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From the grand to the industrial, there’s a private members’ club in London to suit all tastes. And they aren’t as impenetrable as you might think
It used to be that a private club was a
dim haven strewn with cobwebs where old duffers – a copy of The Telegraph in one hand, glass of claret in the other – could nod off by roaring fires, blissfully untroubled by the modern world,
mobile phones or, heaven forbid, women. Times have changed. Since the glamorous and bohemian Groucho Club – beloved of shark-pickler Damien Hirst – burst on to the scene 25 years ago, followed by
the ever-expanding, all-conquering Soho House Group, the map of clubland has been redrawn.
London is now bursting with private members’ clubs. The old establishments, such as the Carlton (which recently voted to deny women full membership), the Army & Navy, White’s and The Garrick Club, still have their place, and in many cases have upped their game in recent years. However, they’ve been joined by a horde of whippersnappers, all eager to stake their claim on the capital. In a few decades, private members’ clubs have moved on from banning ladies, to hosting the 14th birthday party of Amy Winehouse’s goddaughter. The chosen venue for Dionne Bromfield’s bash, Shoreditch House, did, however, draw the line at fully clothed swimming.
Having the name of a private members’ club on your invitation can lend that extra cachet to your event. What they offer in terms of events is a glimpse into a world otherwise tantalisingly off-limits (or at least the illusion of one, as many clubs separate their events spaces and members’ spaces ruthlessly).
Want to serve your guests a slice of The Groucho Club’s effortless cool? Or, if the event demands it, the prestige and history of the City of London Club? Maybe the gravitas of the Institute of
Directors (IoD) would add a certain weight to proceedings? Such solemnity was in demand when the first night party for the play The Misanthrope was held at the IoD and attended by its stars Keira
Knightley and Damian Lewis, as well as Emilia Fox, Sadie Frost, Charles Dance, Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Mangan.
Each club has its own particular style, its own USP, so, as far as events go, there really is a club suitable for every occasion. Hosting a Burns Night celebration? Try The Caledonian Club for the best haggis south of the border. Organising a film screening? Sink into the squishy leather seats at The Electric’s gorgeous Edwardian cinema. Charity event? Why not book in to The Royal Commonwealth Society, which is a charity. ‘The private members’ link with The Commonwealth Society is great,’ says Guy Evans-Tipping, of Dod’s Parliamentary Communications Limited, which holds around 150 events a year at the Commonwealth. ‘The fact it’s effectively a charity makes a nice add-on. It makes it a more interesting place for people to visit.’
Then there are the premises: you’re getting the opportunity to drink and dine in some of the city’s grandest private buildings – from the Palladian splendour of the City of London Club, to the Grade I-listed, Robert Adam-designed Home House – the chosen venue for the lavish Brüno post-premiere party.
If the walls of private members’ clubs could talk, it would be a tabloid hack’s dream come true. Irritatingly, discretion prevents the clubs from saying much about scandalous activities at the glamorous parties they’ve hosted. However, our moles inform us that Kate Moss was turned away from Sol Campbell’s birthday at The Commonwealth Club because of overcrowding – something that we’re guessing doesn’t often happen. Incidentally, Moss – evidently a fan of members’ clubs – held her 35th birthday at Shoreditch House in February.
THE NEW GUARD
A large number of the establishments founded from about 1980 onwards have set their sights on certain industries. The Groucho Club is media; Soho House is film and television; Century tends to be for advertising; The Hospital Club is creative; and Home House was, during its early years, seen as the playground of dotcom millionaires. Adam Street leans towards entrepreneurs and was the venue for Jade Jagger’s recent London Fashion Week bash. Her daughters, brother, mother, boyfriend, DJ Dan Williams and Lindsay Lohan all turned up to show their support. At closing time, Jagger was overheard telling her teenage daughters sternly that it was time to go home, and no, they couldn’t go to the after-party. It was 2am by that time.
The new wave of clubs are a little more laid-back than their predecessors – there are no dress codes, you don’t have to wait for a member to die before you crawl up the waiting list and they are not always ultra-exclusive. ‘Our membership policy is pretty straightforward – we’re not strict or poncy or trying to exclude,’ says Fabia Palliser of The Hospital Club. ‘We try to build a membership that fits with the ethos of the club, which is all about supporting and nurturing the arts.’ Shaun Whitehouse, manager of The Commonwealth Club, where Tony Blair hangs out, says. ‘We are actually one of the easiest clubs to join.’ ‘We are inclusive rather than exclusive. Broadly speaking, if you have the entrance fee, you will be accepted. And in any case, you don’t have to actually be a member in order to hold your events here.’
The new guard are commercially savvy: they have grasped the importance of slick, dedicated venue space. ‘We host 15-20 events every week,’ says Tansy Dowman, events manager of Home House, who has organised everything from weddings to premieres for films, including Johnny Depp’s Public Enemies.
Referring to The Commonwealth Club, Whitehouse explains: ‘We rely on our events space and restaurant. We have to concentrate on our service and getting it right for our clients. One of our advantages is that our staff tend to stay longer – as they do generally at private clubs. Average service here is three and a half years, which is pretty good for such a transient industry. Our members love the fact that we have the same staff, so they see the same faces,’ he adds. ‘And non-members get to reap the rewards of knowledgeable, long-serving staff during events.’
If you want a quirky talking point, some of the newer clubs have invested in flashy features such as private bowling lanes, private cinemas and screening rooms, spas and super-stylish function rooms. The Soho House Group, for example, has an array of distinct spaces for parties across its burgeoning empire: ‘High Road House has a vast space downstairs, which is ideal for evening drinks,’ says Ayesha Sherriffs, UK sales and events manager. ‘Electric House holds what we consider to be the most beautiful Edwardian cinema in London [The Electric], Soho House has a homely feel and Shoreditch House’s spaces are all industrial and impressive.’
‘The private dining rooms at Soho House are exceptional in terms of atmosphere and service. We’ve only ever received compliments from our guests,’ says Heidi Mallace of Project Associates, who has hosted more than 130 events at the club. ‘In my opinion, there are four things that make a good event: glitz, glamour, gravitas and guests. Soho House provides the first three, we provide the fourth.’
It’s not always as clear cut as ‘old’ and ‘new’. Some clubs combine aspects of both, which is useful if your event has a mixed remit. The Groucho Club, which celebrates its 25th birthday this year, has just revamped its spaces and has elegant interiors by Nina Campbell. ‘Our beautifully refurbished dining room has a barrel vaulted glass ceiling and is a rare gem for Soho,’ explains events manager Demis Rossi.
Meanwhile, the cosy and intimate Fox Club has been going for just 20 years (a mere stripling compared with the likes of White’s and The Garrick Club) but considers itself more traditional. In reality, it straddles the two worlds, with a laid-back approach to the usual rules and regulations, allowing – gasp – members and non-members to mix: ‘If someone has a party on a Friday and Saturday, quite often they spill out into the members’ bar,’ says GM Bethan Seaton.
THE OLD SCHOOL
Don’t dismiss the old boys. What they might lack in media buzz, they make up for in prestige and a real sense of history. The Nash Room, in the IoD (where the first night party for The Misanthrope was recently held, as mentioned before) is a case in point. Named after the building’s architect, Sir John Nash (who also designed The Royal Pavