I started working at The Ivy as maître d’ soon after the refurbishment in 1990, when Chris Corbin and Jeremy King from Le Caprice reopened the venue with a view to making it once again the favourite restaurant of media and theatre folk.
The Ivy was so unbelievably successful in the 1990s that it was practically the only restaurant in the West End where proper power-lunching took place. This had previously happened on the whole at members’ clubs and five-star hotels.
This meant that we really did have to be up to date on who could not sit next to who.
When it came to the advertising world, it was mostly a case of knowing who had been fired by whom. For this sort of information, we always relied on Campaign. We all used to read the magazine so that we wouldn’t mess up and sit the "wrong" people anywhere near each other. We were expected to know who had left which agency and why, and be very careful about how we allocated the tables.
It is very rare indeed for anyone to have the same table at The Ivy every time they come in. Even literary Nobel prize-winner Harold Pinter, who was famously particular about where he sat, would alternate between two corner tables. However, I don’t mind telling you that the legendary Peter Mead does have his own table. Once, in the past year, we lost his booking. Peter didn’t bat an eyelid when he had to sit at a different table. However, about five other people noticed and asked why Peter was not in his usual place.
I used to look forward to the moment in a big pitch when Robin Wight from WCRS would pull out
a highly colourful plastic box of props and use them to illustrate his points. I’m pretty sure that one of them was a large replica of a telephone from the 1920s. I loved watching the faces of the people on adjacent tables. In fact, one famous television presenter once asked: "Can I never be made to sit
next to that lunatic again? I couldn’t concentrate on my lunch with all that gesticulating at the next table." Never a dull moment at The Ivy.
We all used to read the magazine so that we wouldn’t mess up and sit the 'wrong' people anywhere near each other
I’m not aware of anyone from advertising being banned from the restaurant. However, I do remember a man called Daniel Farson being barred. He was one of Britain’s first television presenters and wrote a biography of Francis Bacon. After one particularly boozy lunch he left the restaurant, only to stand facing the stained glass, undo his trousers and take a very long pee. But he hadn’t realised that while you can’t see in from the outside, you can see extremely clearly from the inside everything that is happening on the other side of that stained glass. It was quite a sight and got him the full ban, not just a yellow card.
Shortly after I returned to The Ivy as director in 2007, Gary Lee, who is now executive chef at The Ivy and The Club at The Ivy, also rejoined and set about modernising the menu. Together we decided that some dishes were rather old-fashioned and had run their course. One of these was bang bang chicken. However, when we took it off the menu there was uproar. But we held our ground and left it off.
I then started receiving emails from some of the top people in advertising asking me what I was doing taking their favourite dish off the menu. I would reply that we needed to be open to change and couldn’t just stand still. I suggested it might come back one day, but personally I doubted it ever would.
Then Campaign’s Christmas print issue came out and included a "What we want for Christmas" list. One of their wishes was for The Ivy to bring back the bang bang chicken!
So Gary set to work refining the dish and did a fantastic job, managing to reduce the sweetness, improve the texture, increase the chilli heat and modernise the garnish.
Bang bang chicken returned triumphant and has never been taken off the menu since. It remains our most popular starter and features in the section of the menu that we call "classics".
Fernando Peire is the director of The Ivy and The Club at The Ivy