Published 27 April 1997 Style Magazine 199th article
Losing the race: Michael Davidson, the manager of the Rib Room at the Hyatt Carlton Tower hotel, with Michael Winner (Vanessa Perry)
Come in, Sheik Mohammed. Forego a day at the races, maybe more, and sort out your Hyatt Carlton Tower hotel in Cadogan Place. To call it a mess gives new kindness to the meaning of the word. Sheik Mohammed is a super-rich chap, very nice I hear, and the leading racehorse owner in the UK and probably the world. But has he had lunch recently at the Rib Room? This used to be fashionable in the 1960s: I once waited half an hour in the bar for Orson Welles while he waited in the upstairs bar for me. The steaks and roast potatoes were very good, and the whole place was decorated with pleasing pencil sketches by Feliks Topolski. As Vanessa was going shopping in Sloane Street (never my happiest moment), I thought I'd relive my lunches at the Rib Room.
It was Saturday, but as we drove past it looked empty. A very charming girl at reception called Cathy couldn't tell me if it was closed or not, but she led me down a corridor to check. At first it was difficult to see; two waiters were visible, but no customers. It turned out it was open and the restaurant manager, Michael Davidson, showed me the table on the slightly upper level next to the only two tables that were occupied. I chose to be more solo, sitting on a bright brown leather banquette in an old-fashioned room that looks like it had been furnished by an international hotel group that did everything by the book.
The set lunch at £26 excluding service comes to £29.90 with 15% added - more than the Dorchester or Claridge's. The bread was deeply uninteresting, a limited choice - you get 12 different breads at the Dorchester, all good. Then I had chopped liver that was tired and Vanessa had pea soup that tasted of nothing. "I was looking forward to that," she said as she pushed the bowl away.
My main course was rib of beef with roast potato and Yorkshire pud. It was large but blank. Vanessa had fried fillets of sole. She pushed her fork on top of one of the strips "Look," she said, as grease ran up through the prongs, "they haven't dried it properly." Her broccoli was vastly overcooked. She ate practically nothing.
To end this fiasco I had coupe Robert, which was unexceptional strawberry ice cream with bits of fruit. Vanessa chose from the a la carte. Well she might . . . there were only two desserts on the set menu as opposed to 14 at the Dorchester and at Claridge's. Her Carlton Tower brownie with chocolate sauce was the coup de grace - beyond-belief awful and it must have been in the freezer for ever. For "atmosphere" there was horrible discordant jazz-note Muzak and, after a short time, what sounded like some demented child playing the piano out of tune. It turned out to be an old man. "He's from one of the local art dealers," obliged Michael the maitre d'. "I hope his paintings are better than his piano playing," I muttered.
This was memorably one of the worst meals I have ever eaten. The menu offered only two main courses - the Dorchester gives you five, all excellent. There they have even put in a special phone with its own number for the Grill Room because I complained so much about how long it took the hotel operators to answer. Sheik Mohammed need not bother with a Rib Room line for me, unless he performs miracles. It is quite astounding that in a London bursting with good restaurants, and in a very posh hotel on Sloane Street, a room can exist with such a mini menu and such dire food. No wonder nobody was eating there. The Ivy, Le Caprice and Bibendum would all be full, I thought. Maybe they are secretly paying the staff at the Rib Room to keep it awful. In all fairness (if I must!), the service was excellent, plates were whisked away as soon as we had finished eating, and that was quite a skill because we had removed very little of the original food.
The ultimate indignity came when a large bowl on a stand was produced and the waiter triumphantly lifted the top. A mass of dry ice whooshed everywhere, eventually revealing six chocolates, all the same. You know you have had a terrible meal when you get this daft performance. I ate one of these, unquestionably the most miserable chocolate I have ever experienced. "They taste very cheap," said Vanessa, pulling a face.
I usually admire rich people who buy trophy hotels. Around the Rib Room are bronzes of racehorses, presumably a link to Sheik Mohammed and his turfing. I have an idea: his horses should eat at the Rib Room instead of people. They would win any race just not to have to go back.
At the end of a family meal at Alastair Little in Lancaster Road, London W11, my father kindly picked up the bill, which proclaimed service not included. When my father checked carefully he realised that the total did, in fact, include 12.5% service, automatically added on as we were a party of eight. An unpleasant scene ensued as this was sorted, with minimal apologies on the waiter's side. Does everyone have to play this game to avoid paying 25% service?
Matthew Preston, London SW6.
Michael Winner has often stated that Harry's Bar in Venice is his all time favourite. How revealing. On a recent visit to this establishment I found the decor drab, the food foul and the service shameful. And what self respecting "bar" would refuse to serve beer? The words pompous, pretentious and patronising spring to mind. As I said, how revealing.
Kirsten von Rogers, Brighouse, W Yorks.
For the past 30 years, my first thought each Sunday - wherever I am in the world - is to get hold of a copy of The Sunday Times. After Section 1 and Motoring, I turn to Winner's Dinners. I find his off-hand attitude to basic necessities such as trips to the Caribbean, popping to Provence for lunch, £600 bottles of wine and the way he treats minions in vulgar eateries highly entertaining. I would love to have a life like his, but I have to spend the rest of Sunday dreaming of winning the lottery.
Stephen Lowe Helsinki, Finland.