Ilfracombe in a spin at prospect of Hirst opening new restaurant

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NEWS THAT the bad boy of Brit Art, Damien Hirst, is negotiating to open a restaurant in Devon has one small coastal town in a frenzy of expectation. Even before the ink is on the contract, Ilfracombe is dusting off its red carpet and rolling up its sleeves.

"To be honest I don't really know a lot about this chappie," said Albert Furber, a district councillor. "But why not? Perhaps it will wake up the town." Yesterday, what was clear was that some people might not know what they are letting themselves in for.

"Look what he has done for Padstow - put it on the map," said a lady who obviously thought the wild young artist of dead cow fame really was the considerably more conservative chef Rick Stein.

The "bucket and spade" Devon town is obviously not awash with the kind of money one would associate with a Damien Hirst restaurant. "We hope he will bring a lot of people from London," said Jeff Twigger, a restaurateur. John Clemence, owner of another seafood eatery, agreed. "Hopefully, it will bring Ilfracombe out of the Sixties. It needs a shot in the arm, something to bring it into the real world."

Even the knowledge that Mr Hirst is a friend to the rock stars and a bon viveur renowned for dropping his trousers at parties did not put them off. "I don't think he will do anything wilder than we did in our younger days," Mr Clemence said.

Excitement is heightened by rumours that Mr Hirst's friend and sparring partner Marco Pierre White could be involved. Last week the volatile chef said he was retiring from the kitchen to expand his restaurant business outside London. Hirst and White are said to have settled their feud, over borrowed works of art.

Mr Hirst, 34, is believed to have offered up to pounds 200,000 for a large sandy-coloured building called The Quay, empty since the Barbary family closed the White Hart Pub. The Quay looks on to a pretty harbour and backs on to the spectacularly wild and rocky coastline. The artist lives near by with his partner, Maia Norman, in a 300-year-old farmhouse.

Mr Hirst's business partner Hugh Allan confirmed that "other friends from the restaurant business" might be involved. "I can't imagine it will be too conventional. But it is a lovely little harbour and I am sure it will be prudent of him to take into consideration the views of the locals."

Roy Mansfield, who runs a fish and chip shop three doors down, said: "I hope he will help to save our pier. Perhaps some of his flash friends will have the clout. I am sending him an invitation to our public meeting."

Many in Ilfracombe see Mr Hirst as their saviour. Not bad for a lad from Leeds nobody had heard of 10 years ago.