Published 23 September 2001 Style Magazine 428th article
Michael Winner and Georgina Hristova leaving the Ivy (Big)
On September 22 last year, Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin did their final walk around the Ivy, a place I've been going to for more than 50 years. They'd sold to the Belgo group, but that Friday lunch was their farewell to the greatest restaurant operation I've ever seen. The same day, my assistant, Margaret, telephoned in her name to book for dinner. They told her there was a five-month wait. If it was a Friday or Saturday evening, the first free table was in 10 months. When she rang recently, Margaret learnt the current booking period runs to the end of January 2002, and no tables were available. If she wanted ta pre-theatre booking, between 5.30pm and 7.15pm, she could come in three days.
Christopher Bodker, who recently opened West Street hotel, restaurant and bar next door, described the Ivy, in an interview, as "a private club, because of its booking procedures. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool. If they want to be nice, they could send us their customers, we're not too proud to take ones they turn down". Mr Bodker would be lucky to get one tenth of the diners The Ivy declines to accommodate. Its policy of holding back tables for people in the arts has ensured its success. Artistes, directors and writers can get in and be with their own group.
The public may have to wait, but can then be sure of ogling a celebrity or 10. This causes a problem for me, because I seldom recognise anyone. If I'm smiled at by an Ivy diner, I assume they know me. So I go over, shake their hand and ask how they are. It's often a member of the public who booked five months ahead. At Le Caprice, the Ivy's sister restaurant, I stopped at a table and a lady said: "We're so thrilled to see you. It's granny’s birthday. She's your biggest fan." Granny was the only person who looked utterly indifferent.
Regular diners wondered whether the Ivy, Le Caprice and J Sheekey would collapse with the departure of Chris and Jeremy. Certainly we're denuded of the two gentlemen hosts charming the customers. But those who took over, Mitchell Everard at the Ivy, Jesus Adorno at Le Caprice and Robert Holland at J Sheekey, have done a remarkably good job. And the executive chef, Mark Hix, has kept up the quality of the wonderfully varied food, which ranges from corned-beef hash to caviar.
When the bosses leave, everyone looks for trouble. Were Georgina's horrid mango fritters - previously so excellent - indicative of a general slippage? Was the tough rosti under my griddled foie gras sign of a problem or just the inevitable fact that when you serve as many meals as the Ivy does, something will occasionally go wrong - even at my table?
There's been an improvement since Chris and Jeremy left and I proudly take responsibility. The Ivy's duty manager told me, as Georgina always orders fresh orange juice: "Don't bother tonight, they've switched to pasteurised juice at all three restaurants. The chef wanted it that way."
"Tell the chef I'm appalled," I said.
The next day , Mark Hix wrote assuring me the manager had been misinformed. The orange juice wasn't different. It was, as always, fresh and squeezed last thing at night. Later Mark changed his story and said the staff had been playing a joke. I don't believe that for a moment. I'm sure it was an attempt to improve the GPs - industry jargon for gross profits on the food. That's when kitchens economise on various items such as the quality of the cooking oil. It's death by a thousand cuts. Now the orange juice at the Ivy is squeezed later, so it's fresher than before. At their other restaurants it's better, too.
Not everyone finds Ivy-world as it was. I was at a lunch party with a famous actress. I observed the Ivy had hardly changed following the departure of Chris and Jeremy. The actress disagreed. She said after appearing on stage, she once had to wait an hour for her table.
Another time, a restaurant manager - I know him and will spare his blushes - came to her table, saying: "Would you follow me, please."
"I was quite worried, the actress recounted. "He took me over to someone and said: 'This lady's a great fan, will you sign an autograph for her?' I gave him a very black look on the way back to my table. That's what we go to the Ivy to avoid."
Nothing like that's happened to me. My enjoyment of the Ivy is unsullied. The most successful show in town runs on. How long for, I wonder?
As a regular reader of Michael Winner's column, I was wondering if he ever finds himself short of a dining companion. If he does, I'd be only too willing to join him. It is quite a long time since I have had the opportunity to eat out well, but I believe I am a pretty good critic on the subject of food. I'm also not too bad-looking as women go -so gazing at me across the table shouldn't put Michael off too much.
Lydia Moffitt, by e-mail
I wholeheartedly concur with Michael Winner's comments on the varying taste of Fanta (September 9). Remembering his words on the subject from an earlier article, I tried the Australian version, and discovered a completely different drink, with a taste that easily outshines the UK's weak and sugary counterpart. As the Fanta CEO has previously commented, tastes may differ over the world. However, as a marketing director, I agree that the drink should be distributed here -perhaps as a new flavour?
Nicholas Walker, Lancashire
Contrary to popular belief, I can confirm that Gordon Ramsay is an ace bloke. I recently celebrated my 35th year on the planet at his London restaurant. The food and service were incredible, and the restaurant director, Jean-Claude Breton, is a legend in his own lunch time. A magnificent meal was followed by an invitation to the kitchen to meet Gordon, who signed menus for myself and my companion. The man should have four stars.
David Sax, by e-mail
I don't think Michael had confetti de canard maison at Le Pavillon in Marrakesh (September 9), but confit de canard maison. If he has had confit thrown at him, it might explain his expanding waistline. Incidentally, I find his choice of restaurant highly amusing -to dine in a good, but very European, restaurant, when marvellous tagines await only minutes away, defies common sense. Then again, staying at La Mamounia says it all.
Edouard Balladur, by e-mail
We recently dined in the Mezzanine restaurant at the National Theatre after the show. Though the theatres themselves were packed, this once-busy restaurant was almost empty. I can only put this down to the quality of the the chips, which were fried in foul-tasting fat.
Patricia Froomberg, by e-mail