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Rooms with a brew - just my cup of tea

Published 15 August 2004
News Review
579th article

Michael Winner with Jacqueline Cawston and Mark Brassington (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I parked outside the United Church in Warminster, Wiltshire. It was lunchtime. We walked past Jacqueline's restaurant and tea rooms. It looked all right to me, but Geraldine wished to investigate further.

We turned into a little alley to view Rosie's tea rooms, but that was in a basement. While Geraldine checked it out I sought restaurant recommendations from a stout lady sweeping the floor of the butcher shop next door.

"You've got the Ginger Pot over the road," she said, walking me to the top of the alley. "Is that any good?" I asked. "I've never been there," she replied. "What about Jacqueline's?" I inquired. "That's lovely. It's got all the awards," said the stout lady. So we headed back there.

"The best tea rooms in the West Country. Mark and Jacqui are pleased to welcome you to Jacqueline's," was printed on the menu. Nice place, clientele even more decrepit than me.

Jacqueline once worked as book-keeper for my friend, the distinguished West End impresario Michael Codron. She met Mark, a lorry driver, at a pub in Hove. They got together and opened Jacqueline's.

The specials included onion soup with cheese and croutons, fresh melon, coq au vin, fish and prawn mornay. They also offered a lot of baked potatoes and baguettes.

Geraldine ordered a ham omelette and salad. "Not too cooked," she advised.

"Undercooked," repeated Jacqueline. When it arrived it was overcooked. "The ham is delicious," said Geraldine, adding, "I should have asked for scrambled eggs."

I got a baked potato with Longbridge Deverill smoked trout and cream cheese.

Jacqueline assured us everything was organic and free range. My potato tasted good but the skin wasn't crisp enough. The salad and fish with it were fine. I also had the onion soup, which was excellent.

An old couple were leaving, the man leaning on a stick. Mark said, "Goodbye Mr Baker, nice to see you again." The old man responded, "Would you believe the name is Smith?" "Call them all dear or darling," I advised Mark, who looked rather embarrassed.

He referred me to a grand display of cakes, many of which he'd made. I settled for a flapjack which was moist and very good. But not as good as the one I had at Salisbury Cathedral. That was the best ever. If you go there try the cathedral self-service place - it's terrific.

My restaurant heroes, Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, were responsible for three of the greatest places in London, the Ivy, Le Caprice and the Wolseley. The latter they still own and run.

I recently booked with Jeremy himself for dinner at the Wolseley. Turning up on time I saw other people at the only table for four I ever occupy there. Two restaurant managers explained they had no reservation for me. They suggested an alternative table.

This might be all right for Mick Jagger, Lord Lloyd-Webber and other glitterati I've seen there. Not for me. I fled to the Bentley and telephoned Nick Roderick at the nearby Caprice.

"Is my table available?" I asked "When?" said Nick nervously. "In two minutes 11 seconds," I said. Nick demurred for an instant, then rose to the occasion. "Come over, Mr Winner, we'll make it work," he said.

I've had some trouble with Nick; he now ascends to restaurant manager of the century. I next called Jeremy King to express surprise. "I don't understand, I put your booking into the computer myself," he said.

The superb restaurant boss of the Wolseley, Robert Holland, who'd missed my arrival, appeared by the window of the Bentley. "I'm just bollocking Jeremy King," I said jovially. "Quite right too," said Robert, adding something about a table.

But I was Caprice-bound.

"There," I said to Geraldine, "do you think those two Wolseley managers who greeted us behaved poorly?" "They were quite rude," said Geraldine.

I've been visiting Jeremy's restaurants since he opened the Caprice in 1980. I've never before been "welcomed" in a surly manner. "I hate computers," I said to Jeremy when he rang the next day to apologise, "bookings should be taken by old men with quill pens. I'm available on Thursdays. Other days you'll have to find someone else."

When I had an office in Soho I lunched at the bar of Wheeler's in Old Compton Street next to Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. The bar-star was a 19-year-old beauty, Carol Walsh. Dad owned the place.

Carol now has the French Horn at Sonning in Berkshire. I sat facing sweeping lawns, flowerbeds, willow trees and a tributary of the Thames. It's run by Carol's son Michael and daughter Elaine.

The food is 1950s at its best. There is no better. I have fried scampi followed by a roast duck cut up in front of you. Not those ridiculous blood-red slivers you get in posh places today. There may not be much left of summer. Go there.

Winner's letters

In your collar, tie, and inch of cuff, standing next to the Duke of Devonshire last week you looked, well, almost aristocratic and normal. You're quite handsome when you try!
David Toft, Cheshire.

On your recommendation (Winner's Dinners, July 4) we drove from Leicestershire to Gloucestershire for lunch at the Churchill Arms, Paxford. The food was lovely. But the greeting from the lady behind the bar was a great disappointment. She was very snooty, as if doing us a favour. She didn't even have the courtesy to look at me when I asked a question. I won't go again. Pity.
Jane Jackson, Leicestershire.

I'm not sure if it's for sartorial reasons, or purely for comfort, that you normally abstain from wearing a tie. But having seen last week's photo I think you should change your ways. You looked exceptionally smart and had such a nice smile as opposed to your usual crumpled jeans, linens and sheepish grin. I'm sure the lovely Geraldine enjoyed wearing her marvellous hat and being accompanied by someone looking almost as elegant as she does for a change.
Sue Appleton, Manchester.

I always enjoyed dining out and reading the delights of Michael's gorging until I worked a stint as a night porter in a top four-star hotel. I would no longer consider sending food back to the mercy of chefs in the kitchen. I've seen what goes on! The polite hotel term is "doctoring". I'd simply refuse to pay and leave. A tip for future articles: enter the hotel or restaurant from the rear via the garbage bins and have a cursory look in the fridges and kitchen porter sections. If satisfied - enjoy your meal. If not speed a hasty exit.
Barry Mason, Staffordshire.

While driving through tortuous Herefordshire lanes to the superb Bull's Head at Craswell, a car that had been holding us up pulled over to let us pass. I looked across to thank the driver, a smiling, white-haired elderly lady with a ruddy, country complexion. "That was Michael Winner," my wife confidently asserted, slightly qualifying her statement by adding, "if it wasn't, she looked just like him." We kept an eye out for you during our meal, but can only assume you got lost.
Ed Buck, Cwmyoy.

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