Published 17 August 1997 Style Magazine 215th article
Top of the class: Michael Winner and Christopher Corbin at the Ivy (Terry O'Neill)
I hate it when people ask me, "What's the best restaurant in London?" Best for what? The best restaurant on any particular day depends where you feel like eating and what sort of food you fancy.
If someone were to ask me, "What restaurant do you most enjoy being in?" I would answer the Ivy in West Street. I have been going there for more than 40 years.
In the 1950s, it was owned by Bernard Walsh, who founded and ran the Wheeler's restaurants when they were superb. Which they certainly aren't now. Bernard was a wonderful old character. He had two beautiful daughters; one of whom, Carol, worked in the kitchen at the Ivy. It was Carol whom we would ogle during her time at Wheeler's in Soho. She had the . most wonderful bosoms. Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and I, and others, sat at the bar just to see them. Carol later married a Jewish chap, Ronnie Emmanuel, who was selling toilet rolls from a barrow outside in Old Compton Street. His parents objected strongly to their son marrying out of the faith, and an Irish Catholic, to boot. "Dad just had a gin and tonic and said, 'Get on I with it,' " Carol explained. She and Ronnie now run the marvellous French Horn at Sonning with their two grown-up children.
One night, Bernard Walsh came to the Ivy very drunk, Carol told me, found her in the kitchen and said, "Do you want to take over the Ivy?" "No," said Carol. "It's too big for me" "I'll sell it then," said I Bernard. And he did - to an Italian, Joe Melatini, who ran it successfully for many years. It was always a haunt of the theatrical crowd, along with Le Caprice, which in the 1950s was its rival but is now owned by the same people, Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin. They are rare creatures in the restaurant world: they are gentlemen. They acquired the Ivy in 1990 after it had been owned by a number of people; including Charles Forte and Lady Grade. It had gone downhill, as had Le Caprice. Jeremy and Christopher pushed them both up to be the great successes they are today.
The Ivy has an absolutely enormous menu, everything from shepherd's pie to grilled rabbit with rosemary and salmon fish cakes. It all looks like food, not ponced about plate decoration. It tastes good, too. The other day, Christopher came to my table and asked what I had eaten. "I had a double portion of caviare followed by corned beef hash with two fried eggs on top," I replied. "That's what the Ivy is all about," said Christopher. Late in life it may have been, but felt I had "arrived".
Mario Gallati, who ran Le Caprice in the 1950s and named it after his wife's brassiere, was head waiter at the Ivy. According to Christopher, Bernard Walsh lost it in a card game to Joe Melatini. When a place is successful there are differing stories about its history; if it's a failure, nobody cares.
The Ivy looks pretty much like it always did: low ceilings, stained-glass diamond-shaped leaded windows and only a hint of the theatrical greats who used to eat there. Old photos displayed on the walls show Fredric March, Jack Buchanan, Marion Davies, Vivien Leigh, even Churchill, and others. "Inherited memorabilia?" I asked Christopher. "No, it's by Peter Blake," he said. "He collects old photos, he made a collage for us." On the way out, there is a Peter Blake with a photo of Marilyn Monroe! "Did she come here?" I asked the head waiter. "She never came to England," he replied. "Not come to England! She made The Prince and the Showgirl here with Olivier!" I retorted, sad that today's lot know so little about showbiz past.
It's difficult to park near the Ivy. Once Jeremy King kindly drove my Bentley backwards onto a just-free parking meter, usually I leave it outside the front door in a No Parking area and hope for the best. So far, so good.
Another thing I greatly like about the Ivy is they invariably offer jelly. The other day they had two jellies, an elderflower one on the a la carte and a raspberry one on the set menu; I ordered them both. They also do extremely good blinis with the caviare and always serve lemon with it, which is more than they did at normally good Chewton Glen, where the blinis are unspeakable anyway.
The weekend three-course set lunch is an amazingly cheap £14.50. They add £1.50 if you don't eat it in the bar. Only £1.50 for the right to sit in the dining room and see me! That' another amazing bargain.
If Mr Winner should ever be so unfortunate as to be incapacitated by an indignant restaurateur, might I suggest he recuperate at the Alexandra Hospital, Cheadle, Cheshire. My recent stay was brightened considerably by the excellent choice of menu (not to mention wine list) and the friendly and most attentive waiting staff. Neither would have been out of place in a highly regarded first-class restaurant.
Julie E Ferris, Stalybridge, Cheshire.
Since I last wrote with some mild comment on Michael Winner's frequent appearance in his faded old blue jeans (see above), your readers have rushed to his rescue with flattery - even one with an invitation to dinner. Michael has not been seen recently in his creased old blue jeans. A distinct improvement. Has he returned them to Oxfam?
NT Young, Biarritz, France
During a recent visit to Padstow in Cornwall we ate at two establishments at opposite ends of the gastronomic scale. The London Inn pub has a small restaurant where the service is friendly and the food generous and beautifully cooked (bill for two: £25, including wine). At Rick Stein's famous Seafood Restaurant the food was merely good and the service indifferent bordering on insolent (bill for two: £125, including wine). Guess where we'll be eating on our next visit to Padstow.
Nigel and Lisa Hess, Denham, Bucks.