Sir Ian McKellen: Why I took over my local pub
Hollywood actor and Limehouse resident Sir Ian McKellen has long harboured an ambition to open a little tea shop.
This month, in partnership with his old friend the theatre director Sean Mathias and Evening Standard chairman and one-time owner of Sake No Hana Evgeny Lebedev, he took over historic pub The Grapes in Narrow Street instead.
Sir Ian said: "This is my local. I knew the licencee, Barbara Haigh, and she had been asking me for years whether I wanted to buy the pub, and I had always said no. Then she said she was retiring.
"It's a huge asset to the area and there has been a public house on this site since the 1540s. Some people come a long way to visit The Grapes and others just step across the road."
Sean has been in New York directing a play, and the former Narrow Street occupant didn't take much persuading to get involved with the The Grapes.
He said: "I was looking to come back to the East End and was house-hunting with my partner, Paul. We went over to see Ian one night and he asked whether I wanted to buy a business. So we decided to buy the pub and bring Paul in to run it.
"We mentioned it to Evgeny and he wanted in too."
The mighty triumvirate took over the lease and opened the doors two weeks ago.
Ian said: "I couldn't have done it by myself. If you mention to anyone you are buying a pub their face lights up. It's a bit of a performance.
"We wanted to make some alterations without changing the atmosphere because it is so delightful and has been for centuries. A lot of the locals think of it as their own and that is partly why we won't be making any violent changes."
The pub boasts Whistler and Dickens among its historic regulars. The latter featured it as The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in Our Mutual Friend. Sir Ian commissioned a picture of the team sat in the bar with Dickens in the centre, which hangs on the freshly painted walls.
The main alterations so far have been in the restaurant, which has a new colour scheme and has had its menu overhauled, keeping the fish and chips the pub is famous for but adding more homely, freshly cooked pub meals.
Sir Ian said: "The chef brought in a shepherds pie for me to taste. I haven't eaten meat for almost 30 years but I'm nearly a convert now.
"I was in the restaurant and heard a diner say, 'I didn't expect sea bass to have the head still on'. I said, 'Would you like me to fillet it for you?' And I did. I wouldn't know how to change a keg but I have been behind the bar pulling a pint."
Ian and Sean agree the business is never going to be a gold mine because there is no scope to expand although they might look at space at the top of the building. If they can make the restaurant as popular in the week as at weekends that will make them happy but for now they are looking forward to having the cosmetic work completed by Christmas.
Sir Ian, who has now returned to New Zealand to continue filming both parts of The Hobbit, said: "I have got a break at Christmas and I wasn't going to come home but I think I will now I have the pub. I really enjoy just sitting here in the evening. In New Zealand I will be based in Wellington but we are on location up and down the country shooting both films at the same time.
"I just finished a play with Sean and all the time I was there I was looking forward to getting back on location, but now I wouldn't mind another month here being mine host."