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With its famously long waiting list, legendary service and star-studded clientele, The Ivy is an icon of London’s dining scene. As the restaurant marks the 20th year since its major overhaul, Jennifer Sharp analyses its sustained success
If you are in your 30s, or younger, it’s hard to understand the fuss about The Ivy, which celebrates its 20th birthday this year. ‘Yeah, whatever’ you may mutter, as you read the latest Tweet on the newest East End hotspot. Soho? Covent Garden? We are so over those postcodes.
But The Ivy is more than just another entry in the guidebook. It’s a legend that captured the zeitgeist in the 90s, saw off the competition in the Noughties, and now embraces a confident future.
The Ivy began life in 1917, when a modest theatreland café was transformed into a restaurant. Its reputation was established in the pre-War years, with regulars like Noël Coward and Laurence Olivier and visiting Hollywood royalty. But a decline set in from the late 50s, as the smart set moved on and successive owners struggled to keep the magic alive. And by the mid-80s, The Ivy was neglected, run down and charisma-free. But change was just around the corner.
In 1990, Chris Corbin and Jeremy King bought and relaunched The Ivy, and created a phenomenon. They had already revived Le Caprice in Piccadilly and knew how to bring faded restaurants back to life. Working with architect MJ Long, they avoided anything modern or flashy to create a timeless interior. It looked as if it had been there forever, but was almost completely new.
The Ivy remains the same today, a comforting mix of wood panelling, brass inlays and subdued green leather, with subtle sightlines so the room is cheerful and open, yet full of surprises. Of the few existing features retained in the 1990 makeover, the windows guaranteed both light and privacy with translucent diamond panes interspersed with brilliant flashes of coloured glass. These windows have become emblematic of The Ivy, especially as Corbin and King understood the cachet of mystery and never allowed photography within the restaurant. Equally emblematic is the substantial collection of modern art amassed by the two new owners.
During the 90s, The Ivy evolved into the restaurant of choice for the New Establishment. The core showbiz clientele of theatre and ballet was enhanced by publishers and agents, figures from the art
world, PR, advertising and, of course, the media: editors, columnists, TV producers. They met, ate and struck deals.
In his waspishly funny book Labour Camp, design critic Stephen Bayley recalls lunch at The Ivy in the 90s: ‘David Puttnam importantly reading a script, John Mortimer, at his favourite corner table, is beckoning to Stephen Daldry on his favourite booth banquette, while Joanna Mackle, head of Faber & Faber, is lunching with [agent] Caroline Michel, and Melvyn [Bragg], tie loosened, looking hot, fusses in.’
‘The ivy is an iconic restaurant. when I first started going there, I found it almost impossible to get a table. I have a bit more luck these
Even politicians wanted to share the limelight. Peter Mandelson was a regular as New Labour found its comfort zone at The Ivy. After all, rubbing shoulders with John Malkovich, John Galliano, Nicole Kidman or Alexei Sayle was more entertaining than trad Labour hangout The Gay Hussar.
In 1997, the notoriously hard-to-please critic AA Gill wrote his affectionate portrait of the restaurant The Ivy: The Restaurant and its Recipes. He describes a table at The Ivy as ‘one of the most sought-after pieces of furniture in London’.
Well into the Noughties, the old magic was still working. Artist Marc Quinn proudly admitted to having eaten at The Ivy ‘tons of times over the years’ and identified its appeal as being just right
for every mood. ‘Sometimes it’s like being in a celebrity vortex, animated Hollywood; sometimes like your mum’s front room; sometimes the sexiest place on earth.’
So, what was the secret? How did a destination restaurant rise from the ashes of the old Ivy? How did it survive through two changes of ownership: Luke Johnson’s Signature Restaurants in 1998 and Richard Caring’s flamboyant buyout of the whole group in 2005? The answer lies in two basics: food and service.
The service standards of The Ivy became a legend. Considerate, thoughtful, omnipresent but never intrusive, helpful but never obsequious, friendly but never impertinent. Rivals looked on with envy. It may have been tricky to secure a table, but once inside, you were treated like a prince. Even the process of booking the ever-elusive table was an art, with the mix of customers and seating plan of each sitting choreographed with considerable flair.
Fernando Peire, lynchpin of unflappable service for many years, always conveys an easy elegance. His genius for detail is an integral part of The Ivy’s continuing prestige. Will Self described The Ivy’s front-of-house team as ‘supernannies of the celeb circuit’ but in fact, Peire makes celebrities feel at home by treating them like normal people, and treating ordinary people like celebrities. ‘Always look after the regulars,’ he says, ‘and don’t use stars like window dressing. Give them a bit of privacy. Uma Thurman doesn’t want to be stared at or, heaven forbid, asked for her autograph.’
