Rolling back the years with friendly staff and a fry-up
Published 6 July 2003 News Review 521st article
Baking power: Winner with Clark, left, Chamberlain and, seated, Jones (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
In May 1941 I joined the Montessori department of St Christopher school, Letchworth, Hertfordshire. At the end of the term, in July, Gertrude Watson, "directress", wrote of me: "His general attitude has improved considerably." It's nice to know that, aged five, I started out being difficult.
I remained at St Christopher for 11 years. Letchworth was one of the first garden cities, well designed, tree-lined avenues, splendid architecture. It had two cinemas. The Broadway was an art deco gem where I saw Olivier's Henry V 16 times. Close by, the Palace, probably an old music hall, was smelly and played lesser releases.
Near the Palace was a wonderful teashop with a mural depicting a stone balcony with lovely gardens beyond. I went regularly with the music master, who played Chopin's Polonaise with much enthusiasm. It was there I fell in love with sausages and chips. I decided to eat nothing else when I attained adulthood.
I returned to Letchworth recently. Like all British cities, it had not improved. The block which housed my teashop had been knocked down. The Palace Cinema had gone too. The Broadway remained much as I remembered it. There were the usual chain restaurants - a Pizza Hut here, something else unappetising there. We settled on Simmons Bakers in Eastcheap. In the front a sales counter, at the back a cafe. Very pleasant really. Flowers on the tables, black, hooped chairs, imitation Victorian marble-topped tables.
I paused on my way to the cafe counter to order to ask about an old lady's plate of baked beans and stuff. I put my hand on her shoulder. She was not amused. Later, as I sat by the door eating an absolutely delicious meal, another lady came by. "You know that lady you asked about her lunch," she said, "she wanted to know if you were a friend of mine. I told her, 'No it's Michael Winner.' She said, 'Is he on the telly or what?' "
Then the very lady who'd had my hand on her shoulder came by. "Sorry Michael, I didn't recognise you," she said. Her husband added: "She thought you were after her dinner."
It was a very friendly restaurant. People kept wandering over and chatting and asking for autographs. At the counter I ordered: "Two fried eggs, bacon, a jacket potato . . ." "All on the same plate?" asked Lisa Chamberlain, a delightful Saturday assistant, still at school. "I haven't finished yet," I said, "and some baked beans all on the same plate. I'll have sausages as well. If you can't get it on one plate I'll have two."
While ordering I took a chocolate-coated doughnut and ate that. Absolutely splendid. Incomparably better than the ones at Gordon Ramsay's Boxwood Cafe.
Geraldine ordered an espresso. Veronica Clark, the deputy manageress, said: "They came in one day, they changed all the buttons for some unknown reason, took away the espresso." I asked the manageress, Susan Jones, why the espresso had been removed. She didn't know. The staff were all efficient, cheerful and charming. A lesson to the legions of snotty restaurant employees in London.
Everything about the food was excellent. The eggs were cooked correctly, the sausages were tasty. Later I took a most wonderful, old-fashioned little tart with pink icing on top. It was a kind of Bakewell tart. That, too, was exemplary. The jam was delicious, the icing was good, the pastry impeccable. "A nice little item," I dictated onto my tape.
Geraldine said her lettuce was "beautifully crisp and fresh". The only thing she hated was her black coffee. "It tastes like slop water," she said. I can't remember what else she had, but she liked it.
If this place was near my house I'd go there frequently. My staff would be ecstatic. Simmons has a number of these venues throughout Hertfordshire. What must I pay the Simmons people to open in Holland Park, I wonder?
As I left I checked out the shop counter. Absolutely stunning-looking sausage rolls, meat pies, open sandwiches. Nothing can replace my childhood restaurant with the garden mural and the sausages and chips. But Simmons is on the way to historic.
I walked back to my "hairdresser's" Saab convertible. What a cheek, the reader who wrote that last week! I sold my Ferrari to get it. Best deal I ever did.
I passed people sitting on the pavement outside the Hog's Head. A man called out: "You ain't that famous photographer are you?" I said: "I couldn't take a photograph." He continued: "You are, aren't you? Mr Bailey?"
"A very nice little excursion that," I said to Geraldine. "Everyone was polite. Everyone was smiling. The food was good. What more could anyone want?"
I'm not sure whether you had lunch or dinner at Locanda Locatelli (Winner's Dinners, last week) but seeing you had five courses and six ice creams I assume you stayed for lunch and dinner. Are you still there, or am I wrong?
Fred Beckett, by e-mail
If you hate names ending with an "ee" sound, why do you say, on June 22, you had an "auntie"?
Hilary Ives, Nicosia, Cyprus
Last week Michael Winner objected to Zaika's receptionist asking him what he wanted to speak to the restaurant manager about. Does Mr Winner allow his PA to put through any Tom, Dick, Harry (or Michael) who telephones without giving their name or business? Huh!
Heather Thomson, Cambridgeshire
I was dining at Nicholls in Tatling End, Buckinghamshire. I thought my glass for what the menu called 175ml of dessert wine was rather small. The staff kindly filled one of their larger 175ml glasses and then poured the liquid into my smaller glass. It overflowed considerably. So it was accepted I'd been given a 125ml glass for 175ml of dessert wine. They apologised. When I told Nicholls's head office, I was told my measurement of dessert wine was a printing error on the menu and that it had been reprinted since then.
Alvin Cohen, London
My husband and I visited Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons for lunch, which we thought would be a culinary experience. Alas, the service was indifferent. The cheese waiter suggested my husband get up from the table and choose the cheese! He could only get the trolley to our table sideways. The cheese souffle was touching cold and tasteless. The fish and vegetables were bland and the speciality dessert very boring. Just a few berries in champagne. Not a memorable occasion.
Sandra Brown, Stanmore, Northwest London
My husband was diagnosed with gout and advised to avoid red wine. I had no intention of doing so. At a local restaurant for our anniversary dinner my husband chose a robust white that he could enjoy and a suitable red for me. At which point the waitress looked aghast and said: "What? A bottle each!"
Nicolette Glee, Bognor Regis
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