Mitchell Everard, The Ivy's genial maitre d', greeted my host with his trademark smile and warm handshake and added almost in shock, "Well I am surprised to see you here at lunch. This must be the first time."
My host, Richard Caring, who bought The Ivy a year ago along with Le Caprice, J Sheekey, Daphne's and the other restaurants in Caprice Holdings and then followed this up with the purchase of almost 30 Strada and Belgo restaurants, laughed and replied, "You're right," and turning to me added, "I never do lunch." He was breaking this habit, and that of speaking directly to journalists too, out of respect for the FT, he added. Although as we spent the next 90 minutes talking about little else other than restaurants it was, I subsequently realised, an opportunity for him to learn a little more about the world he has recently entered in such spectacular fashion.
And fashion, in its broadest sense, explains a great deal of what Caring has done over the past two years in a change of career which began with his purchase of Wentworth Golf Club in Surrey for £130 million, a sum many have said, as even more have said of his restaurant purchases, that was way above the market and at a price on which he will find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a significant return.
Caring. a tanned 55, certainly has the assets and trading experience to prove any detractors wrong. Born in London to an American GI father (the family name was originally Caringi from Naples), he moved into his father's textile business and then presciently saw the opportunity to expand it via manufacturing in Asia. Living in Hong Kong from 1970 to 1990 he met Alan Zeman and Bruce Rockowitz, two of the colony's then leading restaurateurs, and began to appreciate the glamorous side of the restaurant world. The manufacturing business he developed has brought him a close friendship with retailer Philip Green, with whom he speaks every day, and the subsequent fortune to look at every offer with supreme confidence.
It was such an open-minded approach which led him initially to Wentworth and subsequently into restaurants. A keen golf and tennis player, he had decided that once that purchase was complete there was an opportunity to improve the club's hospitality and had entered into discussions with the senior management then running The Ivy. "I was in a meeting with Des McDonald and Andy Bassedone and we were running through such matters as management fees and costs when I just said 'You know, it would be much simpler if you were just to sell me The Ivy'. I noticed that there was a significant glance between the two of them and that was it." But was that sufficient reason, I asked, to pay £20 million for six restaurants that their founders, Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, had sold only four years earlier for £12 million?
Caring laughed and, obviously relishing his rare lunch outing, said "Let's eat," and proceeded to order a Caesar salad and steak tartare, very spicy, and the most expensive white wine on the list, a Premier Cru Puligny-Montrachet 2000 at £75. Rather nervously, the waitress had to tell her ultimate boss that this particular wine was out of stock and it was Caring's turn to laugh. "The only instance in which I have interfered with the management since I took over is to ask them to move from a multiple margin on the wines we sell to a fixed cash margin per bottle. But it looks as though this idea of mine is working too well."
As he accepted the replacement Meursault without even sniffing it, Caring continued, "What has impressed me most about this restaurant group since my initial discussions has been the quality of its management. A lot of the senior people here today not only started in the kitchen but also spent a lot of time working for Corbin and King who were extremely fastidious restaurateurs." (I subsequently learnt that Everard worked alongside Corbin at Langan's Brasserie 30 years ago.)
"The reason people may question the prices I have paid is that they may not appreciate the extent of what I have bought. They're all very successful businesses in their own right and they have a terrific management team, but above all they have names which no-one else can emulate. I've bought restaurant brands and the world to-day is brands. Others have built hugely successful businesses out of other aspects of the leisure and pleasure market and I believe that there is the opportunity to do the same with restaurants.
"J Sheekey is the classic English fish restaurant and we are looking at the possibility of opening branches in Malibu and Las Vegas. There will be a second Le Caprice in New York in a year's time and we are also looking at Moscow. Both of these are great names and will travel easily. And after I had bought these I realised that to complement the best at the top end I needed something at the mid-price level and that's why I bought Strada where the average spend is only £18.60. I hope to have as many as 250 one day." When I venture that may be in five years, he counters with three immediately.
Caring's most immediate actions reveal deep pockets. He has bought Scott's of Mayfair, one of the very few neglected London restaurants with history, and has already spent £2.5 million on a still uncompleted site while his dexterity with The Ivy name shows a more flexible approach. "There will only be one Ivy," he stated emphatically, dismissing the bowl of French fries that came with his steak tartare, "and that will be here. It's a classic. But what I hope we will have opened by the end of the year is an Ivy Club upstairs." Caring bought the freehold of the building for £5 million and moved the company's offices out to make way for a club which he hopes will act as a 'home from home' with comfortable seating, a large bar and a series of small dining rooms – and one that presumably will be as difficult to get into as the restaurant. He also spoke enthusiastically of one or more boutique hotels that would tie together a burgeoning leisure business
There is no doubt that although he rarely lunches and explained that he could not even get into his local Strada for dinner the week before when it was full, the role of restaurateur has great appeal for Caring. A meticulous party-giver, who hosted a charity ball at Catherine the Great's Winter Palace in St Petersburg last November which Bill Clinton attended dressed as a Russian general and raised £10 million for NSPCC, being the proprietor of a string of the most highly regarded restaurants is a definite thrill - even if the price of such fame means being interrupted by a customer whose face or name he could not remember.
When I pressed him on the question of any possible disadvantages of owning such a prestigious string of restaurants he paused for longer than usual. "I suppose there have been two so far. The first is getting calls from people who know me and therefore think that I can get them a table. This is something I will never do as it would undermine my management. And the second is talking to the receptionists at The Ivy in particular who spend most of their time on the phone saying No to customers who want to make a booking here, to spend money. As a manufacturer with factories to keep busy I'm not used to saying No."