Hence perhaps my sense of disappointment when we had dinner there the other night, with my conductor friend and his lovely, exotic, and darkly twinkling wife. I had considered taking them to the Grand's more expensive Mirabelle, but it was block-booked for a function, and I thought I might get away with the alternative, at a fixed price of pounds 25 a head, on the grounds that it would give a truer picture of what the hotel's food was really like.
We were therefore sitting in what is called the Garden Room, which was a clutter of tables too close together, ugly chairs with arms, upholstered in grim stripes, a carpet our friends described afterwards as "a sort of raspberry woosh", up-lit walls crudely painted with floral patterns, and strange curved ceiling-pieces jutting out into the room over two long tables at either end, presumably to encourage a sense of privacy at functions.
In the corner, to sporadic applause from the defeated-looking guests sandwiched in among the maze of tables, a pianist was playing "Stormy Weather" with a lot of tinkly notes in the right hand. Most upsetting of all, we were looking at a menu headed De Vere Hotels and my wife, having read it through with a kind of horrified disbelief, was wailing in her best centre-stage act three of Greek tragedy voice, "What can we eat?" My conductor friend, who spends a lot of time abroad, likes his food and knows all about wine, then brought the menu even more sharply into critical focus by saying that it was as if Elizabeth David had never lived.
Looking at it, I saw what he meant, and also understood my wife's wail. There was tuna mayonnaise salad, chilled crown of galia melon, grilled rainbow trout with prawns and lemon, and a puff pastry turnover of mushroom and onion in herb cream sauce. We asked for the vegetarian version, which offered avocado pear salad with grapefruit segments and tarragon dressing, but which otherwise looked slightly more hopeful.
The conductor and my wife both started with artichoke heart, feta cheese and black olive salad, the darkly twinkling beauty had sweet marinated dutch herring with dill, cucumber and yoghurt dressing, and I asked for a pasta salad with sun-dried tomato, toasted almond and lightly curried dressing, feeling so rattled by this time that I failed to notice it promised sweetcorn.
Meanwhile a second front was opened up on the wine. Aware that I was entertaining a proper connoisseur, I asked the conductor casually how he felt about a Chateau Cissac. What year? '89. He said that should be very good. The waiter brought it, having already screwed the foil off, and showed it to me. Chateau Cissac. I said it looked fine. The conductor intervened. Could he see it? It was not '89, it was '90. The waiter said he'd go and try to find the right year. Then he came back, shaking his head. The conductor said it would "probably be all right", and I tasted it, doing a bit of sloshing it round the glass and sniffing to give the impression I could at least tell Ribena from embalming fluid. It was unusually warm and tasted musty. I asked the conductor for a second opinion, and he was magisterial. It was almost certainly corked and had, he suspected, been kept too near a radiator.
The waiter asked if we'd like something else. I handed the wine-list to the conductor, and he suggested a bottle of Burgundy costing pounds 10 more than the ill-fated Cissac.
When it came I tasted it hurriedly, nodded, and the waiter filled all our glasses. The conductor sipped, I caught his eye guiltily like a tuba player who has blown a bum note, and he gave me a look of profound disappointment.
Meanwhile we ploughed on with the food. The darkly twinkling beauty, who is the best of eggs, characteristically tried to cheer me up by saying how good the herring was, and my wife and the conductor grumbled quietly on about the tinnedness of the artichoke hearts, and the shreddedness of the lettuce. The soup - one mushroom and three tomato and coriander - went down to grudging approval.
I made my way guiltily through a mound of sauteed liver, the conductor's wife did her best with two chunks of lamb in breadcrumbs, and the others keened on about their leek and Roquefort canneloni from the vegetarian menu being "slippery" and debating whether it contained any leek. The names of great continental hotels were bandied about, and I sank deeper in my chair. I had quite a nice apricot and passion fruit sorbet, the ladies shared a pile of coloured ice cream, and the conductor's biscuits and celery appeared 10 minutes after he'd finished eating his cheese.
Then a miracle happened. My guest was just wondering aloud whether Debussy ever stayed at the Grand when a young waiter, refilling his glass with some expensive Australian wine he'd found further down the list, told him that Debussy had actually written "La Mer" there. This paragon, it turned out, was a boy from my old school doing a holiday job. As he and the conductor chatted about Edward Elgar's visits to Eastbourne, I saw at last a gleam of approval in my guest's eye.
But please, give us a break. The fact that the dear old Grand belongs to De Vere Hotels is of interest only to the shareholders. Put the Grand back on the menu, trumpet the fact that Debussy and the Duke of Devonshire stayed there, pull your finger out in the kitchen, and let's restore a bit of pride to the place.
Dinner for two came to pounds 82.75. !Reuse content