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A grand institution that can still make a splash

Published 24 April 2005
News Review
615th article

Michael Winner and Lily Ritchie-Lim with Carole McEnhill in front (Dinah May)

For some 50 years I've wanted to return to Franco's restaurant in Jermyn Street.

In 1957 I was first assistant director on the second unit of Mark Saber, a filmed television series. Nicolas Roeg, later a famous director, was the camera operator.

I led a film crew round London where we'd shoot the double for Donald Gray, the show's one-armed detective star. We never got permission. We just turned up. The double would walk into buildings and out of buildings.

Sometimes we had Mr Gray himself, a particularly nice man. On one such occasion he said: "Take me to lunch." We went to Franco's. My employers, two marvellous New Yorkers, the Danziger brothers, were appalled at the bill.

A few weeks ago, when buying night clothes at Turnbull & Asser, I decided to go to Franco's with my assistant, Dinah May, as it was opposite.

But Franco's, and what had been the next-door Mokaris coffee shop, were being rebuilt as one restaurant. The nearest simple eating-place was Fortnum and Mason's Fountain restaurant.

It's a pleasant room with Chinese-style murals which depict Englishmen watching peasants work. The restaurant supervisor, Sergio Domingo, was completely unaware of my immense fame and/or notoriety.

As we were early for lunch there was a selection of tables. I was appalled to see paper napkins. Our waitress, Carole McEnhill, had fantastic red hair. "I can get you a cloth napkin sir," she offered. Apparently anyone who requests one, gets one.

The bread roll was terrible. I don't understand that because a few steps up are the Fortnum's food halls, where the bread and rolls are superb.

I guess someone tipped off head office because a Fortnum PR lady, Marion Cross, appeared as I was enjoying a strawberry milk shake. Good, but not as thick as I remember them. "Did you enjoy the meal?" asked Marion.

"I haven't had it yet. Look, the knives and forks aren't used," I responded.

Then the restaurant manager, Lily Ritchie-Lim, arrived. I ordered a Fortnum's welsh rarebit with grilled tomato and a poached egg. It was historic. Two slices.

As good as I've ever eaten.

Dinah chose rump steak, which was silly. Rump steak is invariably chewy. Hers was.

She also had chips and watercress. "They look like McCain Oven Chips," observed Dinah. She's an expert.

It was after 1 o'clock and a big queue now twisted around the restaurant. "It's awkward for people eating to have those queuing customers in front of them," observed Dinah, adding, "my pepper sauce was awful."

The waitress asked: "Did you enjoy that, Madame?" Dinah flashed a smile and said: "Oh yes." Typical of British people confronted by restaurant staff. They hated it but say it's great because they don't want a scene.

In the old days Fortnum's had a trolley with the greatest mont blanc ever. Two halves of meringue with chestnut all squiggly on the inside and whipped cream on top. Not now. So I chose bread and butter pudding with orange mascarpone and maple syrup.

It was superb. I forced myself not to eat it all for weight reasons. It came with blackberries, raspberries and blueberries.

Fortnum and Mason is a very good place. Except for their luggage department. Every time I've been there I've had trouble with inattentive, snooty personnel. All their other staff are terrific. Obviously the luggage department acts as Fortnum's penitentiary for ghastly employees.

Talking of ghastly, how about the man in the Ritz lobby? He demeans the admirable Piccadilly hotel. I wanted to show Paola the splendid Ritz dining room. Paola is the love of my life. She not only looks sensational, she's intelligent and cooks brilliantly! I've known her 12 years. If anyone can get me up the aisle, she can.

We entered the small front lobby of the Ritz and proceeded to the glass doors shielding the corridor to the dining room. A squat man in a blue suit said, brusquely, with no charm, like a prison camp commander: "To go further you have to be formally dressed."

Confronted by such rudeness I went through anyway.

Facing me a man sat on a sofa wearing cheap, Crimplene trousers, no tie, shirt open almost to his waist. I said icily to Mr Squat: "Is that man formally dressed?" "He's not wearing jeans," replied Mr Squat haughtily. I walked on, naughty though it was. The tea room managers greeted me with smiles and warmth. The restaurant managers were equally cordial.

I returned to the lobby. "Take lessons in manners from the restaurant managers," I advised Mr Squat. The Ritz is entitled to its dress code. That doesn't excuse abrupt and sneering rudeness. A grand institution now has a tiny stain on it.

Winner's letters

You wrote last week if readers didn't love the Hinds Head in Bray they could sue you. I went. It was very average. Where do I send the writ?
Keith Knowles, Buckinghamshire.

Regarding three-times-cooked chips at the Hinds Head - responding to claims that the energetic Ralph Halpern could do the business five times a night, the exiled Asil Nadir replied: "If you do it right, once is enough." I believe the same rule applies to chips.
Barry Kane, Nottingham.

We tried the Hinds Head. The three-times-cooked chips tasted of nothing but oil. When I cut into the oxtail and kidney pudding it was stone cold inside. We were informed it was cold because it was cooked fresh!
Clive and Julie Norman, Berkshire.

In one week Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck was crowned best in the world, you described his chips as "close to perfect" and his snail porridge encouraged AA Gill's five stars. If Heston can sort out the devastation among our herbaceous borders with a recipe for slug souffle, a gold award surely awaits him at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Oliver Chastney, Norwich.

Perhaps you thought nobody in Middlesbrough would be able to read your snide comment last week. You've swallowed the ill-informed media image of my town hook, line and sinker. Is this the reason for your raised stomach compared to my svelte one? Or is it all the superior chips you've been eating? After all, it doesn't matter where the fat comes from in the first place once it's on the waist.
Sue Jones, Middlesbrough.

I realise the difference between "sensational" and "historic". But last week your descriptions included fantastic, super-stratospheric incredible, above sensational and brilliant. Might we ignoramuses please have a grading structure so we know where we are?
Mike Mogano, Solihull.

Correspondent Sue Riley asked last week: "Why was Michael Winner put on earth?" Surely his time here is but an interlude as man made flesh - and rather a lot of it - before returning as the Boss of Heaven from whence he came.
Mike Simpson Northumberland.

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