Our waitress was very pretty but about as useless as a eunuch in a cathouse. She brought us our wine but was unsure how to get the cork thingie out. The restaurant manager stepped in to uncork our bottle, while she looked on with a bored, slightly disinterested expression that said “you don’t really expect me to do this everyday do you?” Afterwards she shrugged her pretty shoulders and said “I prefer champagne anyway – the corks kind of wiggle their own way out. “
We were at the soft opening of the Ivy Asia on the Kings Road in Chelsea, London. The Ivy started out in 1917 as a Covent Garden restaurant frequented by media and theatre types. Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward were amongst the celebrities who had regular tables. It was a restaurant that operated like a private club – and was harder to get into.
The Ivy has now evolved into a chain of high street restaurants that is popular with ladies who lunch, and the bridge and tunnel crowd. The Ivy Asia extends the brand and the experience beyond its familiar continental dining roots. Restaurant entrepreneur Richard Caring still has the pulling power to attract celebrities – Michael Caine, Johnny Gold (founder of the Tramp nightclub) and property developer Bill Collins (brother of Joan) were at the next table with their respective spouses.
I was with the Strategy Guru and The Princess Monkey. The Princess Monkey knew some of the crowd at the next table but after a smile and a wave decided to let the mostly octogenarian group enjoy their supper undisturbed.
“You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” – Michael Caine in The Italian Job
However, our pretty waitress arranged for a queue of people to surround the table and pose for selfies with Michael Caine. There was much whooping and shouts of “you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” before the manager intervened and shooed everyone away. Our waitress shrugged her pretty shoulders once more and pouted “they only wanted pictures for their Instagrams. My manager is being really mean.”
The Ivy Asia is the apotheosis of Instagram culture. Who cares about manners or food as long as there’s an Instagramable experience? The restaurant decor is from the “more is more” school and is perfect for the Instagram set. The floor is a translucent green marble, lit from below. There are statues, flowers and bric a brac that are vaguely Asian in theme. There’s even a (slightly unsettling) life size statue of a Samurai warrior taking a wee at the urinals in the men’s room!
The menu is highly stylised and meanderingly Oriental (from the days when Asia was one country, you know, like Africa. It’s best not to overthink this stuff). Our dish of Peking Duck arrived on the back of what our waitress insisted was a wooden duck, although I told her it looked like a swan. She corrected me, “it’s actually a Peking Duck”. You learn something new everyday. The soft shell crab is served inside the brass body of a large golden crab (with a hard shell). It’s camp, it’s over the top, but its hard not to smile at the experience. This is the kind of restaurant where the staff would be offended if you didn’t take a photograph of your food.
No one expects to take the food seriously at a place like this but it is actually decent, if overpriced. The wine list is well chosen with a good selection of mid priced wines. The champagne has the highest markup because that’s what people who come here expect to drink. The atmosphere is fun and buzzy but with the potential to get dragged down-market by its clientele. It’ll score well with hen parties.
The Ivy Asia will be successful. It has the benefit of an excellent location, extravagant decor and passable food. The service was laughably inconsistent at launch, but will probably settle down to acceptably post-Covid mediocre. It’s camp, its overpriced, its silly, but it is fun. You may not always spot a recognisable celebrity, but you will meet plenty of Instagram influencers.