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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Wednesday 11th May 2005

Membership has its Privileges

The news that the Ivy has just been put up for sale comes as a terrible blow. It's taken me 15 years of dedicated brown-nosing to be admitted into the "Ivy club". I'm now among that privileged group who can get a table at short notice. If it changes hands, will I have to start again from scratch? The prospect of being treated like an ordinary punter, and having to make a reservation six months in advance, is enough to make me want to leave the country.

The unparalleled success of the Ivy is one of the enigmas of the London restaurant scene. In Paris, New York and Los Angeles, a restaurant can go from hot to not in the blink of an eye, with a new "boite" occupying the number one spot every week. The Ivy, by contrast, has remained the capital's hottest eatery since 1989 when it was acquired by Chris King and Jeremy Corbin, the Barnum and Bailey of the catering trade. They sold out to Luke Johnson in 1998--and recently launched the Wolseley on Picadilly--but the Ivy still reins supreme as the hardest restaurant in town to get into. It's reported to get 1,000 calls a day and employs four receptionists just to answer the phones.

How has it managed to hold on to its crown for so long? Few people would attribute its success to the food. It's certainly above average, but not even the executive chef would claim it was in Gordon Ramsay's league. In the most recent edition of Zagat's, for instance, the Ivy doesn't rank in the top 40 for cuisine. The kitchen serves up the sort of Upper Class nursery food--fish pie, kedgeree, shepherd's pie--that's just what the doctor ordered on a cold, Winter's night, but isn't about to win any Michelin stars.

More important is the restaurant's celebrity clientele. When Nicole Kidman was appearing in the Blue Room she and Tom Cruise could be seen enjoying a late supper almost every night and London's current crop of movie stars appearing on the West End stage--David Schwimmer, Brooke Shields, Brian Dennehy, Kevin Spacey, Ralph Feinnes, Vanessa Redgrave, Patrick Stewart, Johnny Lee Miller and Kim Cattrall--have all been spotted there recently. This is quite apart from the Ivy's roster of A-list regulars: Madonna, Guy Ritchie, Elton John, Jerry Hall, Harold Pinter, Antonia Fraser and Melvyn Bragg, to name just a few.

But there are several other London restaurants that can boast an equally star-studded list of customers--Nobu, Zuma and E & O, for instance. So why has the Ivy remained pre-eminent?

The consensus among its customers is that it ultimately comes down to the impeccable service provided by the staff. It doesn't matter whether you've called up an hour beforehand or been waiting six months, once through the door everyone is treated like a long lost member of the family.

Of course, some customers are more equal than others. It goes without saying that there are good tables and bad tables, the best being those to the right and left of the entrance to the main dining room. Harvey Weinstein, for instance, is always seated in one of the high-visibility booths on the right, affording him a panoramic view of the restaurant, while Harold and Antonia are always tucked away discreetly in the bottom left-hand corner.

Still, even those no-hopers seated in the bar--generally considered Outer Siberia--are better off than those in the private room on the first floor. This space hasn't recovered since Iain Duncan Smith booked it to re-launch the Conservative Party in 2002. I'm ashamed to say that I reserved this room for my 40th birthday party some 18 months ahead of time. It was only after I discovered the brutal truth--that it's solely for the use of people who can't get a table downstairs--that I cancelled my booking.

So how did I manage to inveigle my way into the restaurant's inner sanctum? As with the rest of London's most exclusive clubs, it all came down to a personal introduction. I was having lunch with William Cash, who goes there regularly with Elizabeth Hurley, when he introduced me to "Mitch", the Ivy's legendary manager. I asked him why it was I could never get a table and, after humming and hawing for a few seconds, he told me to give him my card. "I'll see what I can do," he said stiffly, before moving on to talk to Joan Collins. I assumed he'd throw it straight in the bin, but apparently my association with William was enough to put me over the top. I called later that afternoon and was given a table at 8.30pm the following day.

Did "Mitch" place my name in some sort of priority-booking database that the four receptionists have access to? It's certainly possible. Whenever anyone calls up to request a table they're asked for their name and put on hold before the girl comes back to tell them their fate. But I doubt there's anything as formal as a list. My theory is that the girl who answers your call simply asks whichever manager's on duty whether you're entitled to special treatment and, if your name happens to ring a bell with them, she tries to accommodate you.

I hope I don't lose my privileges. Legend has it that if you dine at the restaurant on five consecutive days you're presented with something called an "Ivy plate". I've no idea what it looks like, but it's always been one of my life's ambitions to find out.

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