It’s not every eatery that can turn me into a Beatle
Our columnist is still impressed with the restaurant that first charmed him when he was just five-years-old
Published 2 January 2011 News Review 911th article
Michael outside Wiltons with Henry Wyndham, middle, Nicholas Soames and Amanda, Duchess of Devonshire (Jim Sharkey)
The best meals I've ever eaten were at Wiltons, in St James's, under Jimmy Marks. I first went in 1940, when I was five. It continued to serve staggeringly good, fresh food, simply cooked. Diners ranged from Winston Churchill to Mrs Thatcher, from Albert Finney to me.
Jimmy, in his grey double-breasted suit, would sway as if the place was at sea when he led people to their tables. "This way, my lord," he'd intone. In those days you couldn't eat in the bar area. I did. Jimmy's wife, Lucille, said, "Michael shouldn't be eating in the bar." Marks replied, "Michael can eat where he likes."
As he approached 90 and a party that would have included Danny Kaye as well as every major person around, Jimmy wilted. He sat at a table by the entrance, unable to recognise his customers.
When he died, in 1976, Lucille took over. She hated Americans. When I said to the actor Walter Matthau, "We'll go to Wiltons", he replied, "We won't. I went with Oona Chaplin [Charlie's wife] and this woman asked my name and if I had a reservation. I said, 'Yes, the name's Walter Matthau.' 'Matos, Matow, Matter... can't see you in the book.' She took for ever. Finally I said, 'You're keeping Lady Chaplin waiting.' Then the lady said obsequiously, 'Come this way, your ladyship.'" In 2004 Wiltons went over the cliff. Lucille retired. A new chef came in, who tried to be clever. A snooty restaurant manager took over. My plaice was cooked in stale oil; the veggies were like water. I stopped going. Recently my friend Henry Wyndham, chairman of Sotheby's Europe, said, "Let's go to Wiltons with Nicholas Soames. I'll get Amanda, Duchess of Devonshire, to join us."
Wiltons is one of the few places you have to wear a tie. I chose a thin black one. Like the Beatles, dressed as bar mitzvah boys by Brian Epstein, used to wear. The general manager, James Grant, said, "Good morning." No smile.
The dining area seemed bigger. "We opened a special wing just for you," said Nicholas. The bread was very good. The new chef, Andrew Turner, did well.
I ordered fried plaice. Henry remarked, "I never understood plaice. Do you like plaice?" "I've just ordered it," I replied. "Why would I do that if I didn't like it?" Henry said, "The last time you wrote about the Duchess of Devonshire, you called her the Duchess of Westminster."
"The Duchess of Westminster's got more money," I replied.
My smoked eel starter was terrific.
Nicholas explained, "They catch eels in Somerset and then take them to Holland to be smoked; then they're brought back."
"Why don't they smoke them in Somerset? It would be cheaper," said Henry.
My plaice was excellent but half the size it used to be under Marks. Amanda (one of my favourite people) observed, "My pâté is in the shape of a heart."
"Doesn't make my plaice any larger," I commented.
Amanda's grouse was served. "Do you know which moor it came from?" she asked.
I almost suggested, "Sainsbury's." "I came to see you in the London Clinic but you'd gone," said Amanda, who's one of the trustees.
"I'd been in the clinic 10 weeks," I said. "I couldn't hang on just because you were visiting."
For dessert I had treacle tart with extra treacle and cream. "I've never seen anyone eating cream with a fork," the duchess observed. I hate spoons. Frightened by one as a child, perhaps? Terrific meal; superb company. Good to see Wiltons back on form. I've gone tweet crazy. On @MrMichaelWinner I write things more vulgar, politically incorrect and downright stupid than I dare offer a newspaper as sophisticated as the ST. Lady Caine put me onto it. She said Michael was tweeting to help sell his book. I've got only a few thousand followers (please join) but their responses to my remarks are very bright.
Michael Caine and I tweeted news as he filmed in Hawaii. He's a great wit. So is Lady C. I said to Shakira about a famous man I was to dine with, "He's a nice fellow but a bit boring - doesn't have two hours of conversation in him."
"Don't worry," said Shakira. "You can always leave early."
"You mean, when the main course is served, I get up and go?" I asked.
"Everyone knows you're rude, darling - you can do anything," said Shakira. One of London's best buys is the £20 three-course lunch or early dinner at the "in" place, Bar Boulud. I had it: great squash soup, lovely British banger with bubble and squeak, amazing flourless chocolate sponge cake with chocolate sauce and ice cream. Grander food is also on the cheapo menu. The divorce lawyer Lady Shackleton was there with her mum. She, too, thought it great value. Jeremy King, co-owner of the Wolseley, which serves the best roast beef in London, assures me this really happened.
An American diner is asked by a restaurant receptionist, "Do you have a reservation?" The American replies, "Do I look like an Indian?"
Have you ever thought of offering your services as a scarecrow? You might be able to pay off your £9m debt if you did.
Martin Langley, Surrey
If you are £9m in debt, clearly not a lot of that was spent on smart clothes.
Nick Jones, Provence, France
I think you are £9m in debt because a man in a polyester suit told you to invest in Irish bank shares.
John Finegan, Co Cavan, Ireland
When I asked for a "cheeseburger, medium, please" at a restaurant in Antigua, the waitress replied, "I think we only have them in one size."
NJ Darby, Sint Maarten
We were disappointed by our tea at the newly refurbished Savoy hotel. The staff were not efficient. They were neither competent nor confident. The sandwiches did not appear to be freshly made; the cakes were certainly dry. On top of that, cleaners with feather dusters cleaned the pillars in front of our seats three times. We had to mention it to two waiters before they were asked to leave. I don't go out to tea to watch the dusting being done.
Moya Turner, Leicestershire
Why are married women heavier than single women? Single women come home, see what's in the fridge and go to bed. Married women come home, see what's in bed and go to the fridge.
Dennis Pallis, Kent
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 3 Thomas More Square, London E98 1ST or email email@example.com