J Sheekey is one of Richard Caring’s older, and better, restaurants. Since he has dowsed the suburbs of London in multiple outposts of the Ivy (there is one in Wimbledon, another in Richmond and presumably one pending in Penge), J Sheekey increasingly feels like an island in a sea of pointlessly aspirational green. The rise of the Ivy — the original celebrity brasserie, which is code for an indifferent restaurant full of awful people eating shepherd’s pie — is an inevitable consequence of the rise of celebrity culture. This is anti–culture, and the Ivy is, therefore, an anti–restaurant. So many celebrities, and now so many Ivys to put them in. The age of narcissism has many tentacles.
J Sheekey lives in an alley between the Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane; it is not Soho then, but the more depraved and interesting Charing Cross. It is long, latticed and red, like a painted nail on a finger of necrotic flesh. (A younger, more hopeful and less interesting sister called the J Sheekey Atlantic Bar is open next door. She is less expensive, and blue.)
The real J Sheekey was established in 1890 by Josef Sheekey, who was granted permission to serve oysters, shellfish and game by Lord Salisbury, in exchange for feeding him after the theatre. I like the sound of this Lord Salisbury.
Inside there is a warren of small, crowded rooms with dark panelling and white napery, with black and white photographs of actors making faces on the walls. A place to plot then, particularly if you seek a part in Double Indemnity: the Musical.
Last orders are at midnight, and this is thrilling: even Rules has surrendered to the housing crisis that has moved all restaurant staff to Zone 4 and beyond, and shuts the kitchen at 11.30 p.m. And so I have invited the actor Roger Allam to dine. He has been pretending to be Roy Jenkins in a play.
This column does not normally solicit celebrity guests. I loved A.A. Gill, but not because he dined with Joan Collins and Jeremy Clarkson, who is now so famous that the fact he recently gave up smoking was a national news story. But I am a poor interviewer, and Lynn Barber would scowl at me — I love my interviewees, and not always the better to manipulate them, and I adored Allam. It is not that he looks like a Spectator reader that a genie produced from a bottle as evidence of the existence of the genre (he is of the left, actually) or that his performance as Peter Mannion in The Thick of It (where I think he pretended to be Ken Clarke) seemed to distil the anguish of the Lib Dem/Tory coalition politics to its essential form. (‘I’m bored of this,’ he moans. ‘I’m going for a Twix.’) It is that he seems to have none of the vanity of the generic actor; he is not, for instance, dressed in leather lederhosen, as Jeremy Irons was when I passed him in St Martin’s Lane.
I am quite angry he is not more famous, but perhaps if he were I would not be dining with him, because he would live on a cliff in Malibu, like Iron Man; and he is too subtle for superhero films. Anyway, I am a fan, and here he is, as an exhibit in this column — a guest star. I can’t tell you the more interesting things he said, because they are confidential, although I suppose he would not mind if I say he lives near Kew.
So, as we eat a perfect feast of scallops, Dover sole, plain risotto and 22 exquisite ounces of blue rib-eye steak, I try to pretend that he is not Peter Mannion, and fail.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator Australia for less – just $20 for 10 issues