Published 6 August 2000 Style Magazine 369th article
Family circle: from left, Michael Winner, Ernst Andrea Scherz Jr and Ernst Andrea Scherz Sr (Georgina Hristova)
I was eating some exceptional chocolate cookies and listening to the orchestra in the elegant lounge of Claridge's when their general manager. Christopher Cowdray, upset me. He didn't mean to. He thought he was giving me good news. "We're going to redecorate and refurnish this area," he said. He mentioned a designer who did homes rather than hotels and some figure in millions that would be spent. "Why, if I may ask," I said with uneasy calm, "are you doing that?" "Because it looks a bit worn," said Christopher. That hadn't occurred to me, but it could be true. So what? I like worn. I much prefer it to new, shiny, glossy. Certain hotels have particular charm because they are not super-recently done out. They look lived-in. Claridge's is one of them. I greatly approve of it as it is.
Another hotel lounge I admire is in the Palace Hotel, Gstaad. It's very large and the old leather sofas into which you sink are probably so "sinkable" because too many people sat in them before. I am not aware of plans to redo the Palace. I hope there aren't any. The lounge has incredible views of the snow-clad mountains. Unless, of course, you're there in summer, in which case the mountains are alive with flowers and trees. It looks very much like the setting for an Agatha Christie murder mystery: an enormous log fire, a bar and the feeling that, one by one, all the guests are going to be knocked off.
The Palace has the splendid individuality of a place run by owners on the premises, in this case Ernst Andrea Seherz, numbers one and two. Number two is junior, who's being groomed to take over. The terrace of the Palace is one of the great places in the world. It faces snowy peaks and you sit in the hot sun on a winter's day eating bolito misto con salsa verde, pommes nature, legumes preferees - or even curried chicken. The interior dining room, like the hotel - a fake castle built in 1913 - is from the past. Old ladies sit alone with their jewellery. Even I happily put on a tie.
But I was disturbed on a recent visit. Although the service, led by Gildo Bocchini, and the food, prepared by Peter Wyss, were as good as ever, the guests seemed a bit degraded. Gildo came over to chastise me as if it were my fault. "Can't you get your fellow Englishmen to put their jackets on?" he asked, referring to a group from which two men had come to greet me, even though I didn't know them. They sat in shirtsleeves; mercifully they wore ties. I was relieved when four Frenchmen entered without jackets or ties. My responsibility for the worst-dressed was over.
The Palace suites maintain the hotel's charming oddity. Strange blue sofas had been added to my usual area, but the rest looked like a pine shop on a moderate day. It was so not like a normal hotel that I loved it. The view down onto the chalets and the mountains beyond the village was stunning as ever.
I only register one complaint to Messrs Scherz and Scherz. On a number of occasions the lounge, the jewel in the crown of the Palace, was not available. It had been let out for a wedding or other function. That ain't fair! The guests, in paying for their accommodation, also pay for the use of public rooms. To deny them the only large space on the ground floor is equivalent to renting it out twice. I can understand the lure of the Swiss franc, but the Scherzes run such a great place that they should resist the temptation to bar their guests from the most important part of it.
I now switch from hills alive with the sound of music to Oxfordshire, and the dire pub run by Gerry Stonhill. His Mason Arms is the other end of the charm scale to the Palace, Gstaad. I recall Mr Stonhill - "the host with the least" - boasting that Marco Pierre White ate there, the implication being that the fastidious Marco came, saw and adored. "I thought it was appalling," said Marco, when I told him his name was being used as a recommendation. "Stonhill is incredibly arrogant, it's all pretentious, it's obviously run by a non-restaurateur. I was a guest. I couldn't wait to get out of the place." The owners of the Sir Charles Napier at Chinnor also spoke of Marco's visit with pride. He hated that, too. So when a letter to this page related that Raymond Blanc eats at the Mason Arms, I knew not what that meant. Even though I know what it was meant to mean.
I am surprised that Michael Winner has never come across queen of puddings before his trip to the Mason Arms (Style, July 9). Like bread pudding, it is a good way of using up stale loaves. Doubtless this is why you were not told the ingredients - it doesn't look good to charge restaurant prices for a pudding that costs so little to make.
Anna Lund, Newark, Notts
I feel I must offer my heartfelt congratulations to Michael on his recent (secret) knighthood. On breakfast television recently, featuring the first night report of The Witches of Eastwick, various celebrities were grabbed for vox pop pieces on the way out of the theatre. One was our very own Michael Winner - only the graphic flashed on screen read: "Sir Michael Winner, Film Director." Have I missed something in the press on this auspicious annointment? Or have the BBC Breakfast News team let the cat out of the bag a few months too early? Whatever, please assure us it won't change you, Michael.
Gareth Owen, by e-mail
Would that Michael Winner had been with me and my girlfriends on a recent visit to the Asia de Cuba restaurant at St Martins Lane hotel in London. I'd love to have seen his face. The minute we sat down, we were told in no uncertain terms that we had to vacate our table in two hours. The pressure was on to eat as quickly as possible. The food bordered on the mediocre and the fish wasn't even cooked through - the chef perhaps had to get it out in a hurry to keep the waiting staff happy. At the end of our meal, before our credit cards had even been returned to us, the heavy brigade moved in. A large waiter, who looked like a security guard, told us we must vacate our table immediately as he had people who had been waiting for 45 minutes. A shouting match ensued. It was an insufferable experience and one that I intend never to repeat.
Holly Browne, by e-mail
What has happened to the Canteen at Chelsea Harbour in London? Both the telephone and fax numbers seem to have been discontinued and the only listing Directory Enquiries has for a Canteen turns out to be a caff in 'ackney. Has the Canteen's former co-owner Michael Caine gone back to his roots since news of his knighthood?
Terry Harrison, by e-mail