The Ivy, a restaurant of wooden panelling, banquette seats, and modern English food, hidden away just off London's Charing Cross Road, has become the main meeting place of the new elite. Not the sort of discreetly powerful who once met in smoke-filled gentlemen's club dining-rooms close to Whitehall, but a louder, new limelight-hungry generation of the rich and influential who relish rubbing shoulders with such symbols of our age as Posh Spice and David Beckham, Elle McPherson or Elizabeth Hurley.
Restaurants in Los Angeles have worked floorplan ploys for years. Now London is taking to them eagerly, in an age of anxiety when the powerful and the famous appear to need to be continually reassured of their status. In such a world, restaurateurs such as Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, or their Jeevesian general manager at The Ivy, Mitchell Everard, act as gatekeepers to the holy of holies. Even when King and Corbin sold the Ivy and Le Caprice last year as part of a pounds 13 million deal to Belgo's Luke Johnson, they still agreed to run them.
And so at each morning's 11.30 meeting they expect Everard to scan the "who's who" of the reservations book to rearrange the tables, just to make sure celebs who might not get on are correctly positioned. "Out of 33 tables," says one seasoned regular, "Mitch knows who is on 20 of them. Effectively it's a club, but a club in which nobody's sure who the membership is."
If you asked the question, "Where do the top people lunch"? a decade and more ago there would have been a simple answer. The Savoy Grill on The Strand remained, for an eternity, the place where the powerful simultaneously chewed over the problems of modern Britain and a rare steak. The bench seats of the Savoy Grill reeked of those to the menu born. Sir David English would be tucking in at table 31. City spin doctors such as Sir Tim Bell were regulars. Lord Goodman or Robert Maxwell might waddle in at any moment.
These are suddenly different times. Tory politicians still might turn out at the Savoy for roast saddle of rabbit but real power has shifted suddenly westwards. In this day and age, any restaurant which still requires male customers to wear a tie suddenly seems ancien regime. The sort of restaurants which do well now are like Le Caprice, Corbin and King's similarly successful restaurant which combines glamour with lightness of touch in the cooking, a stable staff, and a ceaseless interest in the clientele's whims and fancies.
As restaurant critic, professional elitist and author of a book about The Ivy, A A Gill puts it: "The Ivy is absolutely the measure of where we are now. The people who used to go to the Savoy Grill - the people who run dirty, smoky factories - those people really are peripheral now."
"There is," says literary agent Ed Victor, who lunches at The Ivy twice a week, "a lot of power at the Ivy."
It is a new breed of powerful: producers, editors, businessmen, television stars and sportsmen who relish their status and want other people to witness it as they tuck into their salmon fishcake with sorrel sauce. "Power is no longer wielded by people who keep themselves anonymous. Part of the mystique of power was that you didn't know who had it. That's no longer the point," says A A Gill. "Now you don't have power unless you have a publicist."
There are politicians there, too, of course - Gordon Brown was seen there recently - and in his more carefree days you might have seen Peter Mandelson dropping by. New Tory darling Ivan Massow lunches there so frequently he has taken to calling it "my works canteen".
But the rise of The Ivy is a symptom as much of how power has shifted away from its traditional heartlands. Massow is a prime example of the move from the Strand to Soho: "I'm still taken to the Savoy or Claridges by older people - the old Daily Mail types, and old lords - who still think it's interesting to go there. But if I'm taking people somewhere I take them to The Ivy." The new elite is a more narcissistic animal: it needs to check continually that it's still powerful. Hence The Ivy. If you can still get a table there at 24-hours' notice, you still exist.
Since its relaunch in 1990 under the auspices of King and Corbin it has diligently worked to position itself in the middle of London's arts industry elite. Authors such as Melvyn Bragg and Julian Barnes use it for their book launches; Booker Prize winner A S Byatt held a party to celebrate her damehood. Top agents like Duncan Heath eat there regularly. The decor includes original paintings by the safe 1960s British artists Allan Jones, Joe Tilson, Patrick Caulfield and Howard Hodgkin. The food is legendarily straightforward, but exquisite. There are no mirrors or spotlights, just a triangular space with seats around the edge looking in towards the middle, and a few quietly seductive corners. But it's the daily choreography of who is let in, and who is left out, that is so crucial. It's a deliberately elitist reservations policy. Part Machiavelli, part Einstein.
Try ringing up and asking for a table for next week: it's an enlightening experience. "It used to be bad four or five years ago," moans Sarah Guy, editor of Time Out's Eating & Drinking Guide. "But it's got worse," she says darkly. "It's a two-tier booking system. Joe Public will be told that the first available table is several weeks away. Or at best at an unpopular table at an awkward time of day. You can only rely on getting a table there on spec after 1am, when the tables reserved for late night celebs who might turn up at the last minute are finally freed. An assistant commissioning editor for one of our television channels swears blind he was refused a table, to be told, `We're only taking bookings from commissioning editors right now.'
"The booking system for mere mortals is laughable," complains Sarah Guy.
There are those The Ivy wants, and those it doesn't want. Massow remembers being plucked from the crowd. "When I was first starting to get a little notoriety, when I was 21 or 22, the then Maitre d', Fernando, passed me a card and said, `If you ever want a table ...' They select you."
"It's all part of the fun," dismisses A A Gill. "Nobody goes to a restaurant because they're hungry."
For PRs such as Mark Borkowski, responsible for Cirque de Soleil and the current Roundhouse hit show De La Guarda, the attention gained by this deliberate elitism is a useful weapon. Though it's ostensibly one of the most discreet restaurants in London - King and Corbin have never allowed photographs to be taken of the diners - the point is that all eyes are on it. Paparazzi usually attend outside its doors, snapping people such as the ubiquitous Posh and Becks, Camilla Parker Bowles and her daughter Laura, the Saatchis the McGann brothers, all actors, and designer Jasper Conran. But they can rest assured that no tales about who slurps the soup or who rests their hand on another's thigh will emanate from The Ivy itself. "If a restaurant truly fulfils its role then, ah, it's for people to make of it what they want, whether they use it for business or seduction or, ah, whatever," said King. "Unfortunately, with great apologies, I can't really comment about The Ivy. We never make comments on the restaurant."
"You can," says Borkowski, "make an impact there, if you want to imply, say, a relationship."
But more importantly, because it's carefully filled with People Like Him, it becomes a place where business can take place. "If I'm there, I'll see at least three or four people I can have a conversation with," says Borkowski. The guests and celebrities are as much a part of the menu as the food they're eating. Ed Victor uses the place because it's where he meets the people he does deals with. And if he wants to impress a potential client, he knows how The Ivy can turn someone's head. "If I'm trying to seduce someone, [in the business sense], The Ivy is the place."
Only recently he took Candice Bergen there. "I said, oh Candy, it'll be kind of dead at this time of night." Victor sounds only a touch smug when he relates how, even late in the evening, he was able to sit her near the seemingly ever-present Posh Spice and David Beckham, while also being in eyesight of both Sir Ian McKellen and Joan Collins.
Because it's not just about getting in: where you are sat is part of the elaborate dance, too. "Putting together the reservations book is a complete art," enthuses A A Gill. "It's about matching those indices of power and notoriety and beauty and culture. A restaurant full of Harold Pinters would be a silent and forbidding place. And a restaurant full of Victoria Beckhams, er, wouldn't sell much food."