Once upon a time, there was a restaurant so famous and so popular that you could only get a table if you were equally famous and equally popular - or so the fable went. Contrary to popular belief - a belief fuelled by nary a week going by without the Evening Standard running photos of various A-list celebs emerging through the instantly-recognisable square-paned doors - it was always possible to get a table at The Ivy; it was just bloody difficult.
Sure, a BAFTA or two would see you ensconced behind the harlequin stained glass without the need to navigate the deeply unfriendly automated reservation system, but no restaurant is ever truly unbookable and The Ivy was no exception. Nonetheless, getting a table - or more to the point, telling everyone that you had got a table - was enough to elicit gasps of wonder and disbelief from one's friends and a story one could dine out on for weeks after the dinner itself.
Then, a few things happened which made getting a table at The Ivy not only rather easier, but also rather less of a big deal. Firstly, Caprice Holdings - a group comprising, at the time, a handful of admittedly good but not hugely well-known restaurants of which The Ivy was indisputably the jewel in the crown - relaunched venerable seafood house Scott's in Mayfair, only to see it eclipse The Ivy in both celebrity attendance and critical recognition. Next, albeit late in the day compared to many restaurants, The Ivy started to accept online bookings, if only for pre- and post-theatre time slots, but given that these are actually rather nice times to eat at this was no bad thing and made the once seemingly-inaccessible accessible.
Finally, a couple of years ago, Caprice owner Richard Caring decided that the three floors above The Ivy's landmark triangular site were wasted as offices and transformed them into the ultra-exclusive The Club at The Ivy - you can't even look at the website if you're not a member - and invited all his megastar mates and billionaire buddies to join. As a result, any star worth spotting is now not to be found dining on the humble ground floor with you and me, but in one of the two dining rooms on the sealed-off floors above.
With its core celebrity clientele - and to many, unique selling point - gone elsewhere, The Ivy just doesn't have the same cachet as it had only five or six years ago. And yet when, in a recent conversation with two of my best friends and Alyn about restaurants, the question arose as to where was the one place in London they would most like to eat, the answer was unanimous: The Ivy, of course. A table was - easily - booked and a couple of Sundays later we passed through those instantly-recognisable doors for lunch.
It didn't start well. Arriving a fashionable few minutes after our assigned 2.45 booking time, we were told - not advised, or apologised to for the fact - that our table was not ready and ordered to wait in the bar. Many's the restaurant that would offer diners in that situation a complimentary drink, but not so The Ivy; here, our enforced pre-prandial round was charged, and how - forty-odd quid for a Buck's Fizz, a Negroni, a G&T and a vodka and Coke. When we were seated - about fifteen minutes late - it was at a table wedged in so closely to those adjacent that our party of four had to split into two twos and approach it from opposite sides. And looking around at our fellow lunchers, the clientèle was - how can I put this? - more likely to grace the pages of Take A Break than Tatler.
The menu, which some would describe as 'eclectic', is something of a mish-mash, and reads uncomfortably. All the 'new traditional' British classics which The Ivy was once renowned for - fishcakes, shepherd's pie, sticky toffee pudding - remain, the legacy of one-time executive chef Mark Hix, but have been joined by a slew of Oriental specialities at the instigation of current head honcho Gary Lee, ex of Caprice's pan-Asian place Bam-Bou.
Starters thus range from steak tartare to hamachi tuna sashimi, and mains from steak and kidney pudding to Thai baked sea bass. It reminded me somewhat of my sister's local pub, where the ambitious, and talented, chef likes to show that he was listening in every module at catering college by serving curries and stir-fries alongside the pie and chips and pints o' prawns. None of this however prevented us from having a thoroughly lovely time, and a very good meal indeed.
The aforementioned steak tartare and sashimi were both excellent, although I suspect the tartare - my order - was prepared earlier and refrigerated rather than made a la minute. Our other starters, seared foie gras for Alyn and shellfish bisque for Paulie, were much enjoyed; the bisque is one of my favourite starters at also-Caprice-owned Dean Street Townhouse and was just as rich and cognacy here as there. The foie gras was classically presented, with glazed figs and toasted brioche, a simple but supremely luxurious combination and a generously-sized portion - as you'd want it to be for £16.50.
For main courses we mostly went for roasts, it being a Sunday, one rib of beef with all the trimmings, one Moroccan rump of lamb with houmous, harissa and smoked aubergine, and partridge with braised cabbage and smoked bacon. All were fantastic, the partridge (mine) particularly so, although the beef looked a little too rare - and this from a man who had happily eaten raw beef for a starter. Our one non-roast choice, Alyn's steak and kidney pudding, was pronounced excellent by its eater who took a great deal of persuading to part with even a small mouthful for me to try. When I was allowed to sample it I was rewarded with flavours of sweet, light suet and a filling stewed to rich intensity; excellent indeed.
Although it's usually unheard of for me to share a pudding - share anything, for that matter - I was more than happy to split a baked Alaska for two, flambéed table-side in a lovely bit of culinary showmanship. A scattering of Griotte cherries, in the syrup still hot from the pan, provided a bracing aigre-doux contrast to the cold sweetness of the dessert. The sticky toffee pudding, one of The Ivy's signature dishes, lived up to its reputation and was an exceptional rendition of this ubiquitous sweet.
We drank a bottle each of a warm, full-bodied and blackcurranty 2008 Artazuri Garnacha from Navarra, and a 2009 'La Flor' Malbec rosé which showed that this grape, always reliable as a red, works just as well as a rosé. Both were priced at about £26, not too terrible but it's worth mentioning that there's not much available under that and the cheapest bottle on the list is £20.75. The pricing overall is rather on the lofty side, and even taking into consideration the drinks before lunch and a round of stickies after, I was still shocked when our final bill came in at just shy of £80 a head. A £2 cover charge struck me as greedy, 'covering' as it does only good-but-nothing-special bread. Service throughout - bar our initial shunting to the bar - was warm, polite and polished, although it aggrieved me that the policy of no mobile phones stated on the menu was not being enforced.
The experience as a whole was a very good one; a super meal with nice wine in a room which I'd go so far as to say is perhaps my favourite in London with its colourful windows and bold modern art. It's certainly easy to see how The Ivy has stayed in business in its current incarnation for twenty years and why people - famous or not - like it so much. But it's over-priced and thinks too much of itself in a time when there are better, cheaper and even more popular restaurants all over London.
Famous places, trading on past glories and charging too much because they can, are known as tourist attractions. The Ivy is better than that, but needs to be careful that it doesn't end up being famous only for being famous.
The Ivy, 1 West Street, London WC2H 9NQ Tel: (020) 7836 4751 http://www.the-ivy.co.uk