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A direct line to misery - opening your own restaurant

Published 25 July 2004
News Review
576th article

Peter Wood and Michael Winner on the set of the new esure ad (Chris Taylor)

I've never understood people who think it amusing to have a restaurant on the side. I'd find it horrible to worry about staff, food and ridiculous customers like me.

A man I greatly admire is Peter Wood, the founder of Direct Line insurance and now the boss of esure and First Alternative. Peter sensibly uses me to sell his policies on television. Even he's not immune to "I must have a restaurant" madness.

He opened one near his offices in Reigate called Tony Tobin @ The Dining Room. He's partnered by a pleasant chef called, believe it or not, Tony Tobin.

The food is good. Recently the spaghetti starter was excellent, the steak middle-bit was fine and the pud - I've forgotten what it was - not only looked pretty, but tasted terrific.

Tony has opened a new upstairs bar which he told me was meant to be secret. What's the point of spending a fortune on a bar and keeping it secret?

It's got a lot of marble and black leather. Very posh for Reigate. Particularly as someone there nicked the cigar lighter from my Saab Convertible.

Peter was recently offered another nearby restaurant for a million pounds even though it was losing money! He offered £400,000 and they lowered their price to £500,000. Peter wisely withdrew. "You should never have entered negotiations in the first place," I advised impertinently.

Another reason running a restaurant would be awful is the stealing. A friend who owns a restaurant told me he got his staff together and announced, "I know you all steal, but it's now getting out of hand.

We're installing cameras in the kitchens!"

I used to "collect" teaspoons. I'd turn up at the restaurant desk as I was leaving and say, "Here's one of your teaspoons. Can I keep it?" Nobody ever objected.

It all got out of hand at Lasserre, the elegant Michelin-starred Paris restaurant. I was with Mary Tyler Moore of movie and television fame. They have gold cutlery. While Mary talked avidly to the actor Timothy Hutton, I nicked the gold teaspoon from her coffee saucer.

The maitre d' appeared. "Madame," he said icily, "Where is your teaspoon?" Everyone looked under the table. Mary, extremely flustered, proclaimed her innocence. The maitre d' departed in disgust. I, discreetly and unseen, slipped the teaspoon back.

The maitre d' returned. He assumed, having been caught, Mary had replaced it. "I never took it, I promise you," Mary protested. "Don't worry," I said to the maitre d', "she does this all the time." Mary never knew it was me. If she reads this, I'm prepared for instant death!

One recent day at the Splendido, Portofino, I was somnambulant on my sun lounger when Fausto Allegri, the hotel's guest relations manager, appeared. His head came first, rising from the steps leading to the pool.

"Meesta Weena," he said, "Tell Carlo (their restaurant manager) you wish to eat upstairs today." "I always eat down by the pool, Fausto. You know that," I responded.

"Tell Carlo you want to lunch in the other restaurant," said Fausto. "Do you have a hearing problem, Fausto?" I asked. "I told you, I'll eat here as usual." "I'll call Carlo down now," said Fausto, ignoring me. "Is it crowded up there?" I said, catching on. "Packed out with some party," said Fausto. "Let's see Carlo's face when you tell him you want to be there."

Carlo Lazzeri duly arrived. "Miss Lynton-Edwards and I will be lunching upstairs today. A good, quiet table on the rail please," I said. Carlo flinched. "We look forward to seeing you," he responded nervously. As he walked off I told him I'd changed my mind.

Carlo got his revenge. Fausto was with me and got a call on his mobile. "I have to go to my desk," he said in a panic and took the long walk beside the pool, up two large flights of steps and along a pathway to the lobby.

There was a guest - set up by Carlo. "Mr Allegri," the guest said, "could you direct me to the toilet." Silly really. But it amuses me.

  • PS: At 5.14pm last Thursday I was skulking in the garden of No 10 Downing Street waiting to lead his Tonyship over Horseguards parade ground.

    We were heading for the Mall where Tone joined me in a symbolic earth-breaking for the National Police Memorial, which is at last being constructed.

    Tone said, "You look much fitter, Michael, you've lost weight." "Geraldine makes me walk an hour each evening," I explained, "sometimes we come here to St James's Park."

    "You should drop in for a drink," invited Tone. Perhaps I'll ring his doorbell and see if I can grab dinner as well. Then I'll tell you about it!

    Winner's letters

    In the photo on July 11 it's clear Fausto Allegri is your love child, and the guy in the middle his lawyer about to take you to the cleaners for his inheritance. Either that or he's about to push you in the pool for crimes against fashion. Pressed shorts with loafers! Whatever next?
    Kate Stocks, Liverpool.

    I visit Holland Park daily with my 2½-year-old granddaughter, Constance. She always says "Good morning" to staff at the Holland Park Cafe. She's never had a reply. The staff are slow and unfriendly. There is no concept of customer service. I wrote to the manager of leisure services at the council and received no reply. My daughter's comments went similarly unanswered. I wish Constance and I had been in the queue with you! Maybe your comments last week will produce some effect.
    Wynne Winn-Moon, London

    I was extremely relieved to note that your gracious companion Geraldine Lynton-Edwards was spared the ignominy of accompanying you to the Holland Park Cafe. From your own account of your behaviour at this event, she would have blushed with shame. I'd hoped some of her sophistication might have rubbed off on you, but I fear you're a hopeless case. I send you my best wishes.
    Dennis Pallis, Kent

    Like your correspondent David George last week, I too had a most unpleasant, stay at Reid's Palace, Madeira. I was amazed at the appalling ugliness of the newer neighbouring hotels, which provide most of the views. We came back at 2.30pm from a guided walking excursion to be refused tea and a sandwich because lunch service was over and tea was another hour. Only we hadn't booked for it, so that wasn't an option anyway.
    Clive Spendlove, Leeds

    I have to agree with Geraldine's opinion of your clothes (Winner's Dinners, July 11). You are always the worst-dressed person in your photograph and usually in the entire newspaper.
    Sir Michael Salt, Dorset

    The socially pretentious Betty Kenward was regularly housed beneath her dignity in the servants' quarters when she stayed in the houses of persons she was to include in Jennifer's Diary in Harpers & Queen. Could it be you are so treated in those hotels about which you write so derogatively?
    David Meredith, Ceredigion.

    * Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk