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Breaking the code

Published 1 March 1998
Style Magazine
242nd article

The tie that binds: Michael Winner and David Tang (Vanessa Perry)

When I started going out big-time in the 1950s, people frequently dined in evening dress. After first nights, the plush red banquettes of Le Caprice were full of men in black tie, sometimes white tie and tails, with women to match. There was dear Noel Coward looking ever so chic, there even dearer Ivor Novello and, in the corner, isn't it Larry and Viv? The poshest club in town, the 400, was in Leicester Square. They wouldn't let you in if you weren't in evening dress.

I ruminate on these matters because Claridge's, one of the last bastions of "You must dress up to eat here", recently decided to allow people in for lunch without a tie. Good for them. At 11.40am on Sunday I called to make a reservation. The restaurant phone rang for a very long time. "There's no answer," said the hotel operator. "Impossible," I said. "Try again." She did; still no answer. Somewhat huffily I got through to the duty manager, gave my view of matters and asked her to tell them I was coming.

Forty minutes later, I phoned again to check the no-tie rule was still in place. The restaurant phone rang for ages. At last they did respond. I decided to have a ring around. The Connaught answered very quickly; they needed a tie for lunch and dinner. The Ritz said the same. The Berkeley only needed you to wear a tie in the evening. The most efficient phone service was at the Savoy. A young man answered after half a ring and said: "Savoy, good morning, sorry to keep you." If he'd answered any quicker he'd have responded five minutes before I dialled the number. He had a very charming phone manner, so much so that I rang back to get his name. It's Danny Savage. Ramon Pajares, the group boss, should promote him at once. The Savoy restaurant answered quickly, too - ties required, except Saturday and Sunday lunch. Which leaves Wiltons in St James's as probably the only restaurant in London outside of a hotel that requires even me to wear a tie all the time.

Claridge's restaurant was surprisingly full, but I've always considered it the best Sunday lunch in town: all-in at £29. "Forty people came in without booking," said the maitre d', Francesco Malena, as if this were very unfair. "Too right they didn't book," I thought. "Tried to, but nobody was there to take the reservations." I noticed all the men wore ties, even my friend David Tang, the high-powered Hong Kong entrepreneur whose New York store had such a sensational opening. If you want to goad one of those over-the-top three-star Michelin chefs who specialise in elaborate, overfussed plate decoration, say casually: "Could I have some pommes soufflees?" I bet you they can't do it. They'll say it's not on the menu. It's not on Claridge's menu, but they do them superbly. They're delicious little bags of potato, like crisps turned into small balloons, only less so. The Dorchester tried valiantly; I even sent them the recipe from my Larousse Gastronomique, a handy book that tells what each dish consists of - something I seldom know. The Dorchester Grill eventually got them to perfection. Now, there's an elegant place with no dress code at all. You see a mix of people dressed "proper", others in jeans, T-shirts, and even trainers. I think it works very well.

The most amusing dress codes are those at the Sandy Lane in Barbados. Each year they change. Two years ago it was no denim after 7pm. One year ago it was no jeans or T-shirts. This year it was no T-shirts, although I saw a few slip through. Chris Rea wore one in the casual downstairs restaurant. "Miracle they let you in," I observed. "It's silk," said Chris, surrounded by ghastly cheap shirts on other men.

Also this year, the printed instructions had changed to "No blue jeans". I brought this up with the manager, Colm Hannon. "Are you saying, Mr Hannon," I started, "that I can wear bright red jeans, or screaming pink jeans, or even hideous, glaring green jeans, but not blue jeans?" "That's right," said Mr Hannon. "Could I," I continued, warming to the matter, "wear dark blue jeans, which are considerably more formal than pink, red or green?" "No, that's not allowed," said Mr H. "Don't you think that strange?" I said, feigning confusion. "We have to draw the line somewhere," said Colm. I like the idea that complete lack of reason lives on in far-flung parts of the world. I shall just have to preserve my blue jeans for the poshest and most elegant hotels in London. Nobody's ever objected to them there.


I was recently a guest in a party of 12 at the Criterion restaurant in Piccadilly. When we ordered, our host's daughter inquired if her lamb, described as "pink" on the menu, could be slightly better cooked and was told, quite flatly, "no". The lamb was described as pink and that was the way the chef would serve it. She decided not to make a fuss, but when the lamb arrived it was very rare and she could not eat it. Our host then asked the manager if the chef could cook it a little more. Again they said no. Eventually, after two more discussions, they conceded and produced it just as she liked it, after creating a tense and hostile atmosphere. Incidentally, two of the guests had ordered medium calves' livers and they arrived well done, two tartes tatin were so overcooked they were black, and two apple crumbles were served with raw crumble. Why did the chef make such a fuss about allegedly spoiling one creation, when he managed to spoil several other dishes anyway?
A D Fisher, Peterborough

A few weeks ago I visited the Granary restaurant in London W1 for lunch. I plumped for steak pie, which was accompanied by only four new potatoes. My request for green vegetables was met with mirth and I was advised that "everything is in there, sir", as I was shown approximately five soggy, semicircular bits of courgette hiding in the gravy. I eventually negotiated for three small florets of broccoli to be placed by hand on top of my "meal". The meat in the pie tasted like tinned mince and the pastry had turned as grey and limp as an old lettuce leaf. I also had a glass of wine and a coffee, and I think I momentarily blacked out as the till rang up: the small meal had come to £16.70! Please could Michael Winner visit and give the country his opinion. I'm not a bitter man, I'm just looking for some empathy.
Bob Owen, London N1