Jack Lemmon loved it, and I'm pretty sure you will too
Published 10 August 2008 News Review 786th article
I used to lunch regularly at the bar of Wheeler's in Soho in the 1950s, sitting next to Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. If I'd said, "Do a little drawing on the menu for me", I'd have enough money today to pay off my £6m of debts. Fascinating though they both were (and Lucian, who I see occasionally, still is), the main objects of my attention were the luscious bosoms of the girl behind the bar, Carole Walsh. I was mesmerised.
Outside, a young Jewish man, Ronnie Emmanuel, was selling toilet rolls from a barrow. He got closer to Carole's bosoms than I did. He married her. Carole's father was a Catholic who once owned the Ivy. He had a stiff gin and tonic and acquiesced.
Ronnie's parents took longer to accept their son had married a shiksa. That's Yiddish for a non-Jewish woman. The maid is a shiksa. Any Christian woman not approved of is a shiksa.
I still see Carole and she's still marvellous. She and Ronnie run, with their children Michael and Elaine, the French Horn at Sonning-on-Thames. It has no Michelin stars; gets a miserable two rosettes out of five in the AA Restaurant Guide; isn't even mentioned in The Good Food Guide. But it's one of the best restaurants ever. It is triple historic. The so-called professionals are idiots. Follow only me.
I took Robert Mitchum and Jack Lemmon there. Jack was somewhat tipsy. He cradled a large vodka soda in the back of my Rolls as I drove him down. They both loved it. So did Peter Falk, Michael Caine, Roger Moore and Hymie Pockle. You never heard of Hymie Pockle? Too bad.
I've been there twice this year. Once with Geraldine, then again with my beloved fiancee (that's Geraldine, not Hymie Pockle) and one of Hollywood's greatest cinematographers, Richard Kline, who lit five of my movies. Everyone I've taken raved about it.
It's also an extremely beautiful 1850 house with sloping lawns and flowerbeds that lead down to weeping willows and the Thames. It's a small hotel as well as a superb restaurant. Aylesbury ducks roast on an open-fire spit as you enter. I always have that. You get a whole, crisp-skinned duck carved at a side table. Not some ridiculous nouvelle cuisine strips of semi-raw duck, which are now in vogue among those with supposed taste.
I had fantastic fried scampi from the Orkney Isles. They come down alive in chilled packs. The vegetables were marvellous. To finish, I scoffed miraculous bread-and-butter pudding with custard. This is old-style good-quality food, very 1950s. The decade that produced the best fare this country's ever offered. Much better than the over-chic, plate-decorated, chemically "enhanced", messed-about rubbish served today.
The Emmanuel family are superb hosts. The service, led by the restaurant manager, Manuel Gonzales, is immaculate, quiet, professional. There's no bevy of East European girls who speak no known language and run rampant throughout London's restaurants.
Sonning village is picturesque. The French Horn setting is idyllic. The ambience a delight. The food fantastic.
Now to Jamaica, where my friends Hilma and Chanelle Daley just returned from the vastly posh and elegant Half Moon hotel. Hilma originates from Jamaica. She's cleaned toilets at King's Cross and Welwyn Garden City railway stations every night for years. A newspaper arranged that Hilma and her daughter Chanelle (who works for the Metropolitan police) came to my house for tea. This after I said, "Stuff my OBE", adding, "It's the sort of thing they give to toilet cleaners at King's Cross station." Now I sign letters, "Michael Winner, MA (Cantab), OBE (offered but rejected)."
I wrote this week to the Ceremonial Secretariat of the Cabinet Office, recommending Hilma for an OBE award. She really deserves one. Many people wrote backing my proposal, including Hilma's employers and Sir Michael Caine.
When I took Hilma and Chanelle to the Ivy for dinner, Hilma said she'd not been back to Jamaica for 40 years, since she left to come to England. Chanelle had never been there. "You'll go as my guests," I said. This turned out to be only partially true. Paul Charles, PR for Virgin Atlantic, gave them free flights and fixed for the hotel to meet most of the costs.
The ladies loved it. Half Moon is a famous, top-class place. Mrs Thatcher stayed there; so did Richard Branson and many other celebs. "It was like being in Hollywood," said Hilma. Chanelle added it was, "like a dream, definitely". They both found the staff immensely kind and helpful. Only one thing upset them. During a local cabaret on barbecue night, the adjacent table was full of Americans who made racist remarks about the performers looking like monkeys. Morons who talk like that should be taken to a high cliff and thrown off. I'd be happy to push them. Very happy.
How amusing that Michael Winner used the phrase "the real world" when advising about exchange rates, when it's quite clear Mr Winner lives in his own fantasy world.
Darragh Crowe, Ireland
I'm not surprised you found Harry's Bar, Venice, wasn't full. When I looked at the doorside menu price list, it was €36 (nearly £30) for a sandwich. Needless to say, I didn't tarry at Harry's!
Eddie Hanlon, Kilkenny, Ireland
I have always dined in the river-view restaurant at La Cote Saint Jacques. Like you, I have found the food and service excellent, the experience enhanced by lack of noisy diners. The reverse of what can be seen and heard walking past the "horrid dining room". Were you put there because of your behaviour on the first night?
Terry Ward-Hall, Surrey
Private jets; £4,675 in a posh hotel for B&B! Why do you keep winding up us poor peasants? Never mind - keep living the good life even though we're really jealous. At least I hear you were good to your mother.
Don Roberts, Cheshire
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