Restaurateur who says that he was imitated wants to sink the Titanic

IMITATION MAY be the sincerest form of flattery, but notwhen it is alleged to have occurred among the designer cocktails and rocket salads of London's restaurants. A High Court judge has been asked to close the Titanic eatery on the grounds that it is in effect a replica of its arch-rival, the Atlantic Bar and Grill.

The Titanic's flamboyant owner, the celebrity chef Marco Pierre White, is accused by Oliver Peyton, who runs the Atlantic, of trying to entice the same wealthy clientele with a similarly imposing Art Deco style in the same building, the Regent Palace Hotel near Piccadilly Circus, central London.

Mr Peyton is suing his landlord, Posthouse Hotels and Forte, and Mr Pierre White's company, MPW Criterion, fordamages and seeking an injunction. He claims that such competition should not be allowed under the terms of his lease.

The legal action is the culmination of a friction that began with the glittering opening of the Titanic last December. Regulars are said to include the actor Peter O'Toole, the model Sophie Dahl and members of the pop group the Spice Girls.

Adding piquancy to the dispute, the two sides hired half each of a former public relations couple, Alan and Elizabeth Crompton-Batt, now divorced, to put their sides of the case with the media.

But the real judgment was going on at the High Court in London yesterday. Nicholas Dowding QC, acting for Mr Peyton, told Mr Justice Rattee that a covenant in Mr Peyton's underlease barred his landlords from allowing a competing business on the premises, with the proviso that nothing should prevent the landlords from carrying on their trade as hoteliers, restaurateurs and caterers.

The judge said he was "extremely puzzled" because the covenant and the proviso appeared to be contradictory. How could Posthouse and Forte promise not to compete while retaining the right to do precisely that ?

Mr Dowding argued that the proviso allowed the landlords to continue only with existing business trading at the time Mr Peyton was granted his underlease. It did not, he held, give them permission to introduce new competing ventures.

The hearing, which is expected to last for two weeks, continues.