Michael Winner was not as other restaurant critics. The fact was, he didn't really give a toss about the food, as long as it wasn't too demanding or showy. For him it was about the room and the service. Most of all it was about Michael Winner, and whether he was having an utterly terrific time. He was Mr Toad of The Wind in The Willows made flesh. And how could you not like Mr Toad?
Over the years people would rage about his column in the Sunday Times. What, they asked, did the man know about gastronomy? Not much, to be fair. But that's to misunderstand the job. Restaurant critics aren't there to sell restaurants. They are there to sell newspapers, and he did that very well indeed, mostly by giving people an insight into the life of a rich and famous man with an overweening ego. Whether he was dismissing Michel Roux Snr of the three Michelin star Waterside Inn as a chef "fit only for motorway cafes", calling the famed Spanish restaurant Arzak "ghastly" or declaring AA rosettes to be "worth less than a used plastic cup" as a measure of quality, he was always highly entertaining.
And yet all this bluster and crafted hyperbole hid a secret. He may have made some horrendous - and horrendously violent - movies. He may have possessed a PhD in rudeness. But in person he could be a very lovely man. For all his grandness, he always answered his own phone to journalists; there were no battalions of secretaries and flunkies. He made a point of helping young reporters who were starting out. He was generous with his money to charitable causes. Nor did he see the restaurant writing gig as merely a route to a free lunch. Although he was well paid for his copy he never claimed expenses, which is just as well as he sometimes arrived at restaurants by helicopter. (On finding a bottle of a 1982 Chateau Pétrus on the wine list at Michael's Nook in Grasmere priced at £995 he gasped that it was, "Unbelievably cheap. It is on offer at Gordon Ramsay for £3,000". Only Winner.)
Of course, he could be horribly demanding. I saw him last at the Wolseley on London's Piccadilly, where he was a regular. He was with his wife Geraldine at a corner table, which he was measuring with a tape measure. I asked him what he was doing. "My usual table was not available," he said, "So they gave me this one which they said was the same size but I said it was smaller, so I'm checking." And are you right, I asked? "Of course I'm right," he said, and howled with laughter. Sure, a few waiters may be relieved that he is no longer around to torment them. Nevertheless the rest of the restaurant world will miss him terribly.
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