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Lady's man

Published 22 October 2000
Style Magazine
380th article

'Shes's perfectly sane really': Michael Winner with Lady Rogers at the River Cafe (Georgina Hristover)

The atmosphere in which you eat is important. There are many drearily designed restaurants. A good number of them seem to be by David Collins, a man who has cut a swathe of ineptitude through the past two decades of restaurant design. He's very chic, he's always with the right people at the right parties. But, oh dear, I have to sit in his glum surroundings.

I recently checked out Pierre Koffmann's La Tante Claire in the Berkeley hotel. Not to eat, just to look at. I liked Koffmann's cooking when he had three Michelin stars at premises now occupied by Gordon Ramsay. But my night there produced the worst service I have ever endured. After endless incompetence, the waiter cleared half the plates from a table of six. My American host remarked quietly: "I see they only take some of the plates away here." I got up, loudly clattered the remaining plates and cutlery on top of each other and walked them through a stunned restaurant toward the kitchen. Then I thought: "Just as I get there, a waiter will come through the door the other way and knock me over." So I plonked the dirty plates on the bar counter. After that, the service improved. Koffmann's down to two Michelin stars now, and Collins's design for his Berkeley restaurant looks tedious and cluttered.

One of London's visually fine restaurants is Orsino, in Notting Hill, designed by a firm called Munkenbeck and Marshall. Orsino's clean lines and pastel space are the work of Alfred Munkenbeck. He doesn't get asked to do restaurants now. I can't imagine why. He told me the toilets at Orsino were particularly excellent and Lord Rogers, when doing the River Cafe, asked if he could buy the same stainless-steel fittings to use in a similar way. I don't go to restaurant toilets. You never know who you might find there.

But I'm a great fan of the design and the food at the River Cafe. For nearly 14 years it has remained fresh and buzzy. The room is sort of high-tech friendly, with an enormous bar down one side where you see people cooking - in particular Lady Rogers, a lively old girl whom I meet occasionally in Vernazza. This is an enchanting village south of Portofino, where her ladyship goes to the Trattoria Gianni Franzi - one of the best Italian places in the world. There, she stays in humble accommodation, watches them cooking in the kitchen - and learns.

Another attraction at the River Cafe is the beautiful waitresses, who also manage to be efficient and charming. That's rare in waitress world. In good weather you can eat outside on a river-view terrace. When I last visited, I forgot to take my tape recorder, so within a few seconds of leaving I had completely forgotten what I'd had. But I recall thinking it was very good.

I telephoned Lady Rogers for assistance. "What did I eat?" I asked.

"I gave you antipasti," said her ladyship. "You had cima di zucca."

"What's that?" I queried.

"It's a zucca plant," said Ruth.

Her ladyship's first name is Ruth. I mix with the toffs, you know. I didn't let on I had no idea what a zucca plant was.

"Then you had fresh borlotti beans," said Ruth helpfully. "Ah yes, the white ones," I enthused.

"No, they're purple," said Ruth. "Then you had some mozzarella that I have flown in from Naples. You had summer ribolita, Tuscan bread, fresh cannellini beans, red beans, summer herbs and tomatoes." I think all that was in a soup. I didn't dare let on that it was now all beyond me.

"Then didn't you have lamb?" asked Lady Rogers.

"Did I?" I thought to myself.

Suffice it to say that I do recall clearly - which is a miracle - having on other visits some wonderful pasta, very good veal and excellent pigeon roasted with Chianti classico, parsley and garlic with chanterelles on bruschetta. On that last one, I'm cheating. I took a menu home with me. In particular, I remember the incredible desserts, including an almond and plum tart, a pressed chocolate cake with zabaglione ice cream, and many more.

The River Cafe can be tedious to get to. I have to drive to Hammersmith roundabout and then toil on that dreary road that leads to Putney Bridge. It's always traffic-jammed. Each time I go, I think: "This drive isn't worth it." Every time I leave, I think: "It was worth it."

  • PS: Doesn't Lady Rogers look nutty in the photo? She's perfectly sane really. She said to me: "Be sure to mention Rose Gray."

    "Certainly," I said, obedient as ever. "Who is she?"

    "My partner," said her ladyship.



    Michael Winner's criticism of the service at Petrus (Style, October 1) is well- founded and, if anything, understated. My wife and I were the guests there of an American friend and his family, whom we joined for dinner in early August. My host ordered some wine soon after we arrived, but, despite assurances from passing staff, we had to wait more than 50 minutes for it to arrive. As I was eating lamb, I asked if I could have potato with my main course and only after some ill-natured quibbling did they agree. It was made clear, however, that nobody else could have one. When it came, it appeared like a fried tomato that had been dissected. Otherwise, both food and wine were delicious, although the ambience of the evening was ruined by the arrogance of the staff, which left a thoroughly bad taste in our mouths.
    David Morgan, London

    While partaking of lunch at The Ivy recently as part of my 30th birthday celebrations, I was languishing in disappointment at the just-above-average quality of the food and indifferent service, when in walked the man who stands up for standards, accompanied by the ubiquitous Georgina. My mood was immediately lifted, although I bet Mr Winner didn't have to wait half an hour for his starter as I did.
    Mrs Julie Rothwell, Preston

    Last month my wife and I stayed at the lovely Sheen Falls Lodge in Kenmare, Co Kerry, and, having complained to the very smart (in more ways than one) sommelier about a corked bottle of Chablis Premier Cru, we were informed that the wine was as it should be, and that "when one is very tired, good wine can taste corked". It was 8.30pm and my wife and I were far from tired. I was charged £56 for a bottle of undrinkable wine and never having heard the one about "tired-wine-drinking-person syndrome" thought that I would share this bit of expensive information.
    John Filbee, by e-mail

    I cannot fathom Michael Winner's view of Harry's Bar in Venice, as it is little more than a theme park for wealthy tourists. An hour and a half after arriving, and about £240 poorer, you are ushered out past a shop selling merchandise with the Harry's Bar logo. All in all, just like Disneyland.
    David Tymm, Thaxted, Essex

    Michael Winner is outrageous, repulsive, and totally addictive.
    Joan Austen-Leigh, Victoria, Canada

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