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After 20 years, The Ivy celebrates its own big night

John Walsh on two glamorous decades at the restaurant that reinvented the celebrity scene

One of London's most popular restaurants, The Ivy, will celebrate 20 years of five-star trendiness, celebrity-spotting and tasty food by staging a new play by Sir Ronald Harwood. For five nights next week the restaurant will be transformed into a theatre, and Sir Ronald's play, Heavenly Ivy, will be performed in front of the fortunate diners.

The show will be directed by Sean Mathias, best known for directing A Little Night Music at the National Theatre and for bringing Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart together in Waiting for Godot last year. To say that tickets will be hard to come by is an understatement of chasmal proportions.

For two decades, The Ivy has been a byword in exclusivity. As hundreds of disappointed gourmands, tourists and star-spotters know, there's been a three-month waiting list as long as anyone can remember. Food writers have struggled to express the ironclad impenetrability of the famous eating-house. Fort Knox, the Archive Room at the Vatican, Meg Ryan's knickers – it's easier to get into any of them than into The Ivy.

Those who've scored a table will have been greeted by the sight of a pleasant, airy room with stained-glass windows in a diamond pattern, a jumble of tables placed slightly too close together – and some discreet, back-of-the-room banquette seating.

They'll also have been greeted by the sight of 50 upturned faces, wondering who's just entered the room. The Ivy has always attracted A-list names. Madonna and Guy Ritchie were regular lunchers in happier times. Diana Ross consumed her roast beef and Yorkshire pudding at a corner table near the back, where she could be glimpsed but not gawped at. Jack Nicholson used to dine here regularly, as did Claudia Schiffer, Robbie Williams and George Michael. It's been a favourite with Kevin Spacey since he took up the reins of the Old Vic.

When Andrew Lloyd Webber commissioned Ronnie Wood, the Rolling Stones guitarist, to paint an epic picture of London society along the lines of a Victorian panoramic social scene, he chose The Ivy as the setting. Wood peopled his busy canvas with Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, Melvyn Bragg, Alan Yentob, Tom Stoppard, Kate Moss, A A Gill and Nicola Formby, Theo Fennell, Joan Collins and Jennifer Lopez. Ms Lopez was, in fact, barred from the restaurant for having her staff ring up three times in one evening to change her booking. "Restaurants became the talking point of London in the Nineties," explained Lord Lloyd Webber, "and none has come near to The Ivy as London's top watering-hole."

Along with composers, singers, actors and supermodels, the literary world liked to hang out at The Ivy. Umpteen book launches have been held in the reception room on the first floor, where the film director Mike Figgis once played the piano out of sheer joie de vivre.

The American super-agent Ed Victor has long been a fixture in the restaurant. Sir John Mortimer, novelist, playwright and doyen of champagne socialists, used to begin lunch with a glass of Moët et Chandon and go on to a plate of liver and bacon, thus demonstrating the breadth of his sympathies across the classes. Richard and Judy, progenitor of the TV book club, used to arrive after 2pm, hot from their daytime TV show.

Many people think The Ivy began life in 1990. They're wrong by 73 years. The place started as a café. It was opened in 1917 by Abel Giandellini and his maître d' Mario Gallati, serving cheap meals to the acting fraternity in nearby Shaftesbury Avenue. It won a reputation among visiting theatricals, and became a popular hangout for Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich and their circle. When Giandellini was overheard apologising for some building works, the actress Alice Delysia assured him, in the words of a popular song, "Don't worry, we will always come to see you. We will cling together like the ivy" – and the name stuck.

Gallati, the maître d', went on to open Le Caprice behind the Ritz Hotel in 1947. It became another gastronomic legend, a favourite with Harold Pinter, Melvyn Bragg and Jeffrey Archer, who vied with each other to get the best table, half-way into the dining-room. In the latter years of the century, The Ivy's reputation declined sharply. By the time it was bought by Caprice Holdings in 1990, it was, by all accounts, in a shocking state.

The new owners, Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, who had bought Le Caprice in 1981 and would later acquire J Sheekey, the fish restaurant, in 1997, reconnected The Ivy to its past glories, with oak panelling, stained glass and specially commissioned paintings, and re-opened it to acclaim. They also introduced British lunchers to the Manhattan-ish concept of "the greeter" – it meant the owner would come to your table for a little chat about your new TV show/new movie/new book/most recent divorce. It made you feel special, even if you had no exciting news to impart about any such matters. They effectively created the "celebrity-haunt" diner.

Corbin and King's grasp of social engineering was awesome. They could accurately assess exactly where a famous guest wished to be seated, and minutely calibrate how much he or she wished to be seen by an associate or rival. "They know you never sit a literary agent next to another agent," a former staffer explained. "They know you don't sit Piers Morgan next door to Robbie Coltrane, because they once had a physical disagreement over lunch.

"They knew that, if you've got the head honchos of ad agencies X and Y in, you keep them apart because they want to talk business without the other hearing. But you know they'll want to see each other and know who they're dining with, so you'll position them at opposite ends of the room with a good view of each other. They know that a political editor having lunch with a politician will want a discreet table where they can't he heard, or seen or overlooked. And they'll know that an actor or soap star will want the exact opposite."

Corbin and King sold Caprice Holdings to Luke Johnson the former chairman of Channel 4, in 1998, but stayed on as directors until 2002. In 2005, the company was sold to Richard Caring for a rumoured £21m. Since then, other restaurants – the Rivington, Bam-Bou – have been added, along with The Club at The Ivy, an (unimaginably) even-more-exclusive space above the 90-year-old restaurant.

But at ground level, The Ivy's devoted punters will continue to enjoy the bang bang chicken, the Dover sole and Thai-baked sea bass, as they've done for the past 20 years, leaving those of us less blessed by fortune standing outside the stained-glass windows, beside the top-hatted doorman, salivating.