Even in London, fine dining is always more accessible than you think …
After seeing ITV3’s repeat broadcast of 2015’s The Ivy documentary last August, we were determined to pursue the experience at one of the most mythologically exclusive celebrity haunts. We did it in support of its Executive Chef, Gary Lee.
You might be forgiven for thinking The Ivy is known more for its celebrity clientele than for the quality of its food or staff. Since opening its doors, it has enjoyed more than one golden age – the Art Deco Period (1910–1939) into which it was launched in 1917, followed by the post-war period, and then the post-refurbishment 1990s, which it has sustained ever since.
But, in Adrian Sibley’s sympathetically directed observational documentary, the narrator, regular patron and actor Rupert Everett, introduced us to the very driven Lee, director Fernando Peire, the front of house and kitchen employees, whose lives revolve around the smooth running of this remarkable brasserie. The hook was that The Ivy was about to close its doors for a major five-month refurbishment, its first in 25 years, just in time for its centenary year (2017).
We profiled Gary Lee’s  inspirational story, impressed by this black British culinary artist who worked his way up from mediocre artist to top-flight chef, commanding one of the most coveted kitchens in the country. With only one month’s notice, we were able to secure a reservation in the main restaurant via Opentable®, to sample the ambiance, service, and cuisine.
We were not disappointed.
In March 2015, the famous front doors, plus the old interior (including the sign for the Ladies), artwork, cutlery, cocktail shakers, linen and the top table (complete with linen and table service to re-create in a setting of your choosing) were entered into the Made in Britain auction at Sotheby’s, fetching a robust £3.3m. Today, the new interior, designed by the Martin Brudnizki Design Studio, retains art deco influences at the heart of the decor, which means you still enjoy the indefatigable class it carries.
Conjuring up the spirit of any upmarket Jazz Age Speakeasy, the small, dark-stained wood-panelled foyer/ cloakroom, with carved staircases curving up to the hire rooms, and down to the restrooms, manages to be welcoming whilst still signalling exclusivity, as the main dining room lays hidden just beyond.
Entering feels a little cinematic. Think The Cotton Club (1984), Bugsy Malone (1976) or The Great Gatsby (1974) in spectacle if, sadly, without the Jazz. The smart casual dress code might not match the animated flapper glam of bygone days, but theres definitely no slouching. The soft incandescent lighting is not only sympathetic to most skin complexions, it captures every glint from gilt, glass or gold, complements the signature stained glass windows along the right-hand wall (which affords all patrons absolute privacy from the narrow street outside) and generates a subtle sparkle and glow to the soundtrack of equally sparkling conversation.
Activity seems to flow from the central bar outwards, as the Maitre d’ and the entire warm and welcoming front of house staff make you feel… expected – like you actually are a valued, returning guest!
If you arrive early, you can order your first drink at the beautiful bar, where you may feel like a comfortable, though much classier, Norm (Cheers, 1982-93). When its time to be seated, both you and your drink are unhurriedly escorted separately to your table.
Space is at a premium in the triangular end-of-terrace establishment which is, nevertheless, capable of hosting 100 covers. But, a clever use of booth-type seating avoids accidents without sacrificing sociability.
The well-judged menu is just the right size and complexity, offering modern British fusion food choices without being overwhelming, and you should expect to spend upwards of £40 per person for three courses. The wine list is extensive but, being London-based, is hugely over-priced. A sommelier service is available to help choose the best wine per course, or to complement your entire meal.
We were in for a treat beyond the fabulous setting, Lee’s delicious full-flavoured food and scrummy wine. Chef had read our article and I was invited down into the stark, industrial, but very clean, kitchen to meet him. He was a delight, complimenting TBB on what we do. The feeling was mutual. It was very obvious just how personally he takes his menus and The Ivy palate.
As we settled our bill, I was presented with another surprise! The Ivy Now: The Restaurant and its Recipes gift book, published last June, twenty years on from the original cookbook, was signed by Lee and Peire, and normally retails at £30! Its a beautiful, claret-coloured hardback of around 250 pages, scattered with celebrity testimonials and divided into Prologue, nine Acts (Starters, Classic Mains, Desserts, etc.) and an Epilogue (Cocktails). Peire provides the story – the history, the theatre, the celebrities and the scandal. Lee provides the recipes of all the dishes behind the restaurant’s success, including the stars of his new menu which has generally proved extremely popular since its post-refurb introduction.
I found my smoked salmon, potato pancake with horseradish cream starter on page 29, and my venison, spring vegetables with port main dish on page 96! My gorgeous apple crumble dessert isn’t there, but lots of other goodies are!
