK record?
Nigel Hess, by e-mail
On a recent visit to Tunisia, we were fortunate enough to stumble across a small eatery, the Sultan restaurant, in the centre of Sousse. It was frequented by locals, which is always a good sign. We were served a stupendous soup made of chicken gizzards, livers and hearts, some gorgeous crusty bread, spit-roasted chicken and a memorable salad of pickled vegetables with heaps of olives. To drink there was ice-cold, luminous-orange Fanta, as sweet as honey. And all it cost was a few dinars. Needless to say, we did go back.
S Aslam, e-mail
On Mr Winner's frequent sojourns in the South of France, has he perchance come across a stand-up takeaway called Le Winner? This is in a particularly insalubrious sector of Nice and I am sure would benefit enormously from one of his imperial visits. Or perhaps it is already one of his own subdivisions?
Michael Sinel, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France