With a wave of my wand, I'd make this place go under
Published 9 November 2003 News Review 539th article
What a drag: Will Fawcett, Vanessa Perry and Michael Winner (Stephen Morley)
Some people mistake me for a food expert. They ask, "What is your favourite restaurant?" This produces confusion and a multi-burble answer. Sometimes they say, "What was your worst restaurant experience?" Normally I have a problem remembering. Now I can say with total confidence, "The worst meal I ever had in my life in respect of food, ambience and service was at the Shepperton Studios restaurant on October 23, 2003."
I shoot nearly all my movies and commercials on location, so I hadn't been to Shepperton, a highly efficient studio, since 1962. Then I directed a very odd comedy starring Frankie Howerd and Tommy Cooper. This time I was there for another esure insurance commercial.
My first one has been shortlisted to the final five for the industry's Advertiser of the Year Award. On the latest, as well as writing, producing, directing and floor-sweeping, I play the part of a good fairy (bizarre), a witch (easier) and me (very difficult).
The unit lunch break is one hour. The restaurant had been warned of my arrival and advised to be on red alert. I went with two diligent esure executives, Mary Davidson and Mike Longden, and my ex-girlfriend Vanessa Perry who features in the commercial. She did very well, as did her "husband" Will Fawcett.
The place looked lost. Pink was the overall colour. Peering at the ceiling Mary said, "If those fans start to circulate, years of accumulated dust would spray over the room." This may not have been true, but it summed up the tired, depleted state of the restaurant.
Mary switched her attention to the ceiling tiles. "The sort of thing British home owners have spent hours at B&Q trying to replace," she observed, adding, "It's like an events room in Epsom."
The room was far from full. There were no movie stars. Nearby, a camera assistant I used to employ was trying to get glum-looking businessmen to finance a movie.
We ordered from the set menu. I was assured the "cream of winter vegetable soup" was made on the premises. If so by a chef who failed his O-level in soups. It tasted of tinned nothing, although Mary claimed to identify coriander.
My main course, "calves liver with bacon sauce and mashed potatoes," arrived minus mashed potatoes. It swam in a greasy-looking, horrid slime. The mashed potatoes arrived, after three requests, as I was finishing the last bit of second-rate liver.
My guests waited and waited. "Excuse me," I said to an uncaring waitress, "why have these people not got any food?" "It's coming," she replied.
Eventually Mike's "ciabatta steak sandwich with fries and salad" arrived, followed five minutes later by ghastly looking roast potatoes. The chips came as he was finishing. If you say "fries" on the menu, why is it difficult to provide them? If you offer "mash", why is that difficult also? It was beyond belief.
Vanessa had "en croute salmon with chive butter sauce". The pastry covering was soggy and disintegrating. She thought the salmon okay.
Knowing I had to be back on the set promptly at 2pm I called over the restaurant manager, Tony Guglielmo, who was dressed in a shiny suit. "I'd like to choose the desserts," I said, even though we were still eating our main course. At 1.40pm I ordered, "treacle pudding with hot custard cream" for me and "peach and cinnamon crumble with creme anglaise" for Mary.
After five minutes Tony returned to say the crumble was off. "It's one of only two desserts other than ice cream and sorbets!" I said in amazement. Tony continued to look surly and offered ginger sponge pudding instead.
We sat there endlessly. Whenever I asked where the desserts were I got the standard answer, "They're coming." "Where from?" I wondered, "Alaska!" At four minutes to two, with no sign of pudding, I returned to the set.
The Shepperton Studio restaurant is run by Red Eventful Cuisine in Putney. Their chief executive officer, Tony Roestenburg, wrote saying, "I would be pleased to discuss your issues." I declined. He said they planned a refurbishment and a fresh menu at Shepperton. I responded, "I cannot believe any company that performs as dreadfully as yours did could ever come up with any standard of competence."
Mr Roestenburg replied, with heavy sarcasm, "I look forward to reading your unbiased article." Well, here it is, Tony. Not biased at all. Why should I have entered Shepperton that day biased against the restaurant, you, or your company whom I'd never heard of? I was merely a punter hoping to have a reasonable lunch. I didn't.
PS: You can see how I battled through, without a pudding, on television later this week.
You're right about the way Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin ran the Ivy (Winner's Dinners, last week). I was taken there for my 50th birthday. My host had read the only way to get a table at short notice was to have a name like Jack Nicholson. So he phoned claiming to be him, instead of reprimanding him the joke was appreciated, the booking accepted and the meal outstanding. On arrival we were told, "Jack's table is occupied by Maureen Lipman. Would you mind having the table next to it?"
David Howgrave-Graham, Berkshire
We went to Maroush lll in Seymour Street because it was close to our hotel. We found a cover charge of £2 per person on our bill. This was apparently in tiny letters at the bottom of the menu, but didn't say £2 per person. Then we were charged £4 for "salad" which we didn't order. Although a waiter placed olives, a tomato, a red and yellow pepper and a few radishes on our table. We complained loudly and one £4 charge was removed. We won't return!
Susanna Doyle, New York
You praised the famous Locanda Locatelli. We had poor service. We had to get up to pour our wine strategically placed out of reach. The food was indifferent - four pasta shapes curling at the edges charged £4 extra as a main course. The bill for two for two courses with a bottle of the cheapest wine came to £100.
Catherine Lunken, London
At Ella's, a cafe in Jaffa, Israel, the special of the day on the blackboard was "salmon Ella". We didn't try it.
Ralph Oswick, Bath
We paid in full on arrival at the Gresham hotel, Dublin, although it’s not our usual practice. When our breakfast was delivered to our room the waiter demanded over 50 euros while standing at the bottom of my bed. We tried to explain we'd already paid but his lack of English and bullish attitude prevented him from accepting this. Eventually he agreed to check and came back, with no apology, announcing "Okay, you owe me 11 euros now." Our stay was littered with similar incidents. The staff and management had all the charisma of a day-old bag of chips.
Polly Poynbee, by e-mail
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, t Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org