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How The Ivy Became London’s Most Famous Restaurant

As The Ivy celebrates it’s 100th anniversary in 2017, The Resident takes a look back at the fairytale of one of London’s most famous restaurants…

In 1917 a young Italian by the name of Abel Giandolini opened The Ivy as a small café on West Street. WW1 had taken its toll, but the Brits were determined to renew their faded glamour, and The Ivy provided the perfect backdrop for frolics and frivolity.

A century on, and The Ivy’s walls have seen 100 years of extravagance, drama and joy. One man who knows all there is to know is Fernando Peire who, having joined The Ivy in 1990 as senior maître d’, is now director of the restaurant and club,  Here, with extracts from The Ivy Now, he tells us the story behind one of London’s most prestigious restaurants…

Welcome to The Ivy
Every day and every night, The Ivy is a stage on which a play is performed. The actors are the regulars drawn from the worlds of the arts and business who have more than a passing interest in who’s eating with whom and sneaking glances to see how X is looking, after Y sued or seduced them; they are famous people who want to be seen, sheltered or something in between; they are characters in a personal story of a couple on a first date, a family celebration or one friend gossiping with another.

Some of these players sit in the wings, others take centre stage, but all have their part to play. The Ivy is theatre. There is just one golden rule: there are no stars of the show. The Ivy might be good at letting people perform, but it isn’t a restaurant for show-offs. We like to think of it as a meritocracy. Some people may be able to get a reservation more easily than others, but once in The Ivy, everyone is equal. So, welcome. Take a seat and enjoy the show. It’s time to raise the curtain. All the elements of good theatre are here: drama, laughter, mystery and tension – all interwoven.

The History of The Ivy
Mario Gallati was less than impressed when he first walked into The Ivy after arriving in London from Italy. Opened in 1917 by Abel Giandolini, it had lino on the floor, paper napkins on the tables and no alcohol licence.

Gallati already had the offer of a job as head waiter at Romano’s, an established Italian restaurant in Soho. It was the epitome of glamour, where the capital’s great and good dined alongside London Bohemia. Now he found himself presented with a new opportunity by a young entrepreneur. Giandolini aspired to create one of the city’s finest restaurants and, after several meetings with him, Gallati finally agreed to join him as maître d’. Soon the tables were covered with linen, the floors carpeted and a French chef installed in the kitchen.

Key to The Ivy’s initial success was its location, surrounded by many of London’s top commercial theatres. Ivy waiters were soon delivering meals of cold chicken and salad to the dressing rooms of hungry actors.

The Ivy was opened in 1917 by Abel Giandolini, but it was Mario Gallati who transformed it from a cafe to a white linen table-clothed restaurant with an enviable wine cellar

The Ivy was opened in 1917 by Abel Giandolini, but it was Mario Gallati who transformed it from a cafe to a white linen table-clothed restaurant with an enviable wine cellar

When The Ivy was granted its alcohol licence (with Winston Churchill among those who signed a petition asking for it), Gallati devoted himself to buying up private wine cellars at auction and, before long, the wine list rivalled that of the great hotels. Location, food and wine combined to draw London’s theatre crowd through the doors. It was a non-stop party – attended by politicians, entrepreneurs, intellectuals and names from the worlds of theatre and film.

Later, looking back on his time at The Ivy, Gallati found it impossible to list exactly who had eaten there during his 28 years. ‘It would probably be easier to say that everyone who was anybody in London between the wars dined at the restaurant,’ he wrote.

But Gallati realised that he could not hide away at The Ivy forever. He found investors among his old Ivy clientele and took a chance on a restaurant at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac behind The Ritz. A rivalry between Giandolini and Gallati started and continued until Giandolini sold The Ivy in 1953 to the Wheelers Group of fish and seafood restaurants. The first golden era of The Ivy had come to an end, and it would be almost 40 years before it would dominate the society columns again.

The Celebrity Era Begins
By the late 80s, the grande old dame of Theatreland had traded continuously for almost 70 years, but had lost much of her lustre. It took two ambitious restaurateurs to bring about her transformation. The Ivy was bought by Christopher Corbin and Jeremy King in 1989 and the doors closed to the public for the first time in the restaurant’s history.

It was about to undergo the most radical change since Gallati and Giandolini had expanded the dining room in 1929. It creaked with nostalgia, but Corbin and King did not want it to lose its character in favour of a modern interior; instead they chose to acknowledge its past.

In the 90s music scene we had Oasis and the rise of acts like the Spice Girls and The Verve. All were regular customers of The Ivy. The Ivy had become a haven for both the establishment and the anti-establishment. Cool new artists like Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn and Tracey Emin embraced it, as did the new breed of young theatre producers who were busy shaping the future, not only of theatre, but of film – people like Sam Mendes at the Donmar Warehouse theatre, Stephen Daldry at the Royal Court and Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre.

The Ivy held up a mirror to the capital, magnifying its glamour many times over. Sometimes it seemed as if the whole of the London artistic scene was in our dining room

The Ivy held up a mirror to the capital – showing it in the most flattering light possible and magnifying its glamour many times over. Sometimes it seemed as if the whole of the London artistic scene was in our dining room. However well known the restaurant became, we made sure that it remained a private world. With every flash of the paparazzi’s cameras and every front-page photo of a star leaving The Ivy only added a little more to its special allure. It was a unique moment for a London restaurant.

The Ivy Now
What was once perceived as perhaps being an inaccessible once-in-a-lifetime restaurant can now be enjoyed by thousands of new customers every day in places like Wimbledon, Kensington, St John’s Wood, the City, Soho and by Tower Bridge. Even Bristol has an Ivy Brasserie as we also begin to develop sites across the country.

Looking back on the past 100 years of The Ivy’s history, it is the people who worked here that stand out most clearly: The Ivy’s dedicated team of staff; those men and women who make a restaurant more than the sum of its parts; those who are able to turn lunch or dinner into a memorable event. These people have all, without exception, either played or continue to play a vital role in what makes The Ivy such a special place – a restaurant that so many people consider home.

Extracts from The Ivy Now, written by Fernando Peire and Gary Lee and published by Quadrille, £30.

Visit The Ivy at 5 West Street, Covent Garden WC2H 9NQ; 020 7836 4751; the-ivy.co.uk 



 

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