SO THERE I was, standing in the Somerfield checkout queue, when the phone rings. "I'm gonna f*** you," says a voice. Now, as it happens - you may not be totally surprised about this - it's not the first time I've had a threatening phone call, so I wasn't all that bothered. "Who is this?" I said. "You've always had it in for me," said the mystery caller. "You and your little blog, you c***. I'm gonna sue you."
After a few more servings of abuse, I finally worked out who it was. "Is this Frank Dowling?" I said, incredulously. It was. Frank, for those of you not aware of him, is the American businessman who now owns roughly half the pubs and restaurants in central Greenwich, including the Trafalgar Tavern, the Spread Eagle, the Admiral Hardy, the Coach and Horses, the Bar du Musee, the George delicatessen, the Greenwich Park Bar & Grill, the Inc Bar, the (now-closed, and not even slightly missed) Lani Tiki Lounge - plus a whole load of concept outlets at that shrine to high catering, the 02.
You can't tell their ownership from their names - they've kept their original titles. But you can tell, if you're a regular Greenwich eater, from their almost universal mediocrity. As I said in the March 2008 Evening Standard review which cemented my very special relationship with Frank, "none is exactly bad, but all are somehow dispiriting. The food is not disastrous, but it is bland. Both it and the staff seem interchangeable between 'outlets.'" This verdict was described as "absolutely correct" by the leading London restaurant critics and publishers of Harden's Guides, Richard and Peter Harden, on their blog.
But though Frank's grub may not be all that good, he's certainly a better class of nuisance caller than my usual kind. They normally tend to be assorted scrotes that I've turned over in print somewhere or other, not local multi-millionaire businessmen. I pointed this out to Frank and said I was a bit surprised at his behaviour.
The cause of the latest food-fight was a column I did for greenwich.co.uk about three weeks ago, listing the local restaurants and takeaways which had failed the council's hygiene awards inspection - meaning, in the council's words, that they were "not up to standard" for cleanliness.
Among them were three of Frank's - the Coach and Horses in the Market, plus Inc Brasserie and Union Square at the 02. I highlighted them - along with Rhodes Bakery, the local branch of the Prezzo chain and three non-Frank pubs, the Mitre, the Richard I and the Gipsy Moth - as well-known places which charge quite fancy prices but which have all failed the hygiene test. I didn't make a special feature of Dowling's emporia - I even pointed out that his one halfway decent restaurant, the Spread Eagle, had passed the inspection. But if you are Frank Dowling, I suppose you have good reason to be sensitive about your coverage.
The phone call ended with Frank promising to sue and demanding the documentation for my story. I pointed out that the piece contained a link to the council's food hygiene awards report, which is carried on its website.
Two and a half weeks on, I'm still waiting for the writ, though I did get another couple of kindly texts from the great entrepeneur saying: "Why don't you go away. You have no clue about real people, real lives. You seek to destroy everything you touch...I got something for you. I will send you a picture of it when it's done. You will love it." Still no sign of that, either - and I can't wait to see what form the "something" will take.
Maybe it'll be a repeat of a threat made during one of our previous spats, when Dowling said he would ban me from all his properties. I did point out that this was perhaps not the most spine-chilling prospect for a person who has publicly written that he would rather eat in McDonalds than any of the Dowling establishments.
Rather than ringing up and ranting at me, Frank, the best way to stop people attacking your empire is to raise standards a bit. And until you do, I'll go on knocking you, from time to time.