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A restaurant - not a double entendre

Published 1 July 2008
News Review
776th article



I'm sure you don't need proof that I'm a raving idiot. But I'll give you some anyway. I was chatting with my friend, the theatre impresario Michael "Chalky" White, about where we should lunch. He suggested Joel Robuchon, almost next to the Ivy. Been there. Liked the food, hated the decor and the ambience. Then he offered the Gay Hussar, in Soho. Liked the thought of that. Any place that keeps the word Gay, as meaning cheerful, jolly, carefree and not the other version, is okay with me. After further discussion we agreed to meet at Arbutus.

My chauffeur was on holiday (bloody cheek), so my assistant, Dinah May, ex of great TV fame as actress and presenter, came with me in my Suzuki Grand Vitara. I had to change my stick shift (as the Americans say) for an automatic as my left leg is less virile than it used to be. So am I, for that matter.

I stopped by the Gay Hussar, leaving Dinah to dial for a parking permit. That's hell on earth. I tried once, took half an hour getting nowhere and then realised it was after 6.30pm so pay-and-play wasn't even in force any more.

I entered the Gay Hussar a bit late. Most unusual for me. I'd phoned Chalky to warn him. When I arrived he wasn't there. The restaurant manager, John Wrobel, asked, "Do you mean Michael White the Guardian political writer? He's with a group of retired Guardian writers lunching upstairs." He then rearranged a table for me to sit at.

There were very few people in the restaurant, all men. Getting quite angry, I rang Chalky White to ask where the hell he was. "Sitting in Arbutus, waiting for you," he replied. See, I'd gone to the wrong restaurant. I'm a moron.

"You'd better walk over here," I said to Chalky. Being a gent (unlike me), he did. On its internet site the Gay Hussar tells punters it has served national specialities and the finest Hungarian wines for more than 50 years and it's used by "the UK's leading political figures, journalists and artists alike". It's in a Georgian town house.

I'd left my reading glasses at home. John found me some spectacles but I could see only a blurred menu through them. "Are these yours?" I asked.

"We found them in the street," replied John.

"I'll borrow your glasses," I said to Chalky.

He said, "You can't," and waved them in the air in an agitated fashion.

A man opposite called out, "Why didn't you bring your own glasses?"

"I forgot," I replied.

John turned up with another pair of glasses. They were perfect. "Where did you get these?" I asked.

"From somebody who died years ago," responded John, "but we still keep them."

I tried the brown bread. It was mediocre. The water was Kingsdown. I looked at it suspiciously. "It's not poisonous," John assured me as he poured.

"I'll be the judge of that," I responded.

As I was in a Hungarian restaurant, I started with smoked Hungarian sausage, followed by the goulash stew, which John assured me was very Hungarian.

A man who'd been sitting alone near the front of the restaurant passed our table. He said, "Have the fish terrine, Vienna schnitzel and the walnut pancake, all excellent." Before adding, "But then I have notoriously bad taste." He walked on.

I called after him, "What profession are you in?"

"I'm chairman of this and that," he replied.

"I hope not British Airways," I said. That got a laugh from the other diners.

I drank a good buck's fizz and my sausage was superb. By 2.15pm there were only four people in the restaurant other than Chalky White, Dinah and me. Chalky observed, "No restaurants are busy today."

"I bet the Ivy, the Caprice and the Wolseley are packed," I responded.

My goulash was a bit too spicy; not good, not horrible. I wouldn't rush back. Chalky had minced veal hamburger. "I like this dish; I always have it," he said. But I noticed he left a great deal of it.

Then Chalky looked me in the eye very seriously and said, "Michael Foot eats here. This hasn't changed in 50 years." I agreed that was a plus. So was my sweet cheese pancake, which was exceptionally good.

The chef, who I'd asked to stay for the photo, obviously got fed up and left. So we had the Hungarian sous-chef, Zoltan Szabo.

The restaurant manager, John, ain't Hungarian; he's Polish. The walls are covered with cartoon sketches of Gay Hussar customers. Ken Livingstone was one. I'm glad I didn't see that earlier. It would have put me off my food.



Michael's missives

Mr Warboys' letter last week from Sydney accusing you of bad taste is a bit strange. I thought the Australians invented that.
Des Aves, Norfolk

Last week's article on the Caruso was informative, well written, an interesting read. Congratulations. Who wrote it for you?
Victor Temple, Newcastle upon Tyne

I read your corporeal form will be replaced with a dummy. It's been obvious for years that a dummy has been impersonating you. Those glazed eyes, plastic looking skin and repetitive utterances couldn't possibly come from a real person. Has the real Michael Winner donated himself to medical science as the result of a Death Wish?
Robert Hughes, Surrey

How wonderful to read Mr Neil's letter about the Ivy (constantly praised by Michael Winner) and its overblown reputation. We'd never go again. We suffered dreadful food and service. Obviously Michael likes to be feted regardless of how poor the food is.
Michael Wynne, Dorset

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