Published 31 March 2002 Style Magazine 455th article
On another planet: from left, Robert Earl, Marco Pierre White, Bernard Manning and Michael Winner (Big Pictures)
When London's Planet Hollywood opened in May 1993, Marie Helvin, a bright and inveterate party-goer, said to me: "It's the first party I've ever been to which was a nine on the way in and a two once you got inside."
She was right. Coventry Street was closed, stars were interviewed on a pavement stage, there were searchlights and much hype. Inside, just very ordinary canapes, far too many people for comfort and - worst of all - Bruce Willis sang. Bruce may be an excellent singer, but he and his band were so loud, it hurt the eardrums. All conversation became impossible. Shortly after he commenced, I left.
Planet Hollywood shot as high as its three star "partners". Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis. It was a wow on the New York stock exchange, its shares went into the stratosphere - then collapsed. The glitter faded and the group went, twice, into Chapter 11: a form of bankruptcy protection normally followed by wipe-out.
It's an immense credit to Robert Earl, the Planet's founder, that it hasn't faded from the scene. Robert lost Schwarzenegger, but recruited Britney Spears to his support trilogy, and when I recently visited London's Planet Hollywood, it was heaving. There were enormous crowds waiting to get in. It certainly didn't look like a business in trouble.
An item extraordinaire was the addition of Marco Pierre White. He's some sort of partner in the London enterprise. The menu reads: "We are delighted to tell you that Marco now offers from his world-wide repertoire organic rib-eye steak (£14.95), served with sauce bearnaise and French fries"; also "mediterranean chicken brochette (£12.95), a skewer of farm-raised chicken, grilled with extra-virgin olive oil and oranges, served on a bed of seasonal leaves".
Even with Marco there to cheer it up, I was extremely disappointed with the atmosphere at Planet Hollywood. It looks dowdy. The staff used to be in bright shirts with American cars and glam pictures on them. Now they're dressed as if serving at at funeral. The movie memorabilia is excellent, but atrociously lit. poorly displayed and seldom captioned. If they've got Britney, Bruce and Sylvester on board, why not have whopping signed colour photos of them, saying "Welcome to Planet Hollywood!" in the lobby? Robert assured me the place is due for a refit. It certainly needs one.
I'd expected the food to be awful but it was rather good. If Planet's menu was available near my house, in a setting without the noise and razzle-dazzle, I'd eat there quite a lot. The service was fine. too. Except my vanilla milk shake took for ever. I was told they had a new milk-shake machine and were learning how to use it. Per-lease. A whisk is a whisk. I forgave them because the shake was memorably delicious. I had two. The straw was a bit thin, but that's quibbling.
For starters, we had blackened shrimps, nachos with chicken and barbecue sauce, then something called chicken crunch, which Robert assured me was Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg's favourite. "They have it shipped across the world," he said. It was very tasty. The portions are amazingly generous. I had Marco's steak dish - perfectly pleasant - then a bit of hamburger and some of the chicken Georgina had ordered. A chocolate brownie was irresistible: it came with ice cream and two splodges of whipped cream. Marco said: "It's meringue cream - they mix meringue and cream together so it's not as rich as normal cream." I was by now so bloated, nothing mattered.
I ordered tea and got a mug with a tea bag. I don't do tea bags, so Marco leant over and swished the tea bag round the teapot. Liquid poured from the spout all over the table. "This is the strangest teapot I've ever seen," said Marco, adding a few expletives. "I've heard of portion control . . ." he observed, seeing there was no milk. He immediately put at saucer on top of the mug to keep the tea hot. When the milk arrived, Marco poured. "Try it," he said. Then, "It needs a bit more. It's too translucent." This was my first three-Michelin-star mug of tea.
We were joined by Bernard Manning, who I think is a joy and a delight, before adjourning to his early-evening show at Marco's Stork Club in nearby Swallow Street. Bernard was brilliant. He made a large number of racist jokes. some of them directed at me. All were extremely funny. If you want to learn about the social history of turn-of-the-century Britain, see Bernard Manning and go to Planet Hollywood. They should be on university courses. Far more relevant than the twaddle I learnt at Cambridge.
This is just to say thank you for Michael Winner's recent article on Marrakesh and its restaurants. We had two of the best meals ever at Le Pavillon - and he is so right about the Moroccan service with a smile. We have a lot to learn.
Stephen Samuels, by e-mail
I see from Style that this season's "peasant" look is not confined to the fashion pages. Winner's Dinners (March 17) had a photo of an old dear wearing a cheeky little bra top she had obviously crocheted herself. Very "peasant".
Stuart Baddley, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire
I have long been a devotee of Michael Winner's weekly column and wait with bated breath for further tales of his travel experiences to exotic locations far beyond the means of the likes of me. I have also been impressed by the quality of his holiday snaps, often taken by his delightful girlfriend, Ms Hristova. I take exception, however, to the photograph that accompanied his column on St Lucia (March 17). Quite where Ms Hristova found this poor, deluded old lady is one thing, but to omit to advise her to put her bikini top back on before the picture was taken is a piece of shameless exploitation.
Peter Briggs, Norwich
A shrewd reader recently pointed out that Mr Winner looks like a koala. May we safely deduce that they have more in common than just a passing resemblance, given that the koala is cuddly and has a small brain?
Mrs D Skinner, Hordean, Hants
I have to say, I have doubts about Mr Winner's knowledge of typical Chinese desserts (March 10). As a Chinese person myself, I have never had toffee apples and toffee bananas as dessert. I suspect Chinese restaurants may serve such dishes to suit western taste.
Chen Hoi Peng, Kent
I write in some consternation to advise you of the seemingly parlous state of the water supply to The Box Tree restaurant in Ilkley, West Yorkshire. A friend and I recently visited and enjoyed an excellent meal. When ordering drinks, however, we were asked if we would like any water with our meal, to which we replied: "Yes, tap water." Whereupon the waiter said: "We don't have tap water." At £3.50 a bottle, it must cost a fortune to wash up.
Susan Harley, Ilkley, West Yorkshire
Send letters to Style; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org