Published 10 February 2002 Style Magazine 448th article
'Friendly': from left, John Wade, Michael Winner and Michael DiFiore (Georgina Hristova)
Claridge's has ceased to house a normal restaurant. By which I mean one that is perspicuous and not lorded over by arrogant Frenchmen who view customers as an inferior intrusion. Compared to Claridge's, the essential Britishness of the Grill Room at the Dorchester, with its quiet, friendly staff and a menu you can understand without a degree in pretension, shines even brighter. The food includes simple offerings such as a mixed grill, fillet steak and even Cumberland sausages with sage mash and onion sauce. There are more complex items if you prefer them. To eat like that at Claridge's, you'd be exiled to the lounge.
I wonder, when the Americans start travelling again, if they'll welcome, as home from home, a place where, if you don't want to be immersed in pomposity and over-elaborate fare, you have to go to small tables in a sitting area and lump it. It is there the old Claridge's chef, John Williams, is permitted to present his cooking, once served in the real dining room. I strongly recommend the Dorchester Grill, both for the food, excellently prepared by Henry Brosi, and because you can witness a restaurant run as a restaurant should be. Efficiently, calmly, with great charm and apparently without effort - although we know quality presentation requires both effort and vigilance. At its heart is the restaurant manager, Michael DiFiore. He's the best of his ilk practising in London. Michael is well assisted by John Wade, a young man who occasionally adds a zinger to the conversation, but never exceeds the bounds of decorum.
The Grill Room is a wonderfully kitsch version of a Spanish castle, with much gilt on the ceiling, red curtains, red-plush chairs and banquettes. It's like a 1930s Hollywood film set. I expect Errol Flynn to swing from a chandelier and sword-fence on the wooden tables. Or be with Lily Damita in a candlelit corner. The daily lunch at £22 is a snip. On Sunday, it's £32.50, including the finest smoked salmon, Angus roast beef, petits fours, coffee, the lot. I'm a frequent visitor and have been for more than 50 years. It's marvellously unchanged and reliable.
It's difficult to find employee restaurant managers with great skill. There are many restaurant owners who host their places splendidly: the tireless Mara Berni at San Lorenzo, whispering Colin Smith at Chez Moi, convivial Pietro Fraccari at Assaggi and beaming Valerie Calzolari at Scalini, with his joke cup of plastic coffee that he pretends is going all over you. But there isn't anyone paid to do the job who stands out like Michael DiFiore.
You get a marvellous mix of dress and guest at the Dorchester Grill, from T-shirted young Americans to finely dressed ladies. I've even seen those wonderful characters Dermot Desmond and JP McManus in a cluster with their other Sandy Lane hotel partners. It was Pierre Vacher, the best ever Sandy Lane manager, who said to me: "The great thing about Sandy Lane is that you know, every day, something will go wrong. That's part of its charm." Thus it remains. It is, overall, a magical place, hugely improved by the generous intervention of Messrs Desmond and McManus. It also demonstrated recently how a restaurant should not be run.
Georgina and I were sitting on the terrace, having returned from a pleasing dinner at the Lone Star. We wanted two cups of tea, hardly an overambitious order. There were three other couples, all of us adjacent to Sandy Lane's excellent restaurant, L'Acajou. I'd been extremely unimpressed with the restaurant manager, Ross Culpan, when I ate there. Now he stood at his upright desk at L'Acajou's entrance. Ross took over from a highly efficient Bajan, Emmanuel Ward, who left to run his own place. After 16¼ minutes, a waitress appeared. I ordered two red-berry teas with honey. Eleven minutes later, nothing had happened. I walked over to Mr Culpan, who'd been looking at his reservations book and chatting to his assistant. "Who's in charge of this area of the terrace?" I asked. "I am," said Mr Culpan. "You're doing an absolutely dreadful job," I said. "It shouldn't take over 27 minutes not to get tea, while you stand here facing us, doing nothing." I returned to my table, passing a young couple. "The service here is terrible," the man called out. "We're so glad it happens to you as well as us."
When our tea arrived, it was without teaspoons and extra hot water. I later asked Colm Harmon, Sandy Lane's boss, where he'd found Mr Culpan. "He was running food and beverage at the National Gallery in London," said Mr Hannon. "That figures," I replied.
After a recent dinner at one of London's better restaurants, I was very ill during the night. In the morning, I called the restaurant, as I thought the poached oysters I had eaten were the most likely cause. Ten days later, I received a letter from the manager, saying that nobody else had complained. He also enclosed a copy of the restaurant's cookbook, and pointed out that there was a recipe on page 217 that I would enjoy. On turning to the page, I found - a recipe for oysters.
Rosemary McNamara, London N1
One of Mr Winner's correspondents recently offered some advice: "He should get out more." On the contrary, I think he should stay in more.
Ken Ronson, Doncaster
Two thousand pounds a night for bed and breakfast? We have a saying in the north of England: "A fool and his money are soon parted."
Jean Akroyd, Halifax
Michael Winner was mildly peeved by the shortcomings of the Bajan Blue restaurant (January 27). He would have been apoplectic if he had ventured a few miles down the road to the absurdly overpriced Mango's. On arrival, I was greeted by a CD blasting out Here Comes Santa Claus and a medley of Christmas hits - it was mid-January. I asked if one of the starters, Caribbean blackened shrimp, could be converted into a main. When it came, it had exactly the same number of shrimps as the starter version, but was twice the price. I pointed this out to the manager, who shrugged and said: "I didn't count them personally."
Charlie Catchpole, Surrey
The lady butler seems to have been fortunate in entering Chris Rea's room at Sandy Lane (January 27). She could have entered Michael Winner's unannounced, and found him in his underpants.
Neil Mitchell, Nottingham
I am a great fan of the column, but have difficulty in discerning just what it is that makes a good or bad table for Michael Winner. Obviously, a position by the door/ kitchen/lavatory is not a good thing, but other than that, is his preference for corner tables, wall tables or island tables? How about tables facing the entrance (in order to greet acquaintances) or the kitchen (to summon waiters)? I would appreciate more information so that I can hone my skills as a demanding diner, after Winner's style.
Kerry Weisselberg, Wheaton Aston, Staffs