Ghastly food and absurd dress codes - Barbados is unchanged, says Michael Winner
Published 2 January 1994 Style Magazine 27th article
A good breakfast buffet at Sandy Bay; diners, however, have been known to refuse to pay (Michael Winner)
At the Sandy Lane Hotel, Barbados, it is very easy to run up a bill of more than £1,200 a night in high season for two people in a modest suite. The hotel is rightly renowned for many attributes. Food is not one of them. I have eaten more absolutely awful meals in its Sandy Bay restaurant than anywhere else in the world. One Christmas day evening a few years ago, the editor of Britain's most distinguished Sunday newspaper, a man of noted reticence, was so moved by the ghastliness of course after course that his party took their first-time-ever step of refusing to pay for food which had largely lain uneaten. They paid for their drinks, and the management rightly decided to accept this. Would that I had the courage to behave in similar fashion, for I have meekly put up with evenings of the same tastelessness.
Why, you must be wondering, if this restaurant is so terrible, did I ever return? In the English Caribbean, good food is an extreme rarity. In Barbados, an island of great beauty, it is nonexistent. None of the other hotels on the island is better; all things considered, they are much worse. So I find myself, again and again, looking over the vast, palm-fringed bay, admiring the greatly beautiful, theatrical design of the Sandy Lane, and moaning about its food along with nearly all my fellow guests.
I have stayed out of its main restaurant, the Sandy Bay, as much as possible. Below, there is a gloomy room, erratically managed by Italians imported for the winter season from Sardinia, where you can get a reasonable pasta. It is far more popular than the posher eaterie above. Last week, I bravely decided to try the Sandy Bay restaurant again. Had it, after years of desperation, risen from gastronomic hell?
I was not encouraged by its extraordinary menu descriptions. I ordered first ``duo of Caribbean fried flying fish with Bajan spices and tropical lime butter". This was no more than a tired, ill-battered fry-up with no taste I wish to remember. A lady at my table had "wild rose of Scottish smoked salmon with hen's eggs and country chives". "Hen's eggs" to me indicates two eggs at least, but none could be seen. After much inspection, about one-eighth of an egg was found chopped up and buried in the indifferent salmon; why, I cannot imagine.
Then came some pretty good leek, potato and red bean soup. Not "delicious", as the menu stated, but okay. My main course was "sweet cured duck in honey and anise stuffed with a farci of pork and veal carved and dressed around an apple cake pudding set on a Calvados wine sauce".
Inventive writing, but well beyond the chef's abilities. Dull and tasteless duck and a blob of so-called apple cake which was so rubbery my teeth bounced up and down forever before I could swallow.
To complete another memorable evening in the Sandy Bay restaurant, I chose "white cream cheese cake, mint and passion fruit, caged with wild fruits". I got a round, wobbly mousse which tasted of frothed toothpaste, bearing no relation whatsoever to any type of cake. The "wild fruits" were half a tame grape, and three tiny black berries, soft and squashy, of uncertain origin. The rest was a childish squiggle of coloured smear on the plate, inedible and silly. This hotel could be done under the Trade Descriptions Act if it were in England.
We are often led to believe that service in the Caribbean is surly and inept. The Barbadian staff at the Sandy Lane are the making of it; they are charming and efficient. My atrocious dinner was delightfully served by a smiling, neat waitress called Judy, who was somewhat hurt that I did not enjoy it. It is Judy's bosses who add insult to injury by demanding that guests conform to a dress code to be allowed to eat the muck they serve! Until this year, it was necessary to wear a jacket and tie in the tropical heat on two nights a week, and the current manager, a nice chap called Richard Williams, introduced the unbelievable restriction that no jeans could be worn anywhere after 7pm, even in the casual, seafront Italian pasta place. It was there that an attempt was made to throw John Cleese and our party of nine people out because Mr Cleese had smart, white jeans on! It was only me being somewhat direct in my view of the matter that won us a one-evening reprieve!
Mr Williams, a local white Barbadian who ran a small hotel down the coast, should be sent to Europe for a course. There he would learn that in the grandeur of Claridge's restaurant, jeans are allowed; in the unbelievable splendour of the Ritz Paris restaurant, jeans are welcome; and in the beauty of the exclusive Reserve De Beaulieu in the south of France, jeans are fine. But in Sandy Lane, with guests non-resplendent in gaudily coloured trousers of nylon, polyester, viscose and other bottom-range cheap materials, they are not. Instead of policing vigorously an idiotic dress code, aided and abetted by the management of Forte plc, he should at least get a guest chef out for the winter season when room rates are double what they are most of the year. What about Marco or Nico by the sea? That would be something worth dressing up for.
We were keen to visit The Restaurant at the Hyde Park Hotel, having heard good reports and, of course, being aware of Mr White's reputation for producing meals of a very high standard. However, after a visit there, our party of three all suffered from upset stomachs. As the meal had included shellfish and oysters, we wrote to bring this to Mr White's attention and asked for his comments and suggestions for possible recompense. What we received in reply was an extremely abusive, insulting and foul-mouthed telephone call from Mr White himself. To sum up the conversation, he implied that we were ill because we had drunk too much, and were trying to get the meal for free. He seemed surprised when we told him we didn't actually have any doctors' certificates as proof.
Ian Shirley, London EC1
While I accept that London has many good restaurants, I do feel that there are many excellent restaurants throughout the country which deserve acclaim, but are never discovered. Thatcham lies three miles east of Newbury in Berkshire. Though a small, relatively unimportant place, we are lucky enough to have two excellent restaurants. The Szechuan Inn in Thatcham High Street serves the best Chinese food I have tasted. The Terraces Restaurant at the Regency Park Hotel is also worth visiting for the delicious dishes served by friendly and efficient staff. Perhaps those who live in London do have a different perception of what good food is, but this country bumpkin would thoroughly recommend both of these restaurants. I'd be interested to find out if any townfolk would agree.
Sue Dillon, Thatcham, Berks
London was heaving, but our late arrival at The Ivy caused no problem as our cars were whisked away for parking. We were soon seated by friendly, efficient staff and shown the menus an extensive a la carte, or a three-course table d'hote for an amazing £12.50. The whole experience was so enjoyable informal dining, coupled with quality food and friendly staff. And how many owners take the time to introduce themselves and discuss the meal? Many thanks to Jeremy King and staff for a delightful meal, truly one of the best dining rooms in London.
P G Ward, Norwich