A LETTER FROM LONDON: Celebrating The Ivy, the West End's Beloved Eatery

By Ruth Leon
13 Dec 2010

In this month's column spotlighting London theatre, Ruth Leon writes about the famed London theatre restaurant known as The Ivy, and shares show recommendations.

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The most theatrical event in London recently wasn't in a theatre — it was in a restaurant. The Ivy, in Covent Garden, is the work cafeteria for the stars, producers, directors and playwrights of London and the world. Here, among the polished wood, white napery and classic stained glass windows that shut out the noise and bustle of theatreland, is where we gather, whether for a glass of champagne before the play, a light supper afterwards, a tête-à-tête, a business lunch, or just a relaxed dinner with friends. The Ivy has been synonymous with the theatre since 1919, when a corner café with linoleum on the floor and paper napkins on the tables was transformed by a genius restaurateur, Mario Galatti, into a refuge for actors and others who practiced the theatrical and political arts. Noël Coward was an early regular, as was Winston Churchill, the Prince of Wales and any American actor visiting London, from the Barrymores to the Fairbankses. It is still where everybody comes to celebrate their opening night, including Bolshoi stars laden with flowers from the Opera House around the corner. Everywhere actors make the rounds of the tables to greet their friends. The paparazzi are outside, kept in check by a doorman who knows the names and preferences of every regular and who seems to be able to summon cabs and limos simply by looking sternly at the street corner. Nobody knows how he does it.

The Ivy flourished until the 1960s, and though it closed at the end of Mario's reign, its mythology and glamour lived on. Then, exactly 20 years ago, it was rejuvenated by two young restaurateurs. It opened in a perfect re-creation of its original glory, down to the stained glass windows — and it was just as good, only better. I speak with some authority about this because I have been an Ivy regular since I was ten years old, when I was taken every Saturday by my only rich auntie before the matinee of whatever the hit show was that week. I was invariably the only child in the dining room, but that didn't stop the waiters from treating me, always, as a big star. I thought all restaurants were like The Ivy, and only when it closed did I realize how special it was and how unspecial I was. For me, it has always been that irresistible combination of home and the most glamorous place on earth.

On Nov. 12, in a star-stuffed dining room, The Ivy celebrated the 20th anniversary of its rebirth, and of course I had to be there. So did everybody else — and Fernando, the longtime maître d' and now director of The Ivy, had his work cut out for him trying to fit in every West End star and director for a special dinner. At every table there were familiar faces. The Ivy was definitely the place to be. Sir Ronald Harwood (The Dresser) wrote a short play for the occasion, Heavenly Ivy, cast with great West End actors such as Michael Pennington and Nicholas Woodeson. It was directed by Sean Mathias and performed between our main course and dessert. Only The Ivy would consider a play to be a suitable celebration of a restaurant. Because it is an "occasion" play and will never be seen anywhere else, Heavenly Ivy was published in a specially produced book, along with essays about The Ivy, one of them mine, which was ready in time for the birthday. The champagne sparkled and, somehow, so did we. What an evening!



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