LONDON - The Ivy restaurant has closed its doors for a major refurb. Behind the famous leaded, harlequin windows on London’s West Street, WC2, remodelling has already begun on the theatrical mecca’s decor (its last memorable makeover was 25 years ago). Famed restaurateur Richard Caring, who owns The Ivy, has hired Stockholm-born, London-based interiors architect Martin Brudnizki, who is gently modernising where necessary, aesthetically rebooting in some places, allowing mahogany panelling to continue its vinous patination process in others, and sensitively choreographing the colours of the gossip-soused walls and story-telling stairwells.
It’s a commission that comes with weighty responsibility for Brudnizki. For its loyal clientele The Ivy is not just a place to eat, but a whirling, freewheeling, social institution. AA Gill, who wrote the official history of the restaurant, correctly described it as “the pre-eminent club of the British theatre . . . drama’s green room. A modern, living poets’ corner . . . a room where people who are professionally good in rooms
come to be good at what they are good at.”
Ever since it first opened in 1916 as a cramped, unlicensed café in a narrow town house, The Ivy has attracted a stellar guest list – Laurence Olivier, Marlene Dietrich and Noël Coward all ate there during its prewar heyday. Princess Diana celebrated her 32nd birthday at The Ivy. More recently, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Paul McCartney, Nicole Kidman, Madonna and the Beckhams have passed through its theatreland doors.
Even its name is the stuff of thespian anecdote, originating from a remark by the actress Alice Delysia, who assured the restaurant’s management that customer loyalty would prevail during a period of messy and inconvenient building work. “Don’t worry – we will always come and see you,” said the French music hall starlet quoting a line from a popular song: “We will cling together like the ivy.” Interior designer and legendary popinjay Nicky Haslam says he first went to The Ivy when he was 18 (he is now 75). “I was having dinner with John Gielgud,” he says. “The kitchens were downstairs back then. You had to go upstairs to eat.” A few years ago, Haslam asked me to join him for a quiet birthday dinner at The Ivy. Somewhat naïvely, I presumed it would be just him and me. On arrival, I discovered I’d be sharing a table with Cilla Black, Dale Winton, Anne Robinson and Julien Clary. A typical evening at The Ivy of course.
After a significant transformation in 1990, when the restaurant was enjoying its second purple patch under the meticulous management of Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, former head chef Mark Hix recalls Jack Nicholson dining with “a table of six models . . . and then escaping via a back door on a scooter “hotly pursued by paparazzi” while cinematic auteur Woody Allen, audibly peeved that he could not get a reservation, complained to veteran director Fernando Peire that he could get a table “at any restaurant in New York, any time he wanted.” “I told him we weren’t in New York,” recalls Peire, who also once had to tell Princess Margaret that he’d given away her table to the Pop artist Allen Jones RA. The Ivy was also a crucial place for conducting business, as Hix recalls, “to ensure that the place attracted the top actors and agents, businessmen and art dealers, Jeremy and Chris made sure that every dish I prepared could be eaten with a fork only, leaving a crucial free hand to hold a pen, the papers of a contract or a script.”
Art and artists, says Hix, have always played significant roles supporting The Ivy, not least as the restaurant bought straight from artists, often, in time-honoured fashion, in exchange for food. Along with Jones, Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield, Barry Flanagan, Michael Craig-Martin, Eduardo Paolozzi, Joe Tilson and Howard Hodgkin have contributed work to The Ivy’s collection and painter Tom Phillips’s hand-etched glass screen and design for the reverse side of the menu have both long been integral to The Ivy experience.
What will happen to the artworks now that The Ivy is having a facelift? While the restaurant will be holding on to many pieces, Caring has decided that a selection of originally commissioned works by the likes of Allen Jones and Bridget Riley should be sold through Sotheby’s. The works will be sold in a special section of the Made in Britain auction this March to benefit Child Bereavement UK and will contain in addition to the canvases, complete table settings from the restaurant consisting of cutlery, tablecloths, flatware and wine glasses, allowing winning bidders (and those hungry regulars pining for The Ivy’s grand reopening in May) to re-create the magic of the restaurant in the privacy of their own dining rooms.