Fine advice from Henry VIII

The face on the brochure is that of Henry VIII and for good reason. Apart from his many wives, Henry's other excess was food. He dined like a king and then some. So when New York's Howard Fine put together a program designed to put equally good (but less costly) food in front of American and Canadian visitors to London, it seemed only fitting that King Henry help with the promotion.

Whether Henry can claim much credit or whether it was simply an idea that finally met the mood and the need of the day, Mr. Fine's "Eat like a king; dine around London a la carte" has proved an outstanding success. In its first year of operation since King Henry lent his name to the operation (it has been an available but little-known option for several years before 1979), it grossed $20 million. Now the program is being extended to other nationalities as well. Only the British, it seems, will be required to pay top price in their own better restaurants.

The system works this way: You buy a set of vouchers through your travel agent before you leave, entitling you to four meals in specific restaurant categories. On arrival at the London restaurant of your choice, you order whatever is on the menu and no matter what price (be it the most expensive dish in the house or the cheapest) you part up with just one voucher that includes both tax and tip.

Under such favorable conditions, ordering liver and onions when lobster Provencal is on the menu is unthinkable. So it is a relatively simple matter to eat meals valued well in excess of the cost of the vouchers. As one New York resident put it in decidedly satisfied tones: "At our first meal, my wife and I ate a la carte items totalling $20 more than the total cost of the vouchers and we still had two meals to go!"

After returning from London a little more than a year ago, Mr. Fine, an executive with the Trust Houses Forte group in New York City, was discussing the experience with a friend. "I dined like a king," he said. That was it! Why not sell the pre-paid dining option with an "eat like a king" slogan. So King Henry was brought into the picture and the rest is history.

All told there are 17 luxury restaurants, 19 first-class restaurants, and 17 pub restaurants in the program. Among them is Le Relais Du Cafe Royal in Regent Street where you can enjoy two dinner courses, go to a theatre, and then return after the show for dessert. Another favorite is the Hunting Lodge where lobsters, Scotch salmon, roast beef, and prime steaks are served in an Olde England atmosphere made rich by its wood paneling, leather, brass, and antique lamps.

The "eat like a king" dining passports bought as gifts for others as well as by tourists for their own use -- by parents to touring children (to make sure they eat at least some good meals), by children to parents in a "thanks for everything" gesture, and very frequently by Americans returning from Britain and sending one as a thank-you gift to their English hosts.

Some English visitors to the US are "cashing in on a good thing" as they see it, and buying a passport or two before returning home. On at least one occasion, a coupon remaining unused at the close of a trip was given to a concierge in lieu of a tip.

The "eat like a king" passports are available in three classes: the King Arthur (two first-class restaurant vouchers, two pub restaurant vouchers -- at $ 55), the King Edward (one luxury voucher, two first-class vouchers, and one pub voucher -- at $70) and the King Henry (two luxury vouchers, one first-class voucher, one pub voucher -- $85).

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