The original but recently revamped Ivy restaurant in West Street, Covent Garden is something of a London institution; so much so that when I dined there the other day a roving camera crew buzzed between the tables. ‘What do you think makes The Ivy an institution?’ asked a TV type, while another dangled a sound boom in my shepherd’s pie. ‘Does this type of thing have to happen every time we leave the house?’ sighed my bloke, lifting a cameraman’s thumb out of his wilted spinach. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘If you’re determined to date the ilk of woman who eats at The Ivy. Anyway, Tracey Emin over there is playing ball, so we can’t really refuse.’
This was apt, because in the normal, everyday world I greet many life dilemmas with: ‘What would Tracey Emin do?’ The answer tends to be something along the lines of: ‘She would go on holiday with Joan Collins to Barbados’ or ‘She would write the name of all these suckers who are smiting her on a tent’. Or in this case: ‘She would graciously give an off-the-cuff interview.’ So I did, too, after two Lapérouse (St Germain elderflower liqueur, cherry blossom-infused Lillet Rosé, champagne) and a large glass of Chablis, meaning I am now preserved in time with a red nose, slightly slurring, slapping the bar as I say important things I really, really, truly, solemnly believe that I have no recall of now.
Caprice Holdings has spent millions refreshing The Ivy, spluttering with indignation as Chiltern Firehouse robbed it of all its celebs and mimicked its VVIP swagger. For what it’s worth, I think Chiltern is an incredible rabbit warren and a beautifully decadent play-palace but the food can be patchy. The original Ivy will always be a slight cut above its Marylebone nemesis, sitting siren-like on its corner, beckoning you inside so it can have a snog (with tongues) with your company credit card. Its stained-glass windows shield lunchtime champagne sippers from life’s harsh realities, while endless comfort food — girolle risotto, pork sausages with parsley mash, spaghettini with crab and chilli — is always on offer for its hungover A-list adult-baby clientele. I’m a massive fan.
And I’m relieved to announce that although the rejig has left it vaguely more spacious, it’s more of the same old Ivy ambience. Damien Hirst, Maggi Hambling and Tom Hackney artworks may now grace the walls, but Robbie Williams will not be writing a tortuous piano ballad about his inability to order bang bang chicken. The biggest visible change is a lavish central bar replacing the smaller, cramped one. I prefer sitting up at the new bar to a table.
There’s something beautifully conspiratorial about dinner for two perched at it, enjoying the best of the bartender’s alchemy with one’s back to the hubbub of sexy mummies, film directors, Chelsea gents and #richkidsofinstagram. The new central bar also means that the right-hand tables, which regulars called Siberia and were affronted to be placed at, have been phased out.
Here’s the perfect Ivy supper: fresh minted pea soup with hot fresh goat’s cheese croquetas. Or the bang bang chicken, which isn’t terribly bang, more satay, but is sweetly and slimily satisfying. Then shepherd’s pie, which only a savage couldn’t enjoy, with a side of parmesan-fried courgettes and tomato relish. The sautéed sweetbreads with roasted grelot onions, bacon and broad beans are remarkable, especially with a lovely bowl of broccoli and beans.
The greatest pudding is the rather humble-sounding apricot tart. It’s tempting to be swayed by The Ivy’s knickerbocker glory, but the tart is warm, sticky and perfectly hewn. Yes, there are tons of paparazzi outside, but if you eat enough dinners here, no one wants to see you in a miniskirt or hot pants anyway.
2 Lapérouse £29
1 glass of Chablis £10.75
1 glass of Gavi £9.75
1 glass of Terres de Velle £15.50
1 bang bang chicken £8.75
1 pea soup £8
1 shepherd’s pie £15.75
1 sautéed sweetbreads £16
1 broccoli and beans £4.75
1 parmesan-fried courgettes £4.75
1 apricot tart £8
1 West Street, WC2; the-ivy.co.uk