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Aiming for a slice of the sandwich market

Michael is charmed by Robert Earl, who signed up the real Earl of Sandwich to give his name to the new cafe chain

Published 28 August2011
News Review
945th article

Making their point: Robert Earl, left, and his son Robbie sandwich Michael (Jim Sharkey)

Being extremely conservative, I greatly admire the buccaneering spirit. Those who go forth and take risks, which I always avoid. Robert Earl doesn't look like a buccaneer. Errol Flynn he ain't. He's short, podgy and wears garish sports shirts.

Having left university penniless, with no rich parents to help, Robert became an assistant banqueting manager at a Jewish reception place off Hanover Square, owned by Joe Lewis, who went on to wealth beyond the dreams of man.

Robert worked his way up to launch themed restaurants, the most famous being Planet Hollywood. Its fortunes rose and fell like a yo-yo. On one occasion staff were locked out of the Coventry Street premises because the rent hadn't been paid. A gambling club, Fifty, in St James's vanished in a mire of disaster.

But Robert, and this makes him very special, persevered. He always managed to segue from drama to further success. Planet Hollywood, now in Haymarket, thrives. I thought the food was great. In Las Vegas there's an enormous Planet Hollywood casino-hotel.

Robert was boss of the Hard Rock Cafe. He now has, among other enterprises, Buca di Beppo, an Italian chain restaurant with 87 outlets in America, four in England, more to come. He's also a successful Hollywood film producer.

With considerable flair Robert signed up the Earl of Sandwich (yes, there really is one) to use his name on a chain of sandwich places. There's an enormous Earl of Sandwich in Disneyland Paris. Robert intends to have 20 in America by year's end, another 20 in Britain. The first one here is in Ludgate Hill, with St Paul's Cathedral looming grandly nearby.

Earl of Sandwich is exceptionally well designed. Dickensian in a restrained way. I've never seen so many people trying to get a sandwich.

Robert, who speaks with gargantuan energy, started haranguing me: "If you heat a sandwich you're charged Vat, but if it's cold you're not." He'd like the British tax structure changed. If anyone can make it happen, Robert can.

His handsome son, Robbie, was on hand. He's learning the business before going to Boston University to study hospitality. Two Robert Earls might be more than the world could take. When I met Robbie years ago in Las Vegas he was a brat. He's now charming and clever. I stayed a brat.

The first thing thrust upon me was tomato soup. Very good indeed. The sandwiches come elegantly wrapped so they look like a gold brick. Hot and labelled. I started with tomato and mozzarella. The bread was fantastic. The beef sandwich was good, too.

Then, and you can't say "no" to Robert, I got the "All American" - turkey, cranberry, lettuce and tomato. Followed by a "Tuna Melt" - tuna and swiss cheese. The dough is made from Earl of Sandwich's secret recipe, then baked and finished in the restaurant.

My only disappointment was Robert's favourite, the chocolate brownie. I found it sickly. The strawberry white chocolate cookie was okay.

"We opened on April 18," said Robert. "You were meant to come."

"I wasn't asked," I responded. "Don't forget to say the sandwiches are £4.45 or £4.75, including Vat," instructed Robert. Then he turned his attention to the next table telling them, "We can serve your whole office." Never mind some stranger's office: what I want is an Earl of Sandwich close to my house. I can suggest a few rubbish restaurants near me that desperately need replacing.

I've always admired San Lorenzo in Belgravia. Other food writers gave it a big thumbs down. On a recent visit there were few diners. For some time two areas had not been used.

Since the departure, through illness, of Mara Berni things ain't been the same. Mara was the greatest restaurateur ever. She marshalled every detail. Customers loved her. Now it's like dining in a morgue.

The bread seemed old. The bellini, with poor tinned peach juice, was bitter. I thought, "They've got no turnover. Has food been sitting about in the kitchen?" Before ordering parma ham and melon I asked Giancarlo Saba, the restaurant manager, "Is the melon okay?" He replied, "Yes," without checking. The mushy melon should have been binned. The ham was dried up, presumably from waiting around. I complained.

Giancarlo said, "I'll tell the chef."

I tweeted about this to my followers.

The Daily Mail took it up. It wrote, "The restaurant insists Winner left with no complaints." Not true.

Joan Collins tweeted, telling me off for criticizing SL, saying, "It's an iconic restaurant." So were Mirabelle and La Trattoria Terrazza. They've gone. I hope San Lorenzo can save itself.

  • From Beth and Peter Southgate: the secretary of a golf club approaches the 10th green after complaints. Three men are shouting obscenities over the prostrate body of a fourth man.

    "What's going on?" asks the secretary.

    A golfer replies, "This is a serious game. We're playing for £100 a hole. My partner has just had a stroke and Hymie wants to count it."

    Michael's missives

    Most people, when they're about to get married, are setting up home. You are selling yours. Trust you to do the opposite to the norm. Or do you know something we don't?
    Adam Osborn, Malaga, Spain

    The Sunday Times states that its esteemed columnist is 75 and Miss Lynton-Edwards five years younger. Surely a mistake? It's clear Michael will never see 85 again, while the delightful Geraldine must be at least 30 years younger. Has she considered the massive debts she'll inherit when Michael slumps over his final bowl of scampi in Harry's Bar?
    John Hirst, Lancashire

    So you were told to wait a long time for a table at a swish restaurant and then demeaned yourself begging for an earlier one. Think how much easier it will be when you're married. Just phone and ask for a table for Michael Lynton-Edwards. You'd get the best immediately!
    Tim Burton, Berkshire

    My desk has a reputation like yours. I take comfort in research that revealed "an untidy desk is the hallmark of genius". We both operate on the volcano principal: as pieces of paper become less relevant they progress to the edge and fall off.
    Tony Rogers, Lancashire

    At Melrose and Morgan, a fashionable coffee shop in northwest London, we paid £7 for a packet of "chocolate covered honeycomb". In Waitrose, 45 minutes later, four Cadbury Crunchie Bars were £1.20!
    Ross Freedman, London

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