The first time I booked a table at the Ivy, I was so intimidated by the cool and impassive voice on the end of the line that I morphed into my own PA. “Ms Walden wanted a table for two, preferably a banquette – but certainly somewhere discreet.”
Charlotte-the-fictional-PA let herself down on two points (and was later fired for issues of insubordination). Any Ivy regular would know that the banquettes were reserved for the likes of Harold Pinter, Joan Collins, Damien Hirst and uber-agent Ed Victor.
And discreet? This was London’s most iconic restaurant, one that celebrates its centenary this year: you didn’t go there for their salmon fishcakes (as irreproachable as the salmon-to-potato ratio was) and, like St-Tropez in July or Verbier in January, you sure as hell didn’t go there for discretion.
You went there to show off your connections, your relevance, your mistress, your freshly inked contract, your weight loss and your Hervé Leger bandage dress. You went there to bask in the glory of being seen.
Once an unlicensed Italian cafe opened by one Abel Giandellini in 1917, the Ivy was named after a line in a then-popular song “We will cling together like ivy”. Because of its proximity to West End theatres, it quickly became a theatrical institution that counted everyone from Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, John Gielgud and Noël Coward as regulars. After being sold to the Wheeler’s group the restaurant shut down and was re-opened by Jeremy King and Chris Corbin in 1989, and it has since 2005 been owned by the entrepreneur Richard Caring.
One hundred years on, that single, crowded Art Deco celebrity canteen in Covent Garden has spread to the far corners of London.
Some of the Ivy’s six offshoots are more “sceney” than others: the Ivy Chelsea Garden – a personal favourite – has such good people-watching and side dishes that I just tend to sit there shoulder-surfing and mainlining zucchini fritti until my dining companions cut me out of all conversation; you can see many a brunch deal being forged over the Mallaig kippers at both the Ivy Market Grill and the Ivy Kensington.
But walking into the original Ivy still gives me abdominal flutters in a way that no other British restaurant can.
Maybe it’s the memories. And, boy, are there plenty of those. Every time I push through those famous oak doors – the backdrop to a gazillion paparazzi shots – it’s with the sense that something might happen.
Plenty has: I did my first book deal at table 14; swore I’d “turn” Rupert Everett (while hopped up on martinis and wearing his Stetson) on that very same table; advised Sam Fox on the depth of her décolletage in the ladies room; and met my husband at table 12.
Then there was the memorable day a set of prosthetic teeth I was wearing fell into my prawn cocktail (to be explained later).
On the night Piers and I first met (he’d been sent to interview me for a GQ photoshoot I’d done), the table mix couldn’t have been more eclectic. The X Factor’s Louis Walsh and Kate Thornton were seated separately, with Margaret Thatcher and her former chief of staff, Charles Powell, in between the two – and Salman Rushdie was on 14.
It was as I was explaining to my braying dinner companion why I wouldn’t marry him if he were the last man on earth that Thatcher walked past and was swiftly intercepted by Piers. “I know who you are,” she snapped when he introduced himself – then to me: “But what are you doing with him?”
The day the Telegraph sent me – dressed and made-up as the star of the then new hit US TV show, Ugly Betty, for a feature – was the first time I had hoped both to be seated in the section towards the back (known as social Siberia) and that some recent and temporary celebrity apocalypse meant there would be no one of note in sight.
Clearly, this wasn’t to be, and the first person I bumped into was Alan Yentob, whom I know, but what with the wig, the glasses, the fat suit and the prosthetic teeth, didn’t recognise me. And when the disguise did start slipping and the teeth fell into my mayonnaise-based starter, I glanced up to see a disgusted Vic Reeves and pity-filled Nancy Sorrell taking in the sorry spectacle.
There must have been and still be uneventful days at the Ivy (although that’s likely to mean that only Benedict Cumberbatch, Douglas Booth and Gemma Arterton are dining there simultaneously), but part of the magic is that it never feels uneventful; there’s always that prickly sensation – the impression that things are just about to kick off.
And that’s no illusion, says director Fernando Peire, who first started working there in 1990, “because we will often have taken bookings from people, only to find out their ex-wives also want a table at the same time – so then we’ll have meetings about who we’ll call back and how we’ll explain it.”
Similarly, too many literary, theatrical and celebrity spats have played out across that restaurant floor to count. “The worst are when someone has written a terrible review and they’re both in,” sighs Peire. “When Harold Pinter and John Mortimer came in at the same time, we had to keep them apart.
"And when we realised that Simon Gray and Stephen Fry were booked in at the same time after Stephen had walked out of Simon’s play, Cell Mates, on the first night, we knew there would be blood on the carpet. So we mentioned it to Stephen, and out he went through the back door.”
But just occasionally the collision of worlds, industries and egos that makes the Ivy the “event dining” that it is somehow creates a harmonious whole.
“One night,” recalls Peire, “there were a whole load of Hollywood celebrities in including Danny deVito, Debra Winger and Meryl Streep, alongside Andre Agassi and Brooke Shields – who were the couple of the moment. Wimbledon was on and Meryl went around all the tables collecting flowers to make a crown which she then put on Agassi’s head. That was the kind of night where you think: this will only happen once in a lifetime.”
Another Sunday night Peire remembers tending to Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford, only to see Whoopi Goldberg arrive with Frank Langella – but without a reservation. “And so of course you find them a table…”
By giving away some else’s? And what happens when the MLIP (Much Less Important Person) arrives? “Well, you tell them it’s a difficult night, and you flirt with them and buy them lots of drinks and give them lots of love,” chuckles Peire, “but what you don’t say is: 'I’m afraid I’ve just given your table to Jerry Hall and Mick Jagger’. And in any case generally people don’t mind.”
On the odd occasion when this has happened to me, I never have minded because, as Peire says, “people are here not just for the food but for the entertainment, the amusement”. And you’re inside those four walls, aren’t you? Which is a huge chunk of the pleasure.
Is there any ruse he’d advise charlatans like me and Charlotte-the-fictional-PA to employ that might help our chance of getting a table in any of the Ivy restaurants? “Well, it just irritates maitre d’s if you start saying 'I’m bringing someone terribly important with me…’,” he explains, “but being polite and telling them how much you’d appreciate it if they could get you a table is always going to help.
“But, actually, what you did was a good idea.” So for all those years Charlotte and I had them fooled? “Oh, darling, they always know it’s you,” Peire flings back. “But it’s a good bluff – and a good starting point.”