Published 9 July 2000 Style Magazine 365th article
Stony silence: from left, Michael Winner, Gerry Stonhill and Laurence Marks (Georgina Hristova)
Robert Warner of Woodstock, Oxfordshire, wrote a letter that sadly there was no room to publish. Reading I was going to the nearby Mason Arms in South Leigh, as guest of my friend the television writer Laurence Marks, Mr Warner said: "You will either love it or loathe it." I loathed it. It was the most extraordinary meal I've ever had. Not because of the food, but because of the bizarre behaviour of the "host", Gerry Stonhill, and his waiter, Roger Castel.
It started as soon as I drove into the car park. Laurence Marks came to greet me. Our party of four were the only people lunching. Mr Stonhill posed studiously in front of a Harley-Davidson, making no attempt to acknowledge my arrival. When he spoke, it was to say how much he loved the motorbike.
On the exterior pub wall, a large sign reads: Gerry Stonhill's "Individual" Mason Arms. Gerry explained: "It's individual, because I run the place exactly as I want to." Anyone who has to put up a sign telling people they're "individual" has problems.
The pub itself is vastly, but not unpleasantly, overdecorated. There are photos, plates, prints, books, stuffed birds, carefully placed cigar boxes and, pretentiously laid out on a table, "every armagnac from 1919 to 1993", explained Marks.
A photo of Edward G Robinson was signed, "To Eddie Paso". I asked Gerry how he got that, Edward G being one of my all-time favourite movie stars. "I bought it because he's smoking a cigar," said Gerry. "Who is he?" Thus are the mighty fallen.
Problems started when we sat down. We were given two menus for four people. Mr Castel said they only had two menus, Gerry said they had five. So, after asking, we got one each. There was a large pat of butter on the table - wrapped. Why should I have to unwrap butter? Laurence Marks didn't get the fresh orange juice he ordered. Gerry showed us some thin asparagus, which he said he preferred. I like it thicker, but ordered it anyway.
Some very fresh-looking fish was brought in. Georgina (she no longer wishes to be known as Miss Lid the Third, there's ingratitude!) ordered sea bass. I had a side order of black foot jabugo ham at £15. Very good. I found the asparagus undercooked, but other people might have liked it. I asked for some melted butter, and Roger Castel said dismissively, "It was cooked in butter." I don't care if it was cooked in Dulux paint. If I ask for extra butter, just give it to me. Gerry did.
I declined the highly recommended duck because it was precooked, then taken off the bone and reheated, which sounded ghastly. I ordered cottage pie. The bread was not warm and very cloying.
Mrs Marks, a delightful former Miss Germany called Brigitte, said the chips were legendary. Gerry went on about the potatoes being wrong, but they were excellent anyway. Georgina asked for tomato ketchup. This produced another burst of rudeness from Roger Castel. "You want ketchup? Do we have ketchup? You don't want it for the fish, do you?" and so on.
"Never mind the smart remarks, just get the lady some ketchup, please," I interjected. I see no reason to put down a girl because she asks for something the waiter doesn't approve of. She wanted to dip the chips in ketchup, and good luck to her.
The whole meal was mined by constant, pathetic repartee from Gerry or Mr Castel. I came to have lunch with my friend Laurence Marks, a quiet-spoken gent who's always interesting. Not to participate in buffoon dialogue with the staff.
I told Gerry I found his waiter putting down Georgina to be deeply offensive. He snapped back. When it came to the dessert, he carried on the charade. Gerry recommended queen of puddings. "What's that, please?" I asked. "You don't know what queen of puds is?" expostulated Gerry, as if dealing with a halfwit. "I can't believe you don't know what it is!"
"Could you tell me?" I repeated. "Well, it's got strawberry jam," replied Gerry as if explaining how to spell "cat" to an idiot child. "Then it's meringue on top, some cake underneath . . . you really mean you don't know what queen of puds is?" The experience was approaching major nausea. Luckily, the pudding itself was very good, as was my cottage pie. For the finale, Gerry led me into his toilet to see a crude colour cartoon of naked men and women he'd bought in France. I glanced at it, then made an excuse and left.
The problem with Gerry is someone obviously told him he was a character and he believed them. That was a mistake.
Michael Winner (Style, July 2) describes his technique for getting his coffee ahead of the queue - he goes to whomever is at the front of it, offers to pay for their refreshments and adds his own to the tray - and says that "everyone leaves happy". Surely not. What about the other people waiting in line, who are delayed for a measurable number of seconds by these negotiations and upset by a flagrant breach of the standard British regulations on queuing, developed, like our constitution, over many generations? If he is going to continue this practice, surely he must pay for everyone in the queue.
Steve Randle, Royal Leamington Spa.
In June last year, spurred on by Michael Winner's expert advice, I reserved a Saturday evening table at the Ivy as part of our wedding-anniversary celebrations. The experience could not have been more disappointing. The food was minuscule and half-cooked, the wine was poor and the service sparse and dismissive. We even experienced a lipstick-stained wineglass. The only celebrity we saw, or rather heard, was Chris Evans. That summed up the evening. This year we decided to return to the Waterside Inn at Bray. There is little perfection in the restaurant trade, but this is where you will find it. If Michael Winner wishes to be taken seriously as a restaurant critic, he should distinguish between the mediocre and the supreme.
Bill Vernon, by e-mail.
Recently, a waiter at the River Cafe in Hammersmith took away a bottle of wine from our table that had about 1in of wine in it, and proceeded to pour this into a glass, presumably for himself to drink! He was not sensible enough to do this out of my sight, and when confronted couldn't defend his actions. The management was terribly apologetic and took the price of the bottle off the bill - but left on the 12.5% service charge.
Martin Barnbrook, Chiswick, London.
As you are a regular visitor to Barbados, I thought I would share the delightful experience enjoyed by my wife a few weeks ago at the Sandpiper hotel, on the west coast. She ordered the fruit plate for breakfast, served on our balcony, and lifted a piece of grapefruit to find a used sticking plaster underneath, which had obviously fallen off somebody's finger. I wrote to the managing director, who replied it had never happened before and that the kitchens are inspected quarterly - so that's all right, then.
Geoff Woolley, by e-mail?