Peire is an essential part of The Ivy, with two separate tours of duty, first in 1990-98 as senior maître d’, returning in 2007. Two years earlier, Caring had bought Caprice Holdings, planning a dynamic expansion of the whole group. Peire returned as a board director and as director of both The Ivy and the newly founded The Club at The Ivy, which opened in 2007 adjacent to the restaurant. Perhaps in his absence, in the mid-Noughties, standards had slipped? Did the success of Scott’s, which opened in 2006, erode The Ivy’s cachet? Peire makes no bones about it. ‘There was a time,’ he says, ‘maybe 2005-6, when there seemed to be the wrong sort of people in the room: not exactly coach parties, but people who were quite suburban, who would book six months in advance. And dreadful Big Brother types were getting tables. It was abysmal.’
But not any more. The strict booking system is back, and The Ivy is buzzing again with a chic new tranche. Now they have a choice: the restaurant proper, or the dazzling new Club, a few doors away. ‘Our regulars always treated The Ivy as a club,’ says Fernando, ‘but there is a need for somewhere more relaxed and versatile. A restaurant is for meals, but in the club, members can eat, drink, hold meetings, work, read the papers, play the piano or even smoke on the roof terrace,’ he says.
‘Sometimes it’s like being in a celebrity vortex; sometimes like your mum’s front room; sometimes the sexiest place on earth’ Marc Quinn
The food at The Ivy is an essential part of this 20-year story.Despite never having won a Michelin star, The Ivy menu is a masterpiece of clarity and appeal. No tricks, no confusion, just well-made food with properly sourced ingredients. The menu ranges from British classics like smoked salmon, fishcakes and shepherd’s pie to foreign influences such as aromatic duck salad with watermelon and chilli cashews. There’s even foie gras, roast lobster and caviar for pushing the boat out.
The Ivy has evolved a collaborative system whereby menus are constantly revised and improved. Each restaurant in the company is guided by standards set by the chef director and head chef. Tim Hughes, a veteran of the company, is chef director, with responsibilities over the whole of Caprice Holdings and beyond. CEO Des McDonald describes Hughes as ‘Mr Stardust’ for his ability to add pizzazz to any menu, yet Hughes prefers to talk about members of his team, praising The Ivy’s current head chef, Gary Lee. ‘Gary has a classical training and he can reinterpret Ivy classics in a modern way,’ says Hughes. ‘These days, people want much lighter food and may eat out three times a day. We serve food that people want to eat, not what the chef wants to cook.’
Imagination, consistency and a strong sense of the customer are in The Ivy’s DNA. Someone who embodies that culture is Des McDonald. Eighteen years ago, he joined as head chef; today, he is group CEO. ‘Our clients like to party,’ he says. ‘The Ivy is a sophisticated playground for London society and while in other places, the chef is the brand, we are customer-driven.’
Restaurateur Russell Norman, once operations director, is still a fan, and says a lot of people ‘miss the point’ of The Ivy: ‘They think it’s a special-occasion restaurant, but it’s not. The reason it’s special is that it’s so right. Nothing is too much trouble. It’s grown-up without being formal; polite without being stuffy. I love it.’
Clearly, so does Richard Caring, the businessman who has built an empire of restaurants and clubs in just five years. ‘I’ve always thought of, and still think of The Ivy as a classic,’ he says. ‘It’s an iconic restaurant. When I first started going there, I found it almost impossible to get a table. I have a bit more luck these days.’
Can The Ivy chalk up another 20 years? Restaurant-goers are a fickle bunch, but The Ivy has the knack of bouncing back and keeping us intrigued. Like the best shows, this one will run and run.
‘There was a time when there seemed to be the wrong sort of people in the room. Dreadful Big Brother types were getting tables’ Fernando Peire
The artwork at The Ivy is hard to ignore. From the outset, much care was taken over this aspect of the restaurant’s look, with commissions from the likes of Eduardo Paolozzi, Howard Hodgkin and Bridget Riley.
These works sit easily within The Ivy, unassuming yet a powerful part of the fabric. As you enter, Paolozzi’s swirling metal installation stands guard over the staircase leading to the private room. A watercolour by Noël Coward is tucked away on a side wall and a glass screen by Tom Phillips separates the entrance hall from the bar. Inside the bar hangs The Professionals (also by Phillips), a large painting of 10 figures of modernism, done as cheeky cigarette cards.
Recent additions are a triptych of sunflowers by the late Sebastian Horsley and a dramatic clock by Michael Craig-Martin, while The Club at The Ivy holds work by Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Maggi Hambling and Ed Ruscha.
The Ivy, 1-5 West Street, WC2H 9NQ;
020 7836 4751; www.the-ivy.co.uk