Lunch at the Ivy isn’t a meal so much as a rite of passage. It signals that you’ve arrived – literally, sure, you can’t have lunch if you don’t arrive, they’ll give away your table – but the arrival is also a metaphorical one into the realms of the movers and shakers of the world.
Either you move and shake, or you know somebody who moves and shakes, which is the next best thing. Or you have a ticket to the theatre and you booked ahead – an act of foresight and class that suggests your days of moving and shaking cannot be too far away.
Not for nothing does much of Ricky Gervais’s seminal Extras revolve around the Ivy who gets taken there, who does not. But while that show offered a damning takedown of celebrity culture, the restaurant escaped unscathed: indeed, Andy Millman’s descent into a tawdry Z-lister is partially signalled by his failure to secure an impromptu table for lunch.
For more than a century, The Ivy has been The Real Thing. The original restaurant opened in 1917 and its proximity to the West End soon had the great and good (or movers and shakes, there’s a fair amount of overlap) cascading through its doors. Regulars included Noel Coward, Terrence Rattigan, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. The Queen herself paid a visit in 2017.
Today, there are multiple outlets spread across the UK but the West Street venue is the mothership, the Ivy from which all other Ivys sprouted.
What’s the vibe?
The Ivy is one of the few restaurants whose very decor is iconic: dark green sofas, crimson chairs and wood panelling so rich it could afford to eat here. (That’s a slightly cheap shot: the place isn’t that expensive.) A circular bar dominates the room, looking like something off the Titanic – sink a few cocktails here while waiting for your table.
Owners Caprice Holders renovated the place a few years back but I’m told the most notable changes were enlarging the aforementioned bar and adding some expensive artwork: yer Hursts, yer Hackneys. Certainly, as an Ivy debutante, I enjoyed a thrill of recognition on entry.
The atmosphere is timeless both in era and hour, stained glass windows blocking out all traces of the day outside. From the moment you arrive, you are immersed in Ivyland. There are many worse places to be.
What to order?
Get the ball rolling with an aperitif – the Gimlet tastes as sweet and pure as a spring morning while the Garden Sour is a little sharper on the palate. Wine will obviously be dictated by food but our Château Cazau Martet went down very nicely indeed.
Onto the grub – where the Ivy demonstrates plenty of substance to compliment its style. Opt for the stalwarts: so dressed Dorset crab and twice-baked cheese soufflé for starters. The former is served with brown crab mayonnaise and seaweed crackers, the latter gratinated with cheddar cheese sauce, shaved black truffle and chives. Both are certifiable knockouts with enough punch to leave your tastebuds swooning in woozy bliss.
Main courses are divided between Roasts & Grills, Seafood & Shellfish or simply Classics – the dishes which define the Ivy. Obviously we went classic in the form of the shepherd’s pie and steak tartare. Both were peerless incarnations of dishes that are so often disappointments due to overfamiliarity or sheer inadequacy. Not here: like hearing Wonderwall played live by a Gallagher, you recall how the classics gained their sobriquet.
We finished with a vanilla crème brûlée the size of a satellite dish. A dessert both classy and fun – rather like the Ivy itself. There’s a reason why the legends endure.
What’s the damage?
Obviously the Ivy isn’t cheap but nor will the prices trigger a stroke. Most starters float between £10 to £15, with the crab the punchiest – or nippiest – at £18.50. That’s only a pound cheaper than the shepherd’s pie!
Mains tend to dwell in the twenties or thirties, with the £48 grilled lobster top of the pile. If you feel under indulged, go mental with the wine list or order 50gm of caviar for £160. The weekday set menu offers three courses for £31.50 between 2pm and 6pm – not bad at all!
Feel smug that you bagged a table? Try to gain entry to the adjacent members’ club – with membership by invitation only. Now then you really have arrived…
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1-5 West St, London WC2H 9NQ; The Ivy