Ring cycle: Alex Chesterman with Michael Winner at Bagelmania (Georgina Hristova)
Life normally jogs along placidly. Then something happens so awful, so disgraceful, so indicative of appalling service, food and management, that I wonder: "Was this really possible?"
Such an event occurred at the Four Seasons hotel in Mayfair. I dropped in for tea. We entered the coffin-like lounge. It's drearily panelled. I'd been told they were restoring it, but it looked as unattractive as ever. A single waiter saw us sit down, but ignored us to change a cloth and re-lay a table. They were not busy. Nobody came to that table during our stay.
We were given a menu. After a long wait, our order was taken. A menu page announced: "Jubilee Afternoon Tea, £22." This consisted of tea, sandwiches, scones, cakes and sorbet. At the bottom it said: "The Lounge is delighted to have been awarded 'London's 1999 Top Tea Place of the Year' by the British Tea Council."
I ordered the Jubilee Tea, with earl grey. The tea arrived without the rest of the stuff. It was made with tea bags. Obviously, since the British Tea Council gave the Four Seasons its award, things have gone downhill. We waited endlessly.
By the time the sandwiches came, the waiter had removed the teapot and I'd ordered some more to drink with the sandwiches. I asked why the sandwiches were taking so long. The waiter said: "We have to wait because they're making them fresh." Fresh was one thing they were not. The bread in the centre was soft, but the edges were hardened and curled up.
I asked for the manager. Rachel Begbie was the duty manager and the training manager. I told her I was disgusted to be given tea bags. She said: "We do not serve tea bags here, Mr Winner. All our tea is made from fresh leaves." I said: "I've just had tea bags." "You can't have done," said Rachel dismissively.
As she spoke, the second pot of tea arrived. A tea-bag tag hung from it. "What is that, Ms Begbie? Is it not a tea bag?" I asked. "I don't understand it," mumbled Ms Begbie.
I continued: "Will you please touch this bread?" I indicated the stale sandwiches, two of which I'd taken one bite from and left. "You can clearly see it's old."
"The bread is made here, it cannot possibly be stale or old," said Ms Begbie. If you showed Ms Begbie a dead fish, she'd say it was a live lamb.
"Can I have your phone number," asked Ms Begbie. What's she after? I wondered. A relationship?
"Why should you have my phone number?" I asked. "I'll get the food and beverage manager to call you tomorrow," said Ms Begbie. "I don't wish to speak to the food and beverage manager. I just want you to know this tea is a disgrace. If you're the training manager, take your staff to the Dorchester, Claridge's or the Ritz and they can learn how to serve a decent tea."
Ms Begbie left. I stayed to try inferior scones and appalling, sticky and overpowering cakes. The guava sorbet was good. When I asked for the bill, the waiter said: "There's no bill. Mr Winner. You're our guest."
"No, I'm not," I said. I paid and left. It was a truly horrible experience.
A few days later, a poppy bagel with double Scottish smoked salmon, cream cheese, lemon and capers arrived at my house courtesy of Robert Earl. Mr Earl, together with his associate, Marco Pierre White, is a partner in Bagelmania, headed by Alex Chesterman. This hopes to do for bagels what Pret A Manger did tor sandwiches. I've always liked bagels, so on my way to The Ivy for Saturday lunch, I dropped into a Bagelmania outlet on the same block. It looked grossly uninviting. "Rather like a 1920s caravan," I dictated. Even though I've no idea what a 1920s caravan looks like. It was all light wood, apparently cheaply done. But there was an impressive display of fruit juices, softies, endless bagels with different fillings and Walkers crisps. My favourites.
Alex recommended the Marco Pierre White bagel with peanut butter and sliced bananas. Fresh from the oven. Marco told me he'd seen a TV programme and noted Elvis liked peanut butter and banana sandwiches. So do I. I have them toasted at home.
I've also had a lot of bagels from Bagelmania. Mostly they were very good. I then strolled to The Ivy for lunch. I had asparagus. mushroom and wild garlic tart, the Ivy hamburger and bramley apple crumble. All for £19 - £3 less than my terrible tea at the Four Seasons. There must be a moral somewhere. You tell me what it is.
I read with dismay Michael Winner's Putting on the Ritz article. His slur against Dominic Corolleur of Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's is unbelievable. I have always found Mr Corolleur to be a gracious, polite and understated host.
Sara Nash, by e-mail
I am inclined to believe that the treatment Mr Winner receives when visiting restaurants is not quite the same as that afforded a mere peasant such as myself. The fact that he was permitted to take a photograph at the Ritz (April 21) demonstrates my point. Having made a 400-mile round trip to celebrate a golden wedding at the Ritz, we were vehemently denied the use of a camera, even though the restaurant was practically empty. Perhaps next time we have a similar problem, Michael could nip round and solve it for us. I will, of course, reimburse him for the petrol.
Derek R Waterhouse, Bradford
Michael Winner writes about the Ritz: "You have to wear a tie, but I'm capable of that under duress." However, if the accompanying photograph is anything to go by, it seems that he is, in fact, far from capable. One would have assumed that knotting a tie would be a "piece of cake" for someone who is so pedantic when it comes to the particulars of good form. Alas, Mr Winner appears to be sporting a scrawny knot, followed by several yards of crab-smeared silk. Messrs Harvie & Hudson must be turning in their graves.
Col Graeme "Chopper" Rablah (retired), by e-mail
I never thought I'd see the day when Michael Winner condescended to wear a tie. I have always thought of him as something of a pioneer, setting a natty dress trend at the same time as demanding quality and service. But now he has let an outfit like the Ritz dictate what he wears. Shame on him.
Iain Chapman, Marciac, France
I read with interest Michael Winner's feature on the Ritz, and agree with all that he said. However, I wonder if he had the same experience as me with the wine. I lunched there recently and had a jolly time, but there was one thing that appalled me: having ordered a bottle of Amerone and a bottle of St Joseph, the waiter then called the wines by number and not by name, in the style of a cheap Chinese restaurant. I did comment - and he did have the grace to blush. But really! Any comments?
Michael Nixon, Newark, Notts
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