Published 24 September 2000 Style Magazine 376th article
Fabric of society: from left, Michael Winner, Georgina Hristova and Peter Crome (Pascal Vallee)
I owe an apology to the many readers who write asking to be reminded of restaurants I've recommended or to seek general advice. I never answer them. My columnist hobby is a small cottage industry conducted from my Victorian mansion. We're full of cleaning, cooking and domestic staff, but light on secretarial help. However, a paperback of Winner's Dinners is coming, revised and updated from last year's posh edition. For a very modest outlay you can check on anything I've ever said. Mein Karnpf diminishes into insignificance by comparison.
To be an annual arbiter of the nation's taste buds, is a heavy responsibility. Hotels and restaurants change with remarkable speed. There have already been three different chefs in command of the recently reopened Belvedere - luckily all good. So I thought it wise to check the quality, or diminishment of it, at Chewton Glen in Hampshire, which received my Best UK Hotel Outside London award. The managing director, Peter Crome, got Best Hotel Manager.
It's more than a year since I passed through their doorway, so the helicopter was summoned. I was saddened to discover that they'd fallen into the appalling habit of serving tea alone, without sandwiches and cakes. These came later, and after a reminder. All should arrive together. A nearby group included a man with a rubber fish on a display board. He walked around the lounge gleefully squeezing the fish, which made loud "singing" noises. I appreciate quiet. This was gross and tacky. When I mentioned it to Peter Crome, he looked pained. "I thought it was quite amusing," he said.
I found this particularly odd, because the next day Peter came to the after dinner to report that guests had commented I was wearing jeans. "I told them I only look at Mr Winner's face," Peter said. This means Chewton Glen guests accept a man with a singing, rubber fish in the lounge, but don't appreciate my beautifully pressed Versace jeans. The visitors to Chewton Glen are very pleasant people, but they're certainly not elegant. "Look at those awful, crumpled, beige, cheap cotton trousers." I said to Peter, indicating a man nearby. "And what about those shoes? They came from a car-boot sale."
I thought I was rather natty. Beautiful light-blue jeans, a dark-blue Briony blazer, a Turnbull & Asser white shirt, my handmade Bally black suede shoes and a very fine Patek Philippe watch. I certainly wasn't the worst-dressed man in the dining room. "I wear these clothes in Claridge's, the Dorchester and similarly elegant places," I continued, warming to the subject. "I've worn jeans here for years. "
"I never noticed," Peter responded.
"Does it mention jeans in the hotel rule book?" I asked. It did. Buried away it said, regarding dinner: "No Denim."
"Denim, Peter, does not require a capital D," I pointed out.
Let it not be thought that Chewton Glen is less than superb. The emmenthal double-baked cheese souffle was one of the best things I've ever eaten. The local lobster from Christchurch was likewise historic in taste and texture. At a later lunch, the asparagus was great and the roast beef the best I've had in England. The freshly made-for-me Yorkshire pudding was also unbeatable. I'm glad an overtly pompous head waiter, who'd previously refused to order new Yorkshire pud for me, had gone. "You frightened him away," said Peter. It's nice to know I do good as I progress through life.
There were 11 desserts on the set menu. My caramelised pineapple and marzipan cake topped with home-made rum-and-raisin ice cream was fine, but read better than it tasted. I had a half-bottle of Haut-Brion 1988 for £225, including service. Chris Davis, who sells to restaurants and me, offered the same half at £52.50. So that's a truly whopping mark-up - well over four times cost.
I remain firmly of the view that Chewton Glen is a beautifully run hotel. Even though I waited an hour and a half for an urgent fax one morning, and for an hour of that time it was sitting untouched in the fax machine. After an evening out, I returned to their lounge. "I can't believe it!" I thought. "There's a really elegant group." I got up to peer at four people from a different world from everyone else. It was this newspaper's AA Gill with his exquisitely dressed, beautiful accomplice, Nicola Formby, and with them the film producer Eric Fellner and his model girlfriend, Laura Bailey. Joyous greetings followed. Peter should pay them to sit around every night. They didn't mind my Versace jeans. Poor old Mr Crome. Can you imagine - AA Gill and me turning up on the same night? There's a coincidence he can do without.
Michael Winner got further than my friend and I did at Sugar Reef (Style, September 10) recently. The naff venue, aggressive air conditioning and - sorry, but I have to be honest - cringe-worthy clientele made us feel too queasy even to sample the menu. As we left, the pleasant man at the front desk asked what the problem was. My honest reply was simply to point out that it was tacky.
Lulu Holmes, by e-mail
Our favourite out of town venue is Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire. So when my wife noticed a special offer for the restaurant in the Waitrose magazine, we booked instantly. Upon arrival, we parked our not-so-old car next to the not-so-cheap Porsches and Ferraris, then made our way towards the entrance of the restaurant, eagerly looking forward to a sublime culinary experience. On entering the restaurant, we were greeted by a charming maitre d', who announced to all and sundry: "Ah, Mr and Mrs Austin, welcome. You're the Waitrose special offer, aren't you?" Not sure whether to gag him or make a quick retreat, we found ourselves nodding obediently as we were guided to our table. It was with heads bowed that we slumped into our seats and only looked up again to order dessert.
Michael Austin, Pinner, Middlesex
A couple of years ago, Mr Winner wrote a piece about Reid's Hotel in Madeira, in which he described it as his "most awful hotel experience ever". My husband and I have just spent a wonderful week there, however, and found the hotel clean, well decorated and with service that is beyond criticism. Mr Winner should bear in mind that it requires considerable skill (not to mention investment) to strike the right balance between historic charm and the demands of modern travellers. Reid's pulls it off admirably.
Lyn Ferguson, by e-mail
On the occasion of a special outing for my 96-year-old mother, we chose Harvey Nichols in Leeds. We sat down, ordered tea and, some minutes later, our waitress reappeared with the crockery, glasses and food balanced on a rimless tray at an ominous angle. Before we knew it, the whole lot had slid off onto our laps, legs, clothes and bags. The manageress offered to relocate us to a table by the window and have our clothes cleaned on the house, but we were too drenched and dazed, so we departed.
J L Fisher, Leeds
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