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It's hard for anyone to join the Ivy league

Published 22 April 2007
News Review
718th article

I don't understand where all these extra diners come from to fill the seemingly endless new restaurants. Are they bused down from the Outer Hebrides, cleaned up, deScotchified and sent forth to multiply?

In recent times we've had Scott's, St Alban, the Wolseley, Cecconi's, Cipriani and a host of other places opening or under new management.

It made me wonder about the earlier "in" favourites, Le Caprice, now 26 years old since Jeremy King and Christopher Corbin took it over, and their next place, the Ivy, which, after eight years of bidding, Corbin and King got from the freeholder, guitarist Mark Knopfler in 1990. He's not just a pretty face with an electric guitar, our Mark. He's a biggie in property.

Corbin and King instantly got the Ivy back to its glory days. Their influence, bordering on genius, permeates the London restaurant scene.

The Ivy was recently acquired by Richard Caring, who swapped selling clothes for flogging fishcakes. I thought I'd see how this old lady was faring against the new competition. So I went last Sunday for lunch.

It was packed. No "faces" (as my fried Terry O'Neill calls celebrities of all shapes and sizes), just perfectly pleasant-looking people who probably came from Essex.

As I settled into my usual table I noticed the wooden chairs were chipped. Like me, they'd seen better days. Perhaps they came from a builder's yard. I consider that an immense plus. Like the Ivy, they were ageing, comfortable and still performing a useful purpose.

I'm fed up with glitz and more glitz. The Ivy could not be called glitzy. The panelling looks relaxed and tired, the windows, largely plate glass, could have come from a sale of unwanted items in a minor Victorian church. I don't know when they last renewed the upholstery, I'd guess 1810.

That's what's so alluring about the Ivy. The easy-going atmosphere provided by staff and decor is near-perfect. Please, Richard, don't buy new chairs. Don't give the Ivy a make-over.

The only cloud is the future opening of the Ivy club in three floors above the restaurant. I'm told it will have its own kitchen to serve snacks. It will simply add to the number of people crammed into the building without doing me any good at all.

If, in a moment of madness, I'm invited to join I'd reply with the famous Groucho Marx line: "I don't care to belong to any club that would have me as a member."

The food at the Ivy hasn't changed since the early days of Jeremy and Chris. It's pleasing in a totally unostentatious way. It's diverse, yet never goes over the edge.

It's also amazingly cheap. Sunday lunch is a mere £24.75 plus 12.5% service. That's if you eat in the bar. It's two quid more to get into the dining room and see me. You get a three-course meal from the nine dishes on offer, which include rib of Hereford beef with Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes.

The beef was cut thick, tender and of great taste. The Yorkshire pud was unbeatable and they even managed the roast potatoes to perfection. Carrots and cabbage came too.

To start I had artichoke minestrone, delicious. And for pud a mint chocolate chip ice cream. I could have started with grilled mushrooms on toast with wild garlic butter, gone on to salmon coulibiac with sea purslane (what on earth is that?) and ended with apricot and almond tart or cheese.

This may start a new trend. Food writers could list not only what they ate but what they didn't eat. If they're exhausted they could just write out the whole menu.

The menu at the Ivy is enormous. I've never seen a better selection offered. It remains a serious gem in the West End firmament. Frayed at the edges but with a heart of gold.

The service is as friendly and efficient as ever. I was greeted with warmth, a smile and real charm by the restaurant manager, Laura Montana. A glamorous name, but she comes from Battersea. Not much glamour there.

Her boss, general manager Francois Valerio, used to be a waiter at Le Caprice. An Ivy favourite, Fernando Peire, took the unfortunate step of leaving to join Marco Pierre White. He's now back to run the Ivy club, which I'm told won't be there for nine months. Which probably means 12 months.

All these people are pupils of the Jeremy King-Chris Corbin school of restaurant management. In the vastly misdescribed "hospitality industry" graduates of the JK-CC school are actually hospitable. I have MA (Cantab) and OBE (rejected) to put after my name. Utterly meaningless. But who cares?

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