As The Ivy celebrates its centenary with a year-long series of events, dishes and drinks, Luxury London goes behind the stained-glass windows to meet the movers and shakers turning the cogs of one of London’s most famous restaurants
When Shakespeare dubbed green the colour of envy, The Ivy was not yet in existence. But it’s fitting that the hue for which the restaurant is best known also symbolises a sentiment no doubt felt by every other food outlet within the confines of the M25 – for The Ivy has done the near impossible in the capital's tumultuous culinary scene, and survived for 100 years.
In an era of fleeting pop-ups, food trucks and festivals, The Ivy's longevity is somewhat of an anomaly, as is the unquestioned reputation on which it prides itself. Name a celebrity, politician or monarch and they’ve no doubt dined behind the restaurant’s stained-glass windows – in fact, it would perhaps be easier to name the ones who haven’t.
Founded in 1917 by Abel Giandellini as a nondescript Italian café, its close proximity to London’s West End meant it quickly became the place to go for pre- or post- show suppers, for spectators and thespians alike. In 1989 it was closed, and reopened again a year later by then-owners of Caprice Holdings Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, and thus began The Ivy’s ascent into gastronomic stardom. In 2005, Caprice Holdings was acquired by Richard Caring, and since then the establishment’s repertoire has grown to include four cafés and six grill and brasseries, including The Ivy City Garden, which is opening imminently.
Now it’s marking its centenary with a year-long celebration, including a new cocktail menu, a specially designed dessert (created in the style of the restaurant’s signature stained-glass windows), a green plaque presented by Westminster City Council to commemorate The Ivy’s lasting legacy, and a host of events and offers. This June, a new book, The Ivy Now: 100 Years On, details the restaurant’s lengthy history – as told by director Fernando Peire – with anecdotes from its regular guests and recipes by head chef Gary Lee. Here, the establishment’s veteran employees spill the beans on life behind the scenes and toast the next 100 years.
The former maître d’ and now director remembers the celebrity diners that gave The Ivy its star-studded reputation
When I joined The Ivy, it was 1990. London has undergone a restaurant revolution since then. The public’s more much sophisticated and demanding, so the restaurant scene generally has changed massively and the The Ivy has evolved with it.
Sometimes a moment occurs and you say to yourself: “I’m sure this is one of those occasions that I’ll talk about in the future”. This happened when Princess Diana had her 30th birthday party in the middle of the restaurant. Nobody knew who was coming, but we knew that it was a special guest. She looked amazing and the whole dining room went silent when she walked in.
The closest I’ve come to being awestruck was when I met David Bowie. It wasn’t because I was a huge fan of his music, but I’d always found him interesting and intriguing and one of those really special, one-off people. When he died recently, everybody felt it, didn’t they? It affected people. When I met him, I was similarly affected. You felt like you were meeting somebody from another planet, almost.
One time, somebody phoned up on a Saturday evening and asked, very bluntly, for a table in half an hour for six people for Beyoncé — and I’d never heard of her. I’d been living in Spain and I’d just come back to The Ivy, and even though I was the director by then I still liked to run the desk from time to time. I thought “She’s not one of our regular customers”, so I said no. Later, I asked one of the waiters if they’d ever heard of somebody called Beyoncé Knowles, and they got really excited and asked if she was coming in, and I said “Well not any more!” The staff all had a good laugh at my expense because the new boss didn't know who Beyoncé was.
A good maître d’ for me is somebody who makes the customer feel good. They forget their ego and only think about what’s best for the customers, the atmosphere and the restaurant. A maître d’ has to be generous, fun, interested in the customers, and has to have a great memory – there’s nothing people like more than you remembering their name when they come in.
The Ivy is a place that makes you feel good, and that’s what it’s about more than anything. It has always been a very comfortable restaurant; that and the history of The Ivy makes it a place that people are happy sitting in. On top of that you’ve got the restaurant side, which is looking after people in a certain way and at The Ivy, we’ve set a certain style of service since 1990, which is well informed, but also friendly.
The head barman raises a classic martini to The Ivy’s 100 years
The first cocktail I ever drank was a Ferrari Jack. It was in a local bar in Birmingham, and it was amaretto, coke and Jack Daniel’s. I remember the first cocktail I made was at Hotel du Vin, and it was a French martini; it’s still one I go back to if somebody wants something fruity.
The first time I fell in love with cocktails was when I went to Rome. I was still at university and we went on a bar crawl with a hostel, and I was drinking pints of negroni. That’s been my favourite drink ever since.
The drink that sums up The Ivy best is a classic martini. It’s just a timeless cocktail that’s always been around and I think it’s very befitting of the era that we’re from: the 1920s. I think it’s the drink that’s been drunk at The Ivy for the longest period. But the best seller is an espresso martini; that’s just a sign of the times. It’s probably a best seller in many restaurants at the moment.
We’ve made a new cocktail menu by way of celebrating the centenary. It takes the shape of a 1920s theatre programme, with a title and five acts, or five key moments of the past 100 years. The 100-Year Legacy is my favourite. It’s gin with a bit of maraschino and bitters, but we’ve made a six-and-a-half litre batch of it which is going to age for the next 100 years. Every time someone orders one, we assemble the drink, pour it into the top of the batch and then take from the tap at the bottom. If there’s any restaurant that’s likely to be around in another 100 years, I’d say it’s probably The Ivy.
When I first worked at The Ivy, we used to get visits from a lady called Gita Chavez. She was the former editor of Gramaphone and she’d been coming in for about 50 years. She would still come in at 95-years-old, hobbling in on her walking stick, and she’d walk straight up to the bar and say: “Young man, I’ll have an extra strong gin martini with a twist”, and nearly fall over just from emphasising how strong she wanted it. She was so cool and for me she summed up The Ivy quite well.
I think the location plays an important part in what makes The Ivy special. It’s in the heart of the theatre district. People are either coming because they’re going to the theatre afterwards so they’re all excited and you feel that in the atmosphere, or they’re arriving after seeing a show and are in good spirits. It’s a really special place to work because everyone’s coming in
to have a good time.