I'm not sure what even made me think to try and get a table at The Ivy, perhaps I wanted a laugh and wondered how many months I'd have to wait. In the old days, it was between three and six. To rub salt in The Ivy wounds, it wasn't even my first choice, I thought I might try Ramsay's Petrus but they were fully booked with TopTable showing Wednesday as the earliest available table. What in the world is going on I wonder?
On my first visit to The Ivy, ooh, about 15 years ago, Eric Clapton was on the next table to me, and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics was across the way. It was the kind of place to go simply because it was THE place to go. For mortals, it could be the dining highlight of the year without anyone remembering or caring what food they had eaten. I don't remember what food I had on those very early visits but I doubt it has changed much from its current offering of classic British comfort dishes. People might find it strange that celebrities flocked to a restaurant that offered shepherds pie or sausage and mash, but they did (do?).
It did feel special walking through the door of The Ivy once again but as the meal progressed, I grew a little weary of it. The food was fine enough, griddled sea prawns with chilli pepper and wild garlic provided fresh prawns cooked well with just the right amount of chilli to provide a tingle. For my main, I thought I might try their shepherd's pie to sample this most famous of ordinary dishes, it was big, rich and leaves you fit only for an afternoon nap. For dessert, Scandinavian iced berries with hot white chocolate sauce is a lovely combination of hot cold, acidity and freshness, crunch and goo. I delighted in it once again.
But the service, which had started impressively with a smile and a warm welcome, proved ultimately poor despite their smart attire and endless kinetic energy. The silly errors you could dismiss, knives and forks laid the wrong way round for example, but no water was offered (and when I asked for a glass, the wait still left me wondering if I needed to ask a second time); my waiter never once asked if the food was okay on any of the courses even when clearing away the plates; not asking if I wanted tea, coffee or something stronger after I finished my dessert; left sitting at the table waiting, my scrunched napkin on top making it clear I was now finished but generally ignored as I sought the bill. The waiter muttered something when I finally paid the bill, it could have been thank you, it could easily have been something ruder. With the bill paid, I left my seat, walked across the restaurant, passed the front desk and stepped out the door without anybody saying thank you or goodbye. The cumulative impact is simply to believe they didn't really care whether I was there or not, despite hitting £80 a head, despite the service charge and despite a £2 cover charge for chewy bread. I guess they joined The Ivy to serve Eric Clapton, and here they are having to serve me; I can understand the crushing disappointment they must be feeling.
It's hard to know exactly how to categorise The Ivy. It was busy, and it is a restaurant where small tables are mercilessly packed in, so maybe they've added capacity and now believe profit is more important than scarcity. The Ivy crowd however was a mixed bunch, a handful of well to do's but otherwise it could have been a snapshot of Jamie's audience from over the road, for there were a sufficient number of T-shirts, jeans and trainers. The celebs have probably decamped upstairs to the private members club (membership by invitation only) to avoid the tourists who are now widely evident in the restaurant. Only viewing The Ivy through the lens of Hard Rock Cafe or Madame Tussauds does it seem to make sense given the quality and value of the food elsewhere, outclassed in every way, even this year, by places like Social Eating House or The Clove Club. The Ivy has always been a step back in time, it just now feels like a bigger step back than ever before.
The Ivy in the past has not been a camera friendly place so the pictures below were rushed off with a little point and shoot affair rather than the usual. With the influx of tourists however, there were plenty of cameras on tables and even the odd flash going off to capture the moment of 'we were here, where Ricky Gervais was on that program, whatsitsname'. I still don't think management approve, but it is not the same old customer base and they're fighting a losing battle.