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Mark my words

Published 18 March 2001
Style Magazine
401st article



Sitting pretty: Michael Winner outside Harry's Bar, South Audley Street, Mayfair (Georgina Hristova)

The posh people of London, the truly stylish, the highly elegant, the seriously rich, should erect a statue to the amazingly nice Mr Mark Birley. He's done more to satisfy their extravagances than any other person in catering, although to describe Mark as "in catering", which he is, diminishes his true worth. Mark's three famous establishments are London clubs. That stops the rubbish getting in. The fact that I managed to become a member of Mark's Club, his fine dining place in Mayfair, I still rate as an achievement. Unfortunately, my stay didn't last long. I paid my membership and first year's subscription promptly, as always, then kept getting letters saying: "Would you please pay up?" The money had long gone from my bank to theirs. By the time they apologised, I'd decided not to risk confusion over every bill and resigned.

Mark's Club is as masterful an English restaurant as you'll find. It's in a building where Ziggy Sessler once ran a club. He was a fat, beaming host who attracted the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and other luminaries in the 1950s. Mark bought the place from his widow. For the past decade, he's employed Bruno Rotti, the greatest restaurant manager in the world. Bruno graced Claridge's for 25 years until, as he put it, "An 18-year-old food and beverage manager came and intruded on the meal service with stupid questions." Bruno was an enormous loss to Claridge's, which, while still a terrific hotel, is tarting up, often in very strange, airport-lounge taste, what was once a superb and unified interior design. Why people can't just restore marvellous historic buildings, I do not know.

Near Mark's Club, in a Berkeley Square basement, is the discotheque Annabel's, which Mark opened in 1963. It offers the same gentleman's club atmosphere, with excellent food and dancing for elderly toffs and, on occasion, younger ones as well. Probably the most attended and talked-about venue in Mark's collection is Harry's Bar, in South Audley Street. A few yards away, on the corner of Mount Street, Mark Birley is building yer another club. I'm told it will be called George's.

As with all Mark's establishments, there's no sign outside Harry's Bar indicating what's inside. Just the the number 26 on a canopy. I was taken there recently by my Friends David and Wendy. David asked me not to reveal his second name. I'm not surprised, really. He lives in St John's Wood. If I lived in St John's Wood, I wouldn't want my second name made public either.

Harry's Bar, a la Birley, is a very, very good Italian restaurant, but not a patch on the real Harry's Bar in Venice. There's no connection between the two. There's one serious problem with London's Harry's Bar. It's furnished for small children. This is odd, as most of the guests, being rich, are quite large and tat. The chairs are tiny, the space between tables is minimal, it's vastly overcrowded and noisy. You expect that with Terence Conran. But at the highly prestigious Harry's Bar, it's surprising. I once said: "I don't see why I should wear a tie to sit in such a tiny chair."

The restaurant is always packed with glitterati. At the next table were the Duchess of York, my old school friend Prince Rupert von Lowenstein and the TV writer Jeremy Lloyd, who played upper-class twits in my early movies.

The slices of salami and ham, and cheese straws, which started our meal, were of exceptional quality. Georgina had asparagus with shrimps and peas, which she described as "delicious". I had asparagus with a fried egg, parmesan and truffles. It was fine. The bellinis were good, but nowhere near the quality of the Venice Harry's Bar, where they were invented.

My main course was tagliatelle verde with cheese. David, the man with no second name, had veal. Wendy, his television-producer wife, also with no second name, had swordfish with artichoke hearts, chopped onions and tomatoes. "Fantastic," she said.

Waiters kept bumping into me as they walked by. The adjacent table, laid for four people, was suddenly relaid for six. A very plastic-surgeried group sat there. "Tammy Wynette's arrived," said Wendy. Tammy, in case you didn't know, is dead. "This is a show. I love it," added Wendy. "It's like dinner theatre." Then, after checking out how crowded it was: "This is like a health hazard."

My dessert was a deeply memorable apple strudel. I eventually prised myself away and onto the pavement. That's where I had my photo taken later - in front of Harry's Bar. I'm sitting on a shooting stool bought 10 years ago from Holland & Holland. At last I have found a use for it.



Letters

In his article Essex Appeal (Feb 25), Michael Winner described the clientele of Asia de Cuba as "a lot of Essex-type people". I asked several Essex friends - farmers, fisherfolk, oyster-growers, owners of stately homes and rural cottages, and inhabitants of such lovely old towns as Saffron Walden and Castle Hedingham -and none could understand the point he was trying to make. Were any of the customers really from Essex, I wonder? Or does Mr Winner actually mean (sotto voce) "working-class"?
Jon Simons, by e-mail

If George T Lemos's meal at Joe Allen (Mar 4) was as bad as he described, why on earth did he ask for his bill without complaining? I fear that it is this sort of attitude (accept substandard food or service, then complain about it elsewhere afterwards) that allows bad service to remain a part of British culture.
David Gerrard, by e-mail

I did like Mr K Maddox's letter (Mar 4) about the waiter who, when asked what the catch of the day was, responded: "Fish." I was dining at Gee's, Banbury Road, Oxford, some time ago, and asked the waiter what type the fino sherry was. He responded: "Dry."
Mrs L Belcher, Woodstock, Oxfordshire

In the summer of 1994, I took lunch at Pierre Koffmann's La Tante Claire in Chelsea -an experience so enjoyable that I still take pleasure in reflecting on the day. Dinner at the restaurant's new location in the Berkeley hotel was a different story, however. I made two phone calls to make and confirm the booking, and the receptionist called again to confirm that we would be taking it up. When we arrived, however, our name couldn't be found on the booking chart. After a wait and much hurried whispering, we were finally allowed in and given a table. Bad mistake. We were obviously unwelcome and were made to feel so. The cooking was generally as good as it should be, although the pithivier of truffles was greasy and unappetising. But the supercilious and patronising treatment by the staff meant that, all in all, it was a very expensive disappointment, aggravated by a mandatory service charge. The final insult? A glass of house red wine brought to the table with the words "with the compliments of La Tante Claire" appeared on the bill at £9. Never again.
Malcolm F Beall, by e-mail