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We could learn a lot from continental cafe culture

Published 10 April 2005
News Review
613th article

Michael Winner with Christine Bieri, centre, and Suzanne Frei (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I don't always want a proper meal. I often like a snack. Egg on toast, soft roes on toast (don't see that much now!) and a cuppa tea.

But where is this sort of stuff, well done, available? In France, dozens of places. In New York, thousands of places. In Italy, millions (a slight exaggeration) of places. In England, zilch.

Except for the Wolseley. But even I'd feel guilty rolling up and ordering a welsh rarebit and coffee while other people scoffed three course dinners with wine.

I'd be taking space the owners could sell for much more.

During the day there's the Fortnum and Mason ground-floor cafe. There's Richoux, which has gone off terribly -and that's about it.

So I looked forward to revisiting a marvellous, old-fashioned Swiss snack place in Gstaad. But it had gone. So we tried Charly's. This is in the main drag close to a bronze cow, sculpted by Elizabeth Taylor's daughter, drinking in the fountain trough.

The menu offered "chips maison, home-made chips". They turned out to be okay potato crisps. Coloured photos of the dishes available are displayed in case customers can't read.

It didn't matter much because there was no sign of anyone to take the order. "I can tell they're serving food because other people have got some," I observed to Geraldine.

Eventually Fausto from Italy turned up. He had an impeccable north-of-England accent. Geraldine ordered vegetable soup, a chef's salad and apple juice. I asked for vanilla frappe, which was a thin milkshake.

"Fausto, go and stand by that woman in pink," I ordered. "I don't have time," said Fausto. But he did. In case I needed a photo.

"If that woman's French you'll be in trouble," advised Geraldine. She meant they have a law in France which protects citizens from newspaper intrusion. "I'll risk it," I said, flashing my Leica. The picture was no good. The woman turned out to be Italian.

I had a soggy chicken vol au vent with little round pieces of chicken. It was dreadful. But they did have sugar that wasn't wrapped. The very posh, excellent Palace hotel, Gstaad, offers wrapped sugar. I was not put on earth to unwrap sugar and then see the detritus littering the table.

Fausto refused to get my apple strudel for me. He said I had to get it from the counter. He walked off and disappeared behind a large fish tank. I switched to a moderate mont blanc with chestnut and meringue.

Charly's is not up to much. But the Cafe Reber am Platzli in Thun certainly is. I visit Thun now and then. It's northeast of Gstaad and has a pleasant castle, a very attractive river bordered by lovely old buildings and a good parking place, reserved for guests of a riverside hotel, which I always use anyway. The Cafe Reber overlooks the river. It's delightfully old fashioned.

The menu advised the owners were "the family Bieri". The waitress, Suzanne Frei, was from Malaysia. Nice lady. I chose Menu One with sausage. Geraldine chose Menu Two - soup and fish. Everything was excellent. I had cabbage and some sort of sauce.

Geraldine pointed out I wasn't eating cabbage, I was eating leeks. Why should I know the difference? I write about food!

Then it got even more inept. I thought my set menu dessert was "lauchgemuse kartoffeln". That was incomprehensible so I got a lovely mont blanc from the counter. Later I discovered lauchgemuse kartoffeln was the leeks and potatoes I'd already eaten!

"Ask Mrs Bieri to come out," I said to Suzanne, "Miss Lynton-Edwards will take a photo of her for the most important paper in Europe." I should have said the most important paper in the world. I just wasn't thinking.

Suzanne came back from visiting Mrs Bieri who was cooking in the kitchen. "Is it to promote the restaurant?" she asked. "Yes," I said. There was a long delay. "What's happening?" I asked Suzanne. "Mrs Bieri's having a discussion with her son," she advised. "Get them both out," I said. "Get anyone out. A kitchen porter, a passing stranger, I really don't care."

I went into the kitchen. It was completely empty. Mrs Bieri was upstairs transforming herself into Madame Pompadour. She entered and spoke severely. "She said 'Could you come back later?'" translated Suzanne. Then Mrs Bieri disappeared again. "This is unbelievable," I muttered. "Anywhere else I'd have walked." "It's freezing outside," said Geraldine, "the longer we stay the better."

At last Christine Bieri appeared, make-up completed.

She didn't speak any English. "Why should she?" I said to myself.

It's a very nice cafe. Just don't ask for a photo with the owner. You'll start at lunch and still be waiting at dinner.

Winner's letters

Do you sweet talk restaurants into believing they'll receive a historic write up? Why else would owners encourage a Death Wish by agreeing to be photographed with a restaurant vigilante, only to be gunned down in your column. How about some "before" and "after" photos?
Henry Milner, London

Last week Mr Winner said he visited his favourite restaurants on a regular basis, adding they were honoured by his "rotating presence". Surely he meant "rotund presence".
Michael Knight, Surrey

In last week's photo at Amaya I recognised the two Indians on each side, but who was the cowboy in the middle?
Ian Ashcroft, Bedfordshire

You're wrong, poppadoms aren't always fine. They degrade the cooking oil very quickly, which, if not absolutely fresh, imparts a rancid taste. Asking for iced water three times is de rigueur - if you got some after two requests you were privileged.
Julia Newton-Tyers, Wiltshire

Of all the grossly rotund, half-baked, arrogant restaurant reviewers, you're still my all-time favourite. You mentioned you'd send out signed photos of your smug face. Can I have one? I'd love to surprise and shock my flatmates by pinning you to the fridge door.
Sarah Breen, Dublin

You praised the Ritz hotel doormen (Winner's Dinners, March 27). Their porridge had only a nodding acquaintance with an oat. The second teapot was served with the same, single, teabag producing a colour not unlike urine. The cooked breakfast was cold. A new one was delivered by the maitre d' dashing across the room, Basil Fawlty style. With a flourish he removed the silver cover to reveal an egg and bacon still cooking from the heat of the plate. I made a quick exit, thanks to the very efficient doormen.
Roger Phillips, Isle of Man

It was fortuitous you skipped the Connaught's "ghastly beyond belief" roast suckling pig (Winner's Dinners, March 27). Previous indulgences at Sandy Lane have resulted in your developing a distinctly porcine appearance. Should it fester you'll be putting your snout in troughs rather than restaurants. I urge you to give up pork. We Easterners consider the pig an unhygienic animal.
Moorad Fazalbhoy, Bombay

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