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Dear Lord, save me from a restaurant like this

Our columnist takes a walk down memory lane to see how Dino's Italian restaurants have changed since the first one opened in the 1950s

Published 21 November 2010
News Review
905th article

Michael and Yohan stand behind a Christian youth group in Dino's (Dinah May)

In the 1950s I had a tiny one-bedroom flat above an Indian restaurant in Thurloe Place, South Kensington. On the right was a superb Polish restaurant, the Silver Spur, owned by an old, monocled colonel.

On the corner of Exhibition Road a fat Italian mamma with a great personality ran Dino's. Her husband, Dino, lurked about, but she was the star. She passed on and the restaurant moved round the corner by the Tube station. Other Dino's restaurants appeared in London, all similar to the 1950s version, untouched by tarting-up.

I took my assistant Dinah to lunch at the South Ken Dino's. Next to us sat a young man in a wool beanie hat, reading. He had a pizza, but wasn't eating.

Dino's decor is horrific - crude relief pictures of Italy, chipped wooden tables. The wool hat man's margherita pizza looked terrible. I ordered one plus fried calamari and then roast veal.

"Is my Coca-Cola glass clean?" I asked Dinah.

"It's scratched from the dishwasher," she replied.

Mr Wool Hat (aka Yohan) ate some of his pizza. "How is it?" I asked. He pulled a face. It was his first time in Dino's. "Will you be coming back?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said.

"You didn't like your pizza - why should you come back?" I remarked.

My calamari were like rubber; I couldn't eat them. The pizza was cloying, no taste - it hung about in the mouth. "This is going to be a very slimming lunch," I observed as my plate was removed, little changed from when it arrived.

Yohan was drinking tea. "Any good?" I asked. He pulled another face.

Service was slow. "I think they've gone out to buy your veal and not use frozen," said Dinah. When it arrived it was fatty; the potato was revolting; the broccoli like water; the carrots, strange - all dreadful. Dinah left most of her food; I left more.

Desserts were pictured on a card. I chose profiteroles - not easy at the best of times. This was the worst of times. Yohan used to be pastry chef at a well-known restaurant chain. He said the desserts came in bulk, frozen, and the chocolate on the profiteroles invariably got burnt in the microwave.

"I never order profiteroles now," he stated. Mine were revolting. I took only a tiny bite.

The waiter asked, "Did you enjoy it?"

"I just taste things - I'm a taster," I explained.

Opposite was a group of good-looking girls. "Steam in there, Yohan," I advised.

"I've got a girlfriend," he said.

"Never stopped me," I replied. I went over to the girls; some men had now joined them. They worked for a Christian charity. Nice, cheerful people. One lovely girl, Louisa, said, "Would you come and dine with us?"

"Believe me, you've got enough trouble - you don't need me dining with you," I replied. We took our photo. I paid for Yohan's lunch.

Opposite used to be Mascall Records, where Jacqueline Bisset, with her staggering breasts, fascinated me as she worked behind the counter. She later fascinated Frank Sinatra and had quite a career in Hollywood. Coming out of the sea in The Deep, she was a sight to see. Those were the days. Never go back.

  • When I asked Jeremy King if he'd be at the Wolseley for the lunch service, he responded, "I was going to be, but if you're coming in I'll make a run for it."

    He was there. We discussed water. Coca-Cola is closing down Malvern Water. It's the best, equalled only by Evian.

    I asked Richard Caring to buy the Malvern plant. He checked it out and said developers were building houses over the spring.

    I suggested Jeremy replace Malvern with Evian at the Wolseley. He said he had to consider his carbon footprint and not bring in water from abroad. This from a man who imported horrific mineral water from Portugal for his restaurant St Alban, who belches fumes from his 1973 Bristol with a V8 engine.

    "You use electricity in your kitchens," I said.

    "Only from wind farms," Jeremy replied.

    Six hundred and thirty-eight bulbs glow nightly outside my house. To balance my carbon footprint I reuse envelopes. All the paper in my printers, photocopier and fax has something on the back. Trees exist only because of me.

  • I had an incredible-quality breakfast last week at the new Verta hotel, which has risen by the Thames next to Battersea heliport. Scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on toasted muffin were historic; coffee, toast, jams, service, topnotch.

    The private dining rooms on the 13th floor have spectacular views. If you're not superstitious they'd make a great location for a Christmas party.

  • Geraldine has a new exercise machine: a Horizon Traverse 5 cross trainer. "It's like cross-country skiing," said Geraldine. "It moves your arms as well as your upper and lower body."

    This is a foreign language to me. But she looks marvellous on it, so I wished her bon voyage and had a lie-down.

  • From Dennis Pallis in Kent: what do you call a woman who knows where her husband is every night? . . . A widow.

    Michael's missives

    Considering your faux pas in matters sartorial, the words pot and kettle came to mind when you wrote that London was full of strange people in funny clothes. Had you just seen your reflection in a shop window?
    Surrendra Andar, west London

    Last week's photo looked like The Last of the Summer Wine with you as Compo. Then I saw you were in Guernsey, checking out tax havens, despite being millions of pounds in debt. With such experience you should be advising the government.
    Patrick Tracey, Carlisle

    After you wrote of the bouillabaisse at Tetou in Golfe-Juan, I heeded your warning and arrived with a wodge of fresh euros. We were the only diners! The fish was historic. My experience, while not lacking in zeros on the menu, scored poorly overall. Please inform us of your next visit to this joint; also on times that are busy and full of life.
    Paul Mills, Edinburgh

    Shown to a small table at the back of the Navy Inn, Penzance, we asked to sit in the front, whereupon the chef bounded out of the kitchen shouting, "Those tables are reserved." At the end of the meal my husband asked why they were still unoccupied. The chef bellowed, "This is my restaurant - you'll sit where I tell you." My husband muttered, "He thinks he's Gordon Ramsay." The chef shouted, "I heard that. You're banned!" What would you have done, Michael?
    June Silver, Cheshire

    Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 3 Thomas More Square, London E98 1ST, or email michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk