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16 April 2014

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Restaurant critic Michael Winner dies

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michael winner_2013 - Michael-Winner_rexfeatures_1823792a_resized.jpgMichael Winner, who was best known as a film-maker and restaurant critic, died yesterday aged 77.

Born in 1935 to a Polish mother and Russian-born millionnaire father, Michael Robert Winner – whose restaurant reviews cemented his status as a name-dropping bon viveur – grabbed life by the throat and learnt to value his connections right from the start: aged 14, he was already writing a gossip column for his local newspaper, The Kensington Post, called ‘Michael Winner's Show Talk’, using an interview with a child-star friend as his ‘in’.

Winner attended the St Christopher School in Letchworth, a Quaker school from which he was ultimately expelled, before studying economics and law at Cambridge. Following university, he worked for NME and The London Evening Standard before a series of showbiz-related odd jobs led him to films – a world in which he had always been interested.

Winner was a prolific film-maker throughout the 1960s and 1970s, directing more than 30 films and working with stars from Oliver Reed and Orson Welles to Marlon Brando and Charles Bronson. His debut, Shoot to Kill, was released in 1960, but his best-known work was the violent Death Wish trilogy of the 1970s, about an everyman anti-hero avenging the murder of his loved ones.

After reinventing himself as a food critic, most notably for the long-running ‘Winner’s Dinners’ column in The Sunday Times, the famously blunt and contrary man-about-town relished his self-defined role London’s most feared customer, demanding the highest level of service and the best table for himself and his celebrity pals, and taking to task any restaurants that he found lacking – both in the flesh and in print.

As a response to his withering put-downs, some London restaurants that had borne the brunt of his criticism banned him from returning, displaying stickers proclaiming ‘This restaurant is a Michael Winner-free zone’. Perhaps the most famous establishment where Winner was persona non grata was Le Gavroche, following a spat in the 1990s in which a member of staff burst into tears. The restaurant did not wish to comment on Winner’s death, but members of the public traded anecdotes of their dealings with the formidable critic via Twitter and websites such as The Guardian’s Comment is Free.

‘He was very frustrated with me once when on entering a restaurant I refused to acknowledge his demand for a table,’ wrote nattybumpo on guardian.co.uk. ‘He then asked the restaurant manager to sack me. The manager informed him that I was a customer and not an employee and that's when he went red in the face and stormed out.’

However, restaurants that found favour with Winner saw a softer side to him. ‘When I was a student I worked part-time, for about six months, in a restaurant that Mr Winner frequently ate at,’ wrote CentraSpike. ‘He always had a smile on his face, always tipped well and was never anything other than a gentleman to myself and all the other “little people” who worked there.’

Despite his blustering public persona and his tendency to ‘whine and dine’, friends also remember Winner as a kind, loyal and generous character – a one-off whose expansive sense of humour always allowed him to laugh at himself. Readers of The Sunday Times would send pointed or teasing letters to Winner, which were published alongside his column. He was also generous with money, giving damages he won from legal battles to charity and never claiming for his spare-no-expense review meals.

Above all, Winner was impossible to pigeon-hole. In 1984, moved by the death of PC Yvonne Fletcher, he set up The Police Memorial Trust, a charity that supports bereaved families of police officers killed in the line of duty; it was a cause to which he dedicated both time and money.

When asked to appear on Live and Uncut, a talkshow hosted by the Daily Mail’s Richard Littlejohn in the mid-1990s, the then-Conservative criticised the interviewer and programme-makers for their treatment of two other interviewees, a lesbian couple. Later in life, his cameos in Esure car insurance commercials coined the phrase, ‘Calm down dear! It’s a commercial.’ His offbeat pursuits included collecting ribald seaside postcards by Donald McGill (among other artwork) and tablemat-making.

In 2007, Winner contracted a rare and pervasive bacterial infection after eating oysters; the illness severely affected his liver and his health never fully recovered. He died in the same building he grew up in, in Holland Park, having bought the surrounding apartments piecemeal throughout his life and restored it to a complete 19th-century mansion.

A bachelor and enthusiastic ladies’ man for most of his life, Winner is survived by his wife Geraldine, who he had known for 56 years but married only two years ago. He is pictured with her, above, at their home in 2011. © Rex Features

Laughs to the last – top put-downs from Michael Winner restaurant reviews:

‘Courses that were so heavy that if Worrall Thompson had been the chef on the Titanic it would have sunk long before hitting the iceberg.’ Downstairs at 190

Mari Vanna - Mari_Vanna_2012_-_MariVanna_Interior_by_Lisa_Linder.jpg‘I’ve never had a finer soup. Some got on my shirt. I was dabbing it with my napkin when Rebecca asked: “Would you like a new napkin?” “How about a new shirt?” I responded.’ Mari Vanna (pictured, left)

‘I said to the surly waiter: “Order me a toffee apple: it’ll be ready by the time the ladies have finished.” It wasn’t. I waited and waited. I got every pathetic excuse. “It’s on its way.” “Where from, Australia?” I asked. China Tang

‘One of the first photographs you see as you walk in is of me with Ben Kingsley, who was in my last film, Parting Shots. It was about a young man who learns he is going to die and decides to knock off five of the people who most damaged him during his life. If I’d drawn up a list like that every time I’d been told I was dying, celebrity chefs would be extinct.’ Shepherd’s

‘Success has gone to my stomach.’

This story was published on 22 January 2013.

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