Published 2 July 2000 Style Magazine 364th article
Production values: Guiseppe Fortis, Miss Lid and Michael Winner at the Mezzanine Restaurant at the National Theatre (Asino Ben Sari)
I'm well known as an angel. Both in the sense of being personally angelic and as an investor in and occasional presenter of - theatrical productions. My theatre-going experiences stretch back to the Academy Award-winning actor Paul Muni starring brilliantly in Death of a Salesman at the Phoenix Theatre in the 1950s; Tyrone Guthrie's spectacular productions at the Old Vic; and Laurence Olivier with Vivien Leigh alternating Antony and Cleopatra with Caesar and Cleopatra at the St James's Theatre. There, I once saw my grey-haired, teetotal and supposedly eminent headmaster with a blonde and a large gin during the interval.
The chance of getting any money back after investing in West End plays is minimal, unless Maggie Smith is starring. This does not deter me. Those of you with long memories will treasure my presentation of Paul Scofield in The Tempest at the Wyndham's Theatre, which miraculously made a proﬁt. Other shows I produced were less fortunate. I spend quite a lot of time at the National Theatre, where I've developed a skilful way of getting my coffee and bun ahead of the queue. I go up to whoever has reached the buffet cash desk and say: "This is your lucky day, I'm going to pay for all your food." While they're gasping at such good fortune, I say to Miss Lid: "Grab a flapjack and a tomato sandwich." I add a coffee. These all go onto the customer's tray. I pay, and everyone leaves happy.
The National Theatre Mezzanine Restaurant looks like a school canteen, with illustrated figures on a band around the walls. I once ate some awful sausages there with the impresarios Michael Codron and Sir Cameron Mackintosh. Later, Michael Codron said they'd improved. So I gave it a try. The restaurant manager, Giuseppe Fortis, is exceptionally pleasant. He has been there 21 years. You feel no dramatic change has taken place during that period.
On a recent visit I had roasted peppers with goat's cheese (adequate) and steak baguettes for both of us. Nobody asked how we wanted them cooked, but we got one medium rare and one medium, which was okay. My only complaint was that they didn't have Coca-Cola, only Pepsi.
In the interval, I got Coke in the VIP room, which is excellently hosted by Nick Huggins. As I entered the elevator to return to the play, two middle-aged ladies got in. "You're famous, aren't you?" said one of them.
"I was last week. This week I'm a has-been," I replied.
She persisted. "No, you're famous."
"Not any more," I said.
"Are you a chef?" she asked.
"I'm nobody," I admitted.
The lady suddenly got it. "I know, you're BBC2, aren't you?" Mercifully, the lift doors opened and I was able to leave.
On a return visit to the Mezzanine Restaurant, I had fish cakes, which were all right, and an orange sorbet. Miss Lid had pasta in the shape of teensie-weensy bow ties. The tomato sauce was pleasant. I'm a great admirer of the National Theatre. The restaurant isn't appalling or anything, but it would be nice if the catering was upped to near the level of their productions. I'm sure Trevor Nunn will want to spend personal time achieving this.
I don't give money to the National, but I do donate to the Donmar Warehouse and the Almeida. And so should you. I don't even mind if you bung the National a few bob. On a recent visit to the Almeida Theatre in Islington, a lady said to me in Upper Street: "There are so many restaurants here, but they're all terrible." The public often provide me with enlightening information. I recall, years ago, visiting two well-known Islington restaurants, Frederick's and Granita, I found them both mediocre. Although I warmed to the lady who owns Granite, recently when she let me have a coffee there before an Almeida show.
Lionel Blair, starring with style at the King's Head Theatre (another cause I donate to), said the Turkish restaurant next door was excellent. He'd even seen Ralph Fiennes there. I tried a Turkish place across the road, the Harbour Restaurant. They produced some rather good lamb and a salad with toast potatoes and a mezze for Miss Lid plus soft drinks and water - all within six minutes of our entering. The owner, Volkan Altinok, said he and his brother had been there three years. Their father had opened Britain's ﬁrst kebab restaurant in the Holloway Road. "It was very popular with Irish people," he explained.
I went on to see a Jean-Paul Sartre offering at the Almeida. The play was terrific, surprisingly jolly. But I was disappointed to find only chocolate ice cream available in the intermission. Everyone knows Sartre goes best with vanilla.
Following the recent letter from Christina Nelson-Boyes (Style, June 18), I'm glad to see that the talking salt and pepper shakers are still gracing Michael's dining table. I take full credit for the good taste. They were a present from a wonderful shop in St Thomas, British Virgin Islands, where everything sings. If the photo had been taken in the bathroom, you may have spotted a toothbrush that sings:
"I'm your friend Brushy Brushy,
I keep your teeth shiny and white.
Please brush with me every day,
morning, noon and night!"
My only regret is that I didn't buy the ice-cream scoop that mooed.
Vanessa Perry, London
If Nigel Hess's £4.50 is a UK record price for a bottle of mineral water (Style, June 18), then the world record must surely belong to Royal Pavilion in Barbados. They charged £7. Fortunately, the complimentary afternoon tea and daily speedboat trip along the coast more than compensated.
Andrew Bainbridge, by e-mail
With reference to Tanya Crombleholme's letter (Style, June 11), I am amazed that any regular reader of Michael Winner's column could be so wimpish with the management of a restaurant that had served up a cooked beetle with her porterhouse steak. It was probably a cockroach - and that means a filthy kitchen. She should have gone mental, shouted the house down, gone berserk. I certainly would - and I'd have kept the evidence as well. The environmental health people would have been very interested. Listen to Winner's message and stick up for yourself, woman. Don't let these people get away with it.
Sheila Mawhood, High Wycombe, Bucks
Would Michael Winner please stop mentioning Chez Moi in his column? For the past 20 years I have frequented this little gem in London without ever failing to get a reservation to enjoy wonderful food, beautifully cooked and served with understated elegance, and wines - usually served by a Young French Wine Waiter of the Year - at prices that are affordable on a regular basis. I very much fear that with regular exposure in Winner's column it will become too well known, his slavish followers will fill the limited seating, and only the great man himself will then be able to secure a table without booking months in advance.
Maurice McCreanor, by e-mail