To mark the new edition of his book Winner's Dinners, Michael Winner looks back an the good, the bad and the ugly of his year in restaurants
Published 12 November 2000 Style Magazine 383rd article
Michael Winner with Arrigo Cipriani of Harry's Bar, Venice, the winner of his award for best restaurant in the world (Georgina Hristova)
A lot has happened in the world of restaurants since my book of Winner's Dinners was first published last year. Most significant was the departure of Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin from The Ivy, Le Caprice and Sheekey's. These three restaurants were the cornerstone of my eating out in London and had achieved a success unparalleled in the history of British catering. I've never known any restaurant stay as good after the owners have left, so although I've given The Ivy the joint award for best British restaurant, it now has a question mark by it. In the meantime I, and many others. wait for the return of Mr C and Mr K.
I'm sure the culinary world will express disdain that I've put the long-lasting San Lorenzo in my top three restaurants in the country. But I think that, on the whole, the quality of its food is excellent, and going there is always a great pleasure, massively enhanced by the presence of Mara and Lorenzo Berni, who host the place so brilliantly.
I always like restaurants where the owner is on the premises and chipping in. At Harry's Bar in Venice, which gets my award for best restaurant in the world, Arrigo Cipriani is invariably there with his wry smile and his ability to identify everyone to me and have a bit of a chat about Venice. That is a big plus.
Going out to dinner must be enjoyable. It is not enjoyable if you cannot hear yourself talk over the din of other diners. It is not enjoyable if you are so close to the table next door that every time you take a knife or fork of food you nudge the person on the other side. I find the general lack of space in British restaurants appalling.
My worst restaurant experience remains the one that caused me to start writing reviews for this paper. A dreadful meal at Le Pont de la Tour where everything went wrong, followed by a rude letter from Terence Conran when I dared comment on it. I started writing my column solely in order to get revenge on Terence Conran. I think that is a splendid reason. Revenge is a splendid reason for doing anything.
Nor does it do any good to go out and remain silent when things are wrong, fume about it, and go home and say how awful things were. It is far better to say at the time, very pleasantly and quietly, if something is really wrong. I am in no way the rumbustious character people imagine, except when faced with really appalling service, as I was at Cliveden - recipient of my awards for both the worst service and the worst hotel anywhere. Things there really were dreadful, with filthy lipstick-stained glasses being passed off as "orange stain residue". At times like that I think one is entitled to get a little irritable, especially when it's in one of the most overpriced hotels in the world. Bill Gates is part-owner. If he'd run Microsoft like they run Cliveden he'd be living in a bedsit in Paddington.
I remain of the view that English cooking has not improved at all from the golden period of the 1950s, when food tasted like what it was meant to be, and vegetables and meat had not been overpurified, chemicalised and messed about. Packaging and deep-frozen food were hardly known. There was a large variety of traditional English dishes available that are now considered too simplistic or common. I'm getting extremely fed up with what is laughingly called English Cuisine or Nouvelle English Cuisine. It's had a shelf life far too long for its inadequacy. It's definitely time we developed a new style of cooking, and for that I think we should look back rather than forward. In this respect I'm interested that the great chef and restaurateur Marco Pierre White rang (as I was writing this) to tell me he intended to open Drones (probably opened by now) as a way of serving traditional English fare with a slightly modern touch.
I hope that those of you who buy my book will use it with confidence. Because, unlike all other food critics, I pay my own way everywhere. You are getting the views of a genuine punter.
Winner's Dinners (Robson £8.99) is available from The Sunday Times bookshop for £7.99, including Freepost. To order, call 0870 165 6585; or visit www.sundaytimes-eshop.co.uk
The Winner Awards 2000
New awards and those that have changed since last year are in italics
Some of the best . . . Best restaurant in the world: Harry's Bar, Venice Best restaurant ambience in the world: Downstairs at Harry's Bar, Venice Best UK restaurants: The Ivy (?), Assaggi and San Lorenzo (all in London) Best restaurant near my house: the Belvedere Best restaurant that nobody knows about: Alle Testiere, Venice Best cooking in the UK: Gordon Ramsay Best Chinese chef in the UK: Kam Po But at Memories of China (Pimlico), London Best hotels in the world: La Reserve de Beaulieu, Beaulie, France; Hotel Splendido, Portofino, Italy Best UK hotels in London: The Dorchester, Claridge's Best UK hotel outside London: Chewton Glen, New Milton, Hants Best and brightest person in UK catering: Marco Pierre White Nicest chef in the world: Robert Reid of the Oak Room, London Best restaurant greeter: Colin Smith of Chez Moi; Pietro Fraccari of Assaggi Best receptionist in the world: Mati Conajero of Belvedere, Criterion, etc Best guest relations manager in the world: Fausto Allegri, Hotel Splendido, Portofino, Italy Best view from a restaurant table: The Grill, Hotel de Paris, Monaco; La Tour d'Argent, Paris Restaurant where you see the most plastic surgery: San Lorenzo, London Best pub meal: Churchill Arms, Paxford, Glos.
. . . And the worst Most disappointing restaurant in the UK: The Waterside Inn, Bray, Berks Worst meal ever: Eurostar Worst restaurant service ever: Maison Novelli, London Second worst restaurant service ever: Le Pont de la Tour, London Phoniest restaurant line: "Your main course will be with you in a minute, sir" Worst restaurant ambience: Tamarind, London Wobbliest table: L'Ortolan, Shinfield, Berks Worst pub meal: Gwynn Arms, Glyntawe, Powys Tackiest pub: Mason Arms, Southleigh, Oxon Worst hotel anywhere: Cliveden, Taplow, Berks Hotel I've least enjoyed staying at: Malmaison, Glasgow Worst hotel service: Cliveden, as above