There are now even more ways to enjoy The Ivy’s food and ambience, as The Ivy Collection of restaurants export the very best of the original to a hand-picked group of upmarket brasseries, grills and neighbourhood cafés, currently in 23 locations cross the UK. Starting with the Market Grill in Covent Garden in 2014, a total of 30 are planned by the end of this year. TBB experienced the tropical vintage feel of The Ivy Chelsea Garden on the King’s Road prior to a screening of Detroit (2017).
Like the original, each restaurant is open seven days a week, offering a full service from breakfast through to dinner, and has a dedicated number of unreserved tables available throughout the day. This matches West Street’s policy of welcoming customers without reservations at the central dining bar, where the A La Carte and Set Menus are both served.
I don’t know if there were any celebrities in the night that we went – the company, the service, the food was good enough to demand all of my attention.
So, no excuses. Between opentable®, walk-in bar dining and The Collection of 23 sites and counting, go! Do it!
Catch The Ivy in the ITV Hub, or on Saturday April 21st, 2018 at 1:55am on ITV3.
Experience The Ivy for yourself at 1-5 West Street, London, WC2H 9NQ, www.theivy.co.uk.020 7836 4751, It opens daily from 12 midday until 11:30pm Monday-Wednesday, 12 midnight Thursday-Saturday and 10:30pm Sunday. Valet parking costs £15 per evening from 6:30pm.
Dining Etiquette 101:
Be on-time, observe any dress code (refer to the website), be polite to staff and respect any time limit attached to your reservation. The restaurant should warn you ahead of time if there is a formal time frame for your dining slot. It will usually be around 90 minutes or 3½ hours for a tasting menu to allow for turning the table around for another booking, particularly in very popular venues, busiest times, or for particular services.
Outerwear/Bags: Make use of the cloakrooms. Space is at a premium in many restaurants, so this will avoid any accidents spilling onto your coat or bag. It also means you won’t have to hang your expensive bag over the backrest of your chair or, sacriliege – put it on the floor. Alternatively, you can invest in a handbag hanger or hook for the table. These won’t protect your bag from accidents.
Seating: Some establishments will actively seat all of you or just the women – pulling out chairs, etc. Your waiter may have to adjust the table and seats (remember that pesky space problem). As your waiter pulls your chair out, slide all the way in. Then, as you start bending to sit, your waiter will begin pushing your chair in. It doesn’t have to be awkward.
Napkins: Your waiter should place your napkin across your lap. If leaving the table, place it on your seat if you haven’t finished. Your waiter will re-place it on your lap when you return. When finished, leave it unfolded on the table to the left.
Bread plate: Your bread plate is to the left of your fork, usually with your bread/butter knife and folded napkin to start.
Cutlery: Start using your cutlery outermost first or, even better, your place setting will be prepared for the course you are about to eat, removed and replaced at the end of each course. Etiquette says keep the fork in your left hand, tines downward and push the food onto your fork with your knife – the handle of which should lay against your palm, secured by your thumb at the side and your index finger along the top.
Glasses: to the right and slightly in front of your place setting. White wine glasses are smaller than red, which are bigger to allow the wine to breathe; whoever orders the wine is usually expected to taste it before your waiter pours your glass last, or you can delegate. They really won’t mind if it’s not to your liking or ‘corked’ (off), so politely say so. If you really have no idea, ask for the sommelier or the waiter’s recommendations either generally or to accompany your dish choices. Wine rules vary and the new rule is that there are no rules! Still, white wine may accompany starters, red with main; white with fish, poultry and lighter dishes, red with meat and richer dishes; whites and rosés are usually chilled, so holding the glass by the stem will avoid warming them. Alcohol opens up your blood vessels and may cause you to perspire; sweeter dessert wine A new glass should accompany a different wine. Generally, your waiter or sommelier will ensure your wine is kept topped up (to about a third of the glass). Your wine cooler should be close by, but can sometimes appear to be out of sight. It won’t be a problem in a good restaurant.
Posture: Upright. Bring food up to mouth. Keeping elbows off the table makes best use of limited table space.
The bill: You can inform your waiter ahead of time if you will be picking up the bill alone, or if the group will be treating one person, e.g. the birthday person. Otherwise, order the same number of courses and split it equally. If you have ordered something particularly expensive, had more courses or drinks, do at least offer to pay extra or separately
Service charges: Still between 10-20% of the pre-tax total – usually discretionary, but can be compulsory. Either should be made clear verbally or written down (usually, somewhere on the menu) before the meal. If optional, and you have any issues, simply politely inform your waiter you will not be paying it. Your waiter will only receive a portion of the total, as it is usually shared between everyone working that shift (or not at all at some unscrupulous establishments) and is treated like regular wages for tax purposes. Cash left on the table is for your waiter alone, so you may wish to omit the service charge and leave a cash tip, or pay both.
Debrett’s is the UK’s leading dining etiquette authority for super-formal dining rules.