Pizza man swallows The Ivy as top restaurant chains grow ever fatter

IT'S ALL quite exhausting. You have only just become known to the maitre d' at one fashionable restaurant when another opens its doors across town. Nowadays, it's impossible to be seen in all the right places.

The people to blame for this infuriating social whirl are the latter- day Julius Caesars colonising vast swaths of our city centres. Yesterday one culinary empire, Belgo, swallowed up a smaller group that includes The Ivy and Le Caprice, two of London's eating institutions.

Belgo, the moules and frites chain, has grand plans for further expansion, including two new restaurants here, one in New York and a string of bars. Its success mirrors the remarkable ascent of its multi-millionaire chairman, Luke Johnson.

Johnson's ambitions, and those of rivals such as Sir Terence Conran, are fuelled by a revolution in the nation's dining out habits. There is, now, an apparently insatiable appetite for modern, stylish eating places, where the image and decor are at least as important as the food.

Unlike the celebrity chefs-turned-businessmen, such as Marco Pierre White, Johnson is one of a breed of entrepeneurs approaching the boom from a businesss perspective. He readily admits that he is not a "foodie", and that it is the restaurant trade's high profit margins that attract him.

As recently as 1993, Johnson, 36, son of Paul, the moralising columnist, had no stake whatsoever in the trade. He and a partner, Hugh Osmond, a fellow Oxford medical graduate, then owned Star, a small computer company, which they used as a vehicle to buy control of the PizzaExpress chain.

Johnson immediately sold the parts of the business that did not suit him, like the pizza delivery service in the Netherlands. "Blokes on mopeds are not our cup of tea," he declared.

Late last year, he moved in on Belgo, snapping up what was then two restaurants for pounds 10 million, and beating off rival bidders, believed to include Whitbread. The rest of his story is of an inexorable rise upmarket.

Three months ago, he added three of London's most chic restaurants to his portfolio, taking Daphne's, Pasha and The Collection off the hands of Mogens Tholstrup, the Danish socialite. With the acquisition of The Ivy and Le Caprice for pounds 13.4 million yesterday, he has reached the top of the tree.

Yet Johnson, who has a reputation as a ruthless wheeler-dealer, still finds the time to cultivate other, bewilderingly diverse business interests. These include a group of 350 National Health Service dentists, a photographic company and a retailer of bathroom tiles.

Johnson, who nearly stood as a candidate for James Goldsmith's Referendum Party at last year's general election, has not made parallel progress in his personal life.

He announced last year that he was "looking for a wife", but added: "I don't understand why women fall for men at all. I wouldn't blame women for being lesbians; they're much nicer than men generally."

So, where once restaurant chains meant Pizza Hut or Burger King, middle- market and upmarket empires are now part of the culinary landscape, thanks to Johnson, Conran and other key players. They include Marco, who marches relentlessly on, invading Leeds, Bath and Oxford with his MPW brand, and Jean-Christophe Novelli - from nothing to six restaurants in under three years.

It is Conran, though, who has played the biggest part in transforming the restaurant scene, since it was he who first alerted diners to the importance of the "fashionability factor". He now owns a raft of "in" places including Bluebird in Chelsea, west London. A spokeswoman insists: "All our restaurants are completely unique."

Not everyone agrees. The veteran restaurant critic, Fay Maschler, last year attacked the "Conranisation" of the industry and criticised the "noisy anonymity" of his huge eateries.

Mark Hayes, editor of Hotel and Restaurant magazine, says the upmarket "chains" offer "a guarantee of quality. It's a restaurant with a track record."

The name associated with the business is important. Nico Ladenis, the chef, sold his two establishments, Chez Nico and Simply Nico, a couple of years ago. Now, the new owners, the Restaurant Partnership, are rolling out a chain of Nico restaurants around the country.

How far, though, can you stretch quality? A cautionary tale for Mr Johnson may lie in Longridge, Lancashire, home to Eponymous, once the highest- rated restaurant in the north-west. Paul Heathcote, the chef-owner, lost one of his two precious Michelin stars this year. Food critics believe that, by opening other restaurants, he spread himself too thinly.

Life and times

Top eateries

Turnover

Sir Terence

Conran

The retailer turned restaurateur is in with New Labour. London may need to expand to fit in the restaurants he intends to open

Mezzo, Bluebird, Le Pont de la Tour, Quaglino's, Zinc Bar and Grill, Bibendum, Orrery, Cantina del Ponte. Plans to expand in London and abroad

50,000

pounds 70m

Marco Pierre White

One of Britain's top chefs. His 'uncompromising' personality earns him tags such as 'glittering talent' when reflected in his cooking

Mirabelle, Criterion, Quo Vadis, Simpson's, Le Meridien, Waldorf Palm Court, Cafe Royal Grill Room

8,500

pounds 25m

Oliver

Peyton

A furiously fashionable restaurateur, with Brighton's derelict West Pier in his sights. Credited with pulling in the nightclub crowd

Atlantic Bar and Grill, Coast to Coast, Mash in London and Mash and Air in Manchester

7,500

pounds 22m

Tony

Allan

Award-winning chef, fishmonger. His good looks earned him an invitation to star in a children's cookery programme, Food Factory.

Bank and a chain of brasseries called Fish! May open a fish restaurant called Bankenstein with the TV chef Rick Stein

3,500

pounds 8m

Luke Johnson

Son of historian Paul Johnson. Stood in election for Referendum Party. Entrepreneur who plans to take Belgian chic around Britain

Belgo Centraal, Belgo Nord. Has bought The Ivy and Le Caprice. Plans to open 15 more Belgos. Co-founder of Pizza Express

7,000

pounds 8m

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