On 5 January, The Ivy closed its doors. Then it took them off completely. What was probably the most iconic restaurant in London – the hangout of choice for everyone from Joan Collins to Damien Hirst – is now a building site. Planks of wood straddle gaping holes in the ground, wires dangle overhead and there’s more exposed brickwork than you’ll find in a Shoreditch bar. The Ivy’s director Fernando Peire gave me a tour, hard hats and all, explaining what the changes might look like (“The cloakroom will be going in here, although I’m not sure why this wall is in the way...”).
So what was his vision for reimagining this most iconic of London restaurants? “We wanted to capture the spirit of the place,” he says, “but not be precious or cling to things that we didn’t need any more. Every decision was agonised over – what would stay and what would go. We wanted to open it up, make the layout more user friendly and fun, but still have it look and feel like The Ivy. Some things will be right where they were – the grand piano in the private room, for instance, the signature stained glass windows all around – while others will be quite different.”
Every grand old restaurant will go through many iterations in its lifetime, whether for operational reasons or commercial ones; there’s nothing the food press love more than a classic restaurant getting a facelift. One restaurateur once confided that he and his peers will spend £50,000 just to get half a dozen critics through the door. It’s safe to say The Ivy is spending rather more than that (they haven’t said exactly how much).
It is also auctioning off a horde of art and memorabilia at Sotheby’s, which includes everything from photographs of Kate Moss to the sign from above the ladies’ loos (list price: £150) - the proceeds will go to Child Bereavement UK.
I asked Simon Rawlings, creative director at David Collins Studio, the design firm behind iconic London restaurants including The Wolseley, Nobu, The Delauney, The Gilbert Scott and Brasserie Zedel, how one approaches a project like The Ivy.
“You need to first understand the way the modern dining scene is different to how it was 40 or 50 years ago,” he says. “We use spaces differently now – restaurants aren’t just for special occasions, people go all the time.
“You have to take some of the key elements of the existing restaurant but not get hung up on them. It’s about reinventing and being brave, not worrying about keeping things just because of history.
“That’s not to say you should forget the past – a sense of nostalgia is important. People often remember things as being better than they actually were, so little reminders of the past often work in your favour.”
So how do you go about a major renovation?
“The most important thing is to make the space work operationally. It needs to deliver at that basic level above everything else. Then you can start thinking about aesthetics.
“Take the Wolseley, which had gone through several iterations, including a car showroom and a bank. We restored a lot of the key elements that had been removed over the years; we consciously tried not to make a design statement.
“I always look for inspiration to the grand cafes of Vienna and Paris. Much of what makes an iconic restaurant is the atmosphere that is created and a lot of this is to do with there being a constant in its design – from the lighting and flooring, to the seating and the details that make it stand out.”
These renovations are big business. The cost of closing somewhere like The Ivy for three months is eye-watering, before you’ve taken into account the actual building work, consultancy, legal fees and myriad other costs. Most high profile restaurants tend to get it right. But not always. Early last year Cafe Royal’s Ten Room opened its doors to universal derision. “Cold, empty and mercenary” was how one critic described it. “Nothing a medium-sized wrecking ball couldn’t fix,” cried another. Nothing went unscathed, from the furniture to the lighting to the feng shui. Shortly after, it closed again for a second attempt.
So what advice would Rawlings give to the developers of The Ivy?
“The windows are iconic, so I’d hate to see those go. But we’ll just have to wait and see. They know what they’re doing – I’m sure it will be a huge success.”
The Sotheby’s auction will take place on 25 March; The restaurant will reopen at the end of May; – good luck getting a reservation