Opened in 1917, the Ivy has had an illustrious history as a place for high society to gather, from movie stars and fashion designers to bankers and theatre producers.
In its earliest incarnation under Abel Giandellini, it was a bustling unlicensed café, but in 1929 it was turned into a prestigious dining room, 12 years after Mario Gallati came on board as maître d’. At the end of the Second World War, Gallati left to open Le Caprice.
The Ivy was then bought and sold a number of times before falling into the hands of Christopher Corbin and Jeremy King in 1989. Richard Caring took over Caprice Holdings, and consequently the Ivy, in 2005. He launched a private members’ club above the restaurant in 2008.
This year, the Ivy closed in January for the first time in a quarter of a century to allow for an extensive facelift. In April, Caprice Holdings held an auction at Sotheby’s to sell off much of the original artwork (by artists such as Bridget Riley and Allen Jones), as well as linens, cocktail shakers, cutlery, glassware and even the sign to the women’s toilet, which went for £7,500, to raise money for charity.
Martin Brudnizki Design Studio said of the project: “The Ivy has been an integral part of London’s social history throughout the 20th century. We instinctively knew that its new look had to incorporate the much-loved features that made it famous – the wood panelling, the harlequin stained glass windows and works by British artists. So we have tied these elements in with our new design to establish the restaurant and private room firmly in the 21st century, ready for the next 100 years.”
As a brand, the Ivy has also been expanding, with the Ivy Market Grill (also in Covent Garden) opening last November, and the Ivy Chelsea Garden (on the King’s Road), arriving a few months later.
From the outside, the Ivy appears impenetrable, with its diamond-patterned windows that rebut snoopers and doormen guarding the entrance. Inside, though, it’s a haven of warmth and cheer. There are emerald banquettes, cosy booths and corner tables that afford prime views of the other patrons.
Across the dark oak parquet floor, in the middle of the room, is a gleaming island bar that can seat 20 people on rose-pink velvet high chairs. (A good option if you can’t get a table reservation.) Echoing the shape of the room, it’s a polished, rounded triangle. Above, the bartenders hang glasses that glitter like crystal chandeliers. All around, tables are draped with cloths, while faces are softly illuminated with small reading lamps.
Mercifully, the vibe remains glamorously art deco (they have not torn the heart out of the place with the restoration) and there is still plenty of art on the walls from the likes of Damien Hirst, Peter Blake and Barry Flanagan.
Note that the Ivy has a “smart casual” dress code – men should wear a jacket if in a short-sleeved shirt and shorts are not allowed. The first floor has a private dining space for up to 60 guests.
The menu has been designed by executive chef Gary Lee, who has been in residence since 2007. Those who enjoyed Ivy classics of days gone by will be pleased to find old-time favourites such as Shepherd’s pie (£15.75), the Ivy hamburger (£14.50) and the knickerbocker glory (£7.50) still listed.
However, there are trendy new dishes as well, with flavours that branch out into Asian and Middle Eastern territory. These include: yellowtail tuna and salmon sashimi (£12.50); tempura rock shrimp and squid with chilli tofu mayonnaise (£11.75); Cornish lamb rump with minted smoked aubergine and quinoa tabouleh (£23); chicken breast with pumpkin salsa and mojo verde (£17.50); and barbecued squid with chorizo, toasted quinoa and preserved lemon (£10).
Our waitress was very helpful, talking us through the a la carte choices and also offering us a look at the vegetarian options (of which there was quite a selection). My companion, LJ, went for the charred chopped corn salad with halloumi, and the miso-blackened salmon with sesame greens and pickled kohlrabi. The latter was really delicious – in fact, I ended up eating a third of it.
Sipping a Smoke on the Water cocktail (£10.50) – made with “Illegal” mescal Kamm and Sons ginseng spirit, agave, lime and Ardberg spray – I decided on the Buratta and Datterini tomato salad followed by the fish of the day, which was fillet of Dover sole with lobster mash and champagne butter sauce. While waiting, we nibbled on freshly baked bread rolls with salted butter.
Texture-wise, both my dishes were a little odd. The ball of Buratta cheese had a thicker than normal skin around it and the curds inside weren’t particularly creamy, making me think it wasn’t as fresh as it could be. I also found there was too much oily pesto poured around it – with a dish like this you need something fresh to cut through the fat. The fish was also a tad rubbery, although the lobster mash was pleasingly decadent.
While the savoury courses didn’t quite live up to expectations, dessert was a winner. I had a cool espresso martini with cinnamon and chocolate powder, and a moreish apricot and almond tart. A spoonful of burnt caramel sticky toffee pudding was rich, warm and gooey, offset perfectly with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
There were a couple of things I liked about the Ivy’s winelist, one of which was the way it had picked out a “shortlist” of highlights – a 2009 Chianti “for sharing”, a low alcohol 2014 Txakoli di Getaria Ameztoi, an organic Esencia Rural from Castilla la Mancha, a “best of British” and so on. A sommelier is also on-hand to provide guidance.
The other was the option to order fine wines by the glass via Coravin, a piece of kit that allows you to serve more expensive vintages without opening the bottle (a needle penetrates the cork and sucks it out, replacing the liquid with argon gas). Prices range from £13 for a glass of 2009 Morus Alba (Sauvignon/Malvasia), Vignai da Duline, Friuli, to £45 for the 2003 Pomerol, Chateau la Conseillante.
The best thing about the Ivy is the atmosphere – it remains a place to be seen, even today. However, there is some really good food and drink to be had too, and the service is excellent (warm and informed). An great choice for business people, especially if you are entertaining people from out of town (it feels very British).
- OPENING HOURS Mon-Sat 12pm to 11.30pm. Sun until 10.30pm.
- PRICES Starters £7.95-£14; mains £13.75-£39.75.
- CONTACT The Ivy, 1-5 West Street, London; tel +44 (0)20 7836 4751; the-ivy.co.uk