Magazine article The Spectator


Magazine article The Spectator


Article excerpt

AT the end of a week when an order once unquestioned has been challenged, when the fount of authority has been impertinently asked to justify its curious hierarchies, complex rituals and stiff precedence, I must admit that I have been converted to the radical cause. The time has come to throw off years of unthinking deference. The past may have been glorious. Our memories may be worth cherishing. But the hour has arrived when the Ivy should be deposed from its throne. London's best restaurant? My Pope's Eye it is.

Any visitor to London consulting a guide to the city's restaurants will be instructed that the Ivy is the best. Any businessman hoping to impress a client will be reminded that the West Street establishment has no rival. Any suitor hoping to close a more intimate deal will find friends recommend the Ivy first. But should they succeed in securing a table, a trial which would have taxed the guile of Odysseus and made his return trip from Troy seem relaxed, then they may begin to question by what right the Ivy wears its crown.

They will find an establishment not so much trading on its reputation as reclining on it; a clientele not so much A-list, PLU, BCBG or even straight U as plain OKI; and a menu which seems like a collection of cover versions of great hits from the Eighties, a K-Tel carte.

Encouraged to try the restaurant's trademark pudding of Scandinavian iced berries in white-chocolate sauce, the diner may think a more appropriate signature dish would be pressed leaves of laurel (sat on for ten years) drizzled in faded glitter with a desiccated agent on the side.

There are reasons other than the handme-down recommendations of its undiscriminating fans why the Ivy still remains a popular restaurant. Enough of the professionalism which marked the establishment's heyday still remains for it to count in the capital's top 50 or so. But the ovine belief among so many that it is London's best can no longer be justified. Two evening visits in the course of the last week, one with two political figures, the other with in-laws visiting from Italy, confirmed the limitations of the place.

The first black mark goes down in the jotter even before passing through the door. The restaurant's principal doorman, top-hatted and Richard James-tied, seems to adjust the warmth of his greeting to match the social wattage of the customer. The higher your celeb-count, the wider the smile. I met with a grimace. It set the uncertain tone for the service found inside.

It is not that the staff inside the Ivy are rude. That would be too imprecise a description of the ambience they create. Instead one gets the sense of being a tolerated adjunct to the main event, as though one were the Hello! photographer at Elton John's birthday party, allowed to eat one's fill but subtly reminded that one's place at the table is provisional. One gets it in the hurry-along-now brusqueness of the waiters when ordering, the lack of illumination on how individual dishes will be dressed or what automatically accompanies them, the canteen-speed with which plates are plonked down, and the absence of any distinctly personal touch for the general customer. The capacity the Ivy once had to make every visitor feel as though they were doing the maitre d' a favour just by turning up has evaporated like the steam off iced berries doused in hot chocolate. …

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