Manzi’s became St John Hotel

By London standards I enjoyed a near perfect martini cocktail in the new St John Hotel today waiting on my friend Tilly. I was reading about the early arrival of Discovery apples this year – a good 3 weeks before they would normally be picked.

Discovery was just that, but two enterprising apple farmers – one the late lamented father of a dear friend of mine – developed the apple into a fine tasting commercial entity.  I recall telling someone in the Farmers’ Club how we’d tried to save the original orchard in Langham.  She not only dismissed the apple as a non-starter, but rubbished the initiative too.  And we wonder why we have such problems with growing good food in this country when people like that reign the bar and pontificate. These are no Blue Collar Gastronauts, nor ever will they be.

The St John bar was minimalist to a point of pain – and to think it occupied the space of one of Soho’s most discreet trysting places – up those back stairs at Manzi’s. I dined only a few times at Manzi’s – the most memorable being with Stanley Franklin, then cartoonist on The Sun. We bumped into writer, ranconteur and wag Johnny Speight and dinner kicked off. Johnny was ranting about the BBC or something - and Franklin (he was always Franklin, never Stanley) was maudling about his day’s cartoon.

I’d bought the famous Will Owen inspired Bisto Kid’s take-off when Denis Healey came back from the IMF saying “Aaaaghhh Crisis? What crisis?”. The language at our table was so ripe that diners began to complain – rightly so. Speight was in full spate. ‘Til Death is do Part’ was at its zenith and he had a Roller and driver to prove it purring outside.

The most startling moment was when Franklin caught my eye as if to draw my gaze from his plate.  As quick as a card sharp he had the entire piece of grilled halibut into the napkin and into his tweed jacket pocket – as if nobody saw a thing.

We went back to his Barnes house – an Aladin’s cave of Franklin’s surreal and bizarre sculptures. He fed his cats with the fish from his fluffy pocket and  he poured us large tumblers of whisky.  I called for a cab, made excuses and left. Great guy, but there was some of the dark art about his house.  We’d lost Speight on the way.

For ages Manzi’s sat eerily laid up for lunch and yet the place was closed. I eat next door at Joy King Lau, where they make quite the best and freshest dim-sum anywhere in London.

For all the hype, all the scaffolding and all the waiting, St John for me is best past on by – but who are my in this great metropolis?

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