Published 3 September 2000 Style Magazine 373rd article
Stairway to Devon: Michael Winner with, from left, Catherine Endacott, Paul Henderson and Michael Caines (Georgina Hristova)
What I like about Devon is that it's not the home counties. You feel you really are somewhere else. You can drive for miles and not see very much. In fact, a great deal of the time you can see nothing at all, except high hedgerows that tower over the one-track lanes. Set in the heart of it all is Gidleigh Park, a deservedly famous hotel with a Michelin two-star restaurant. I'd been wanting to visit for a while. When a gap appeared in their regular bookings, I got one room for £160 a night, including full breakfast and dinner. It was a nice room, but the one next door was better because it had a balcony. I was able to check this out as they don't give you keys at Gidleigh Park, on the assumption everyone is unbelievably honest. Even in Devon this strikes me as optimistic.
The hotel is a fake Tudor 1920s Surrey-style mansion. There's a stream outside and it's all pleasantly well worn, with weeds (or were they flowers?) peeping out between cracks in the paving stones. Cat's hair is spread over the armchairs. This upset Georgina because she got her black trouser suit messed up. A couple from New York tried to strike up a conversation, but I decided against it. I was in shock when the owner of the hotel, a neat, professorial American, Paul Henderson, explained it was the legendary jazz pianist George Shearing and his wife. I'd loved to have heard a few tales from him.
We started with a superb Devon tea. Best scones ever, great clotted cream, wonderful home-made jam, historic biscuits and pleasant sandwiches that were overfilled. The banana cake was poor, the chocolate cake just good. You sit on a lovely terrace overlooking the view.
The general manager, Catherine Endacott, is totally devoted. She walks quickly, with purpose. The hotel is obviously her life. "We don't reserve seats in the dining room," she advised. "That's all right, Catherine," I said. "I'll go now and leave a bar of soap and an old shoe on the table to show it's occupied." "Don't worry," said Catherine. "I'll fix it." I pointed helpfully to the table I wanted fixed.
The room literature advised that she and the chef, Michael Caines, owned the hotel. "Catherine's not a proprietor and Caines isn't either," said Paul later. "But it's in your guest book," I said. "I didn't proofread it," said Paul. Shortly thereafter I met Michael Caines. "Why are you giving me a left-handed handshake?" I asked rather tartly. "Because I lost my right arm in a car accident last year," he explained. That shut me up. They certainly did a wonderful matching job on the false arm.
There are two small dining rooms at Gidleigh. The guests talk in hushed whispers. The service is efficient but impersonal. I missed someone greeting and checking up on things, like Peter Crome does at Chewton Glen. This lack of human touch may have been because Mrs Henderson (the owner's wife) was laid up with a bad leg and the restaurant manager was on holiday.
Paul's much into wine. Georgina doesn't drink, so I only buy half a bottle. As I'm used to exceptionally good wines, many places let me carry my home-bought halves with me. A Pemis here, a Chateau Latour there. Paul suggested an Italian Gaja Barbaresco 1988 at £52.50. "That's what it would fetch at auction," he told me. I checked with Christie's, where Tony Thompson told me it fetches £40 a bottle, plus commission and Vat. I make that £24 a half-bottle. Still, a 220% mark-up is less than usual.
The food was good; not up to the Michelin two-star level of Gordon Ramsay, but commendable. We had lobster fricassee. The lobster was less tasty than one from Highcliffe that I ate recently at Chewton Glen; the sauce was okay. Georgina disagreed. "It was a superb dish," she announced firmly.
I didn't understand why, on my last breakfast, they cut up my overcooked kipper and laid the slices on top of each other. Massively inferior to the morning before.
One night, a group at the next table included a worse-for-drink English couple. The man, noticing me, kept saying very loudly: "So I wrote my restaurant review." His wife hissed: "Be quiet!" They then talked and laughed so raucously that, when the waiters came with our first course, I'd already risen. "Follow me, folks," I said, and walked to the adjacent dining room. Even there, I heard this shrill, very British couple through the walls.
"They weren't guests," said Paul afterwards. "Good," I said. "I won't have to eat out in future." I'm not sure whether Paul considered that a plus or a minus.
Was Mr Winner trying to walk on water when he wet his exquisite Bally suede shoes at Hallsands (Style, August 20)? As a mere mortal, I always take the precaution of removing my footwear before striding into the sea.
Carol Daly, Norwich
A few weeks ago, I tried to book a table for two at Sugar Reef in London, and was a little surprised when I was asked to provide my fax number. When I inquired why, I was told that it was so they could send me a reservation form to secure my booking. I received the said fax stipulating the restaurant's terms and conditions, which were a little one-sided to say the least, and frankly ridiculous for a reservation for two. I was then asked to complete the fax, return it to the restaurant and phone again to confirm my booking. I was understandably a little peeved and sent them a letter cancelling my booking and explaining how I thought the whole procedure was completely over the top. Could Sugar Reef be in cahoots with BT? The profits from all these extra phone calls and faxes must be immense.
Rebekah Selman, London
I recently treated my fiancee to dinner at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. The seven-course dinner was "very nice", although no more than that. The biggest disappointment with Le Manoir, however, was the canapes. Salted peanuts and black olives are very acceptable on the bar of my local of a Sunday lunchtime, but surely not at Le Manoir. Come on, M Blanc, do you really feel that you can get away with this?
Christopher Paul Savage, by e-mail
I am always shocked when diners fail to wash their hands after using restaurant toilets. Imagine my horror, therefore, when I discovered that one such "diner" in a north London restaurant was, in fact, a member of the waiting staff. I didn't wish to make a scene, but nor did I wish to eat from a plate that had been handled by this unsavoury woman, so I promptly left. Surely restaurant staff are required to have at least a rudimentary understanding of hygiene.
S Thomas, London
I noticed in the news section of your esteemed organ (August 20) that Gordon Ramsay reckoned he could provide a full NHS dinner for less than £1.50 per patient. So how come you can't get out of his restaurant for less than £40 a head? A Williams, by e-mail
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