Some restaurants keep their appeal for decades. How have Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California (opened 1971) or Harry’s Bar in Venice (1931) preserved a mythical allure when other places like London’s Savoy Grill disappear from the radar of both gourmets and society?
The Ivy, which will turn 100 in 2017, has that magic touch. Owners come and go but, with a few glitches, the crowd has stayed reassuringly high profile. Before WW2 it was at the heart of theatre-land, welcoming Noël Coward, Laurence Olivier and Hollywood royalty like Clark Gable and it has drawn the showbiz world ever since. I remember a 1980s John Le Carré thriller where movie producers and a gullible agent met, inevitably, at the Ivy.
Then in 1990 Chris Corbin and Jeremy King bought and relaunched the Ivy and created a phenomenon. They have a knack for reviving faded historic restaurants and avoided anything flashy or too modern so the interior with its wood panelling and comfortable leather seating seemed timeless but was completely new. They kept existing diamond-shaped stained glass windows, an emblem of the Ivy even today and they understood the value of mystery, never allowing photography in the restaurant – a stroke of genius at the time but not for today’s snap-happy world.
During the 1990s the Ivy evolved into the restaurant of choice for the New Establishment. As well as the core showbiz clientele there were publishers and writers, the art world, PR, the media with influential editors and columnists and TV producers, today’s movie moguls.
I loved those years, enthralled by the table-hopping, deal-making, networking and general showing off
I loved those years, enthralled by the table-hopping, deal-making, networking and general showing off. Lunchtimes were more businesslike but evenings were fabulously glamorous and badly-behaved. Most customers were influential but not visually famous and today’s reality TV celebs with social media reputations wouldn’t get a look in. The Ivy was for people who were important but quite serious, even the bad boys of the art world. Marc Quinn admits to eating at the Ivy “tons of times over the years” and politicians wanted to share the limelight. The Big Beasts of New Labour such as Peter Mandelson or arts minister Chris Smith were regulars. After all, rubbing shoulders with John Malkovich or John Galliano and Amanda Harlech was much more fun than old-style Labour leaders at the Gay Hussar.
In The Ivy Cookbook, an affectionate portrait of the restaurant above and below stairs, the hard-to-please critic A.A. Gill describes a table at the Ivy as “one of the most sought-after pieces of furniture in London”. The place captured the public imagination and the waiting list simply increased its appeal.
Success is a two-edged sword and when Richard Caring bought the Ivy in 2005 it was having a lull
But success is a two-edged sword and when Richard Caring bought the Ivy in 2005 it was having a lull. Over the next few years he invested heavily in the restaurant and his biggest coup was bringing back Fernando Peire, the original manager who was key to that initial success in the ‘90s. Fernando (everyone calls him by his first name) came back as a board director, overseeing the launch of the Club at the Ivy next door and the recent five-month closure that saw a dramatic make-over of the interior.
I love the new Ivy which opened on 1st June this year. The whole space, a triangular “flat-iron” shape, has been opened up so there are no duff tables and there’s a drop-dead gorgeous bar with high stools down the middle. The room is a jewel box with the glitter of mirrors, silver leaf and marble along with comforting leather and velvety mohair seating and lavish tabletops of linen and proper silver. There’s modern art and those coloured mullion windows to make you feel at home. And of course there’s Fernando.
He admits to having felt nervous. “I wasn’t certain how the old customers would respond to the changes,” he says, “but it’s been an immediate success. I love seeing their faces when they walk in – that ‘Oh my God effect’ because it’s so dramatic.”
A pro like Fernando knows that eating habits have changed, whether it’s lighter food, sharing plates, dress codes, eating earlier or the new democracy and informality that people expect. They keep a percentage of tables and seats at the bar for walk-ins and the Ivy is now open all day.
The menu has been expanded to include not only classics like Dover sole, calves’ liver, shepherd’s pie, smoked salmon, steak tartare and roast chicken with foie gras stuffing, but also an Asian Graze and Share section with tuna and salmon sashimi, spiced tiger prawns or soy-braised pork belly.
It gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling: it’s well and truly back
Most importantly says Fernando, “the Ivy hasn’t lost its soul” and even though the Ivy name is being extended with an ultra glamorous version in the King’s Road, (the Ivy Chelsea Garden), and an informal diffusion line in Covent Garden (the Ivy Market Grill) the West Street site is the mother ship. It gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling: it’s well and truly back. There’s far more competition these days and diners are a fickle lot but this phoenix-like revival works and there’s no doubt that when that 100th birthday comes around in 2017, the Ivy will still be rocking. C
The Ivy, 9 West St, London WC2H 9NE, United Kingdom
020 7836 4751; www.the-ivy.co.uk