Rag trade baron who has never owned a restaurant buys The Ivy for £21m

The favourite haunt of media and theatre folk since 1917 has come into the hands of the man who supplies clothes to Bhs and Top Shop. Jason Nissé and Sholto Byrnes report

A small earthquake is about to rattle the plates of shepherd's pie and bang bang chicken at The Ivy, Britain's most fashionable restaurant.

A small earthquake is about to rattle the plates of shepherd's pie and bang bang chicken at The Ivy, Britain's most fashionable restaurant.

Associated with the raffish end of celebrity since the days of Noël Coward and Marlene Dietrich, the Covent Garden eaterie is about to be taken over by a rag-trade baron with no experience of running restaurants.

With his perma-tan and slick black hair, Richard Caring is hardly in the usual mould of diner at a restaurant associated with Kevin Spacey and other media darlings. Mr Caring's fortune, estimated at £200m, comes instead from supplying Bhs and Topshop with mid-range fashions made in Third World factories - the sort of clothes rarely seen in The Ivy, in Le Caprice or in any other restaurants belonging to the Signature chain, just acquired by Mr Caring for a price estimated at £21m.

While The Ivy is seen as the epitome of understated taste, Mr Caring boasts an outsized family residence described as "the Versailles of Hampstead".

Often described as a "fashion and sports" mogul, Mr Caring has been integral to the rise and rise of his close friend and business partner Philip Green, the swashbuckling billionaire whose stories include Bhs, Dorothy Perkins, Miss Selfridge, Wallis and Topshop. It is Mr Caring who supplies many of the clothes, and his products are said to be in half the female wardrobes of Britain.

The son of an American GI who stayed on after the Second World War and set up a clothing business, 55-year-old Richard Caring is described by friends as charming but intensely private - another unusual feature for the owner of restaurants in the permanent glare of flash bulbs. He is, though, given to flashy gestures, and famously once paid £145,000 for dinner with Elton John at a charity auction. He also bought Philip Green a Ferrari.

While not quite as exclusive as The Ivy, where less famous customers have to book months in advance to secure a table, the other restaurants in the group also bear illustrious names, such as Le Caprice, J Sheekey, Daphne's, Pasha and Bam-Bou.

If Mr Caring does not have the experience of the restaurant trade possessed by the departing owner, the Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson, he is familiar with the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by many of The Ivy's customers. His Hampstead home has a 30-seater dining room, a cinema and a ballroom.

Last year he spent £130m buying the Wentworth golf course in Surrey, where membership costs £5,500 a year. He is hoping to build a five-star hotel at the club.

Mr Caring will inherit a flagship restaurant with a long history and a loyal clientele. Opened by Abel Giandellini in 1917, the restaurant's name came from a comment made by an actress of the day, Alice Delysia. When Giandellini informed her that the restaurant was undergoing building work, Delysia replied: "Don't worry. We will always come and see you. We will cling together like ivy."

Others who favour the restaurant nowadays include George Michael, Jack Nicholson, Claudia Schiffer and Robbie Williams, while the film director Mike Figgis has been known to sit down and play the piano upstairs.

Those who are fond of their sausage and mash need not worry that the arrival of Mr Caring will signal too many changes. "Anybody would be crazy to try to do that," said Mark Hix, executive chef of The Ivy and Le Caprice, yesterday. "I'm sure we'll continue the business as normal, because that's what the customers want."

WHO'S WHO IN THE DINING ROOM

* Madonna and Guy Ritchie are regular visitors - apparently she cannot resist the sticky toffee pudding and he favours the truffle risotto.

* The Ivy need not have panicked when literary agent Ed Victor wrote a diet book. He is still one of their best customers. He orders "the best curry in London".

* Mark Bolland, former PR consultant to Prince Charles, now sits in the B-list hell known as Siberia. Fortunately, the ignominy doesn't put him off his shepherd's pie and chicken curry.

* Ross Kemp, husband of The Sun editor and a friend of Bolland and his partner Guy Black, is another resident of Siberia. He regularly enjoys a truffle risotto.

* Diana Ross sits in a corner table towards the back. After preaching about healthy eating, she likes nothing better than roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

* Jennifer Lopez does not have a regular table at The Ivy. Nor does she have a favourite dish. She is barred after her staff called three times in one evening and changed her booking.

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