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Give me a cuddle and I'll come back

Published 8 October 2006
News Review
690th article

Winner with Calzolari, left, and Lengui (Dinah May)

My friend Sir Michael Caine said about restaurants: "There must be a cuddle factor when you come in. And the room should have a cuddle factor too." The so-called hospitality industry doesn't understand that. At most restaurants you get a glazed woman at the desk who says: "Have you got a reservation?" That is not a cuddle. My response, as I walk by, is: "Go back to receptionist school."

At Maison Novelli in Clerkenwell that was the opening line. As I climbed the stairs another zombie asked: "Are you with someone?" As if I wasn't fit to be unaccompanied. Not surprisingly the restaurant closed shortly after those encounters.

The place should look pleasant - La Noisette being a good example of somewhere that doesn't - and have a likeable host you can rely on. I was thinking of awarding some unlucky person the Winner Restaurant Manager of the Year Award, Charles Pullan, for example, manager of the River Cafe.

So I took my Leica when I went there recently with Chris Rea and his lovely wife. But Charles was at home with the children. "If he isn't here next time I come I'll give the award to someone else." I announced to the charming lady managing at the time. You can see this is a serious and well-considered award. Judged fairly and without favour.

Charles rang me at home saying: "I live nearby. I'll cycle in when next you're there."

A week ago I phoned to make a booking but, again, Charles wasn't on duty. "Call him at home and get him in." I said. An embarrassed Mr Pullan rang me. "We're terribly overbooked." he said. "The weather's changed. All the people we were going to put outside may have to come inside. Would you like to sit outside?"

"I'm in my living room," I said. "with the french windows open. It’s cold out there. Why should I freeze on your terrace?"

"I'm terribly sorry, I don't think we can fit you in," said Charles. "You've just lost the Manager of the Year Award," I pronounced. He's a nice fellow. Took it very well.

There's no question whatsoever the greatest restaurant host in the land is Mara Berni at San Lorenzo. She's been doing it over 40 years. She's there all the time. She's extraordinary, the absolute top.

But my next restaurant outing was to Scalini, round the corner in Walton Street. Two very good people manage that. The rotund and robust Valerio Calzolari, who makes endless, terrible jokes.

"These vegetables come from my garden in Essex" is an example. He also has a cup of cappuccino with plastic coffee which he pretends to spill over customers. Laugh a minute is Valerio. But he's dedicated and excellent with an enormous moustache. He looks the role to perfection.

His co-manager Michel Lengui is quiet and elegant. Although "quiet" is not a word you could apply to Scalini. It's grotesquely noisy. Tables are squashed together. They have the best grilled sole in London. Ordering it is a nightmare. "In the evening I have to lip read," explained Michel.

Then there's Robert Holland at the Wolseley. I never liked him when he was at J Sheekey. "Cold and indifferent," I thought. He was still odd when he started at the Wolseley. Even managed to throw a large amount of red wine over dear Geraldine. But he's grown into the job. He's a definite contender for best manager. His bosses, Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin, are the poshest, most professional hosts ever. Giacomo Maccioni at Cecconi's is admirable, too. Very efficient, warm, good greeter, good worker.

Then there are places such as the Ivy and Le Caprice where the staff in general are superb, but no one manager shines above others. Down the other end of the scale are ridiculous managers like Rachel Lewis at the Petersham Nurseries Cafe who greeted my reservation request with behaviour so awful it could be played at seminars illustrating how not to treat a customer. Then there's the bizarre Robert Signe at La Noisette who thinks his staff shouldn't write down customer orders. To him life is a memory contest.

At Eight Over Eight manager Shane Morck turns empty tables galore and runs the slowest staff on record. By contrast, at their sister restaurant e&o in Notting Hill - where the food is much better - I was massively impressed by my waiter last week. He walked quickly and with purpose, keeping his eye on the room at all times. He continually replaced my glass of ice. This super-efficient specimen is Loick Letarnec.

Only I praise waiters by name. That's because I'm such a marvellous human being.

Winner's letters

On a flight to Malaga the lady next to me said I looked like someone she'd seen on television. She then decided I was Michael Winner. How long am I going to have to wear this large brown paper bag?
Anthony Rhodes, Nottingham

"Who looks better?" I asked my wife. "Winner at 70 or me at 72?" She replied instantly, "You look a million times better!" How could I possibly trade in such a wise woman for a younger model?
Andrew Bainbridge, London

Liked your piece about Venice last week. Just as well you didn't stay at the Westin Europa & Regina hotel. The breakfast brigade needed "Winnerising"! Halfway through, a waiter snatched our hot (now cooling) milk jug and plonked it by a neighbouring diner! At €50 [about £34] each for breakfast they should run to separate milk jugs!
Diana Beverldge, Henley-on-Thames

Do you have a young relative in Holland? I argued with a waiter in the cafe at Schipol airport as to why their computer could not effect egg and chips, even though the chef could. He stormed off shouting: "You will get nothing here!"
Steve est, Cardiff

In the York Art Gallery cafe my husband ordered a cup of tea. After 15 minutes he received a pot of fresh air. This must be a special Yorkshire blend
Sylvia Bishop, York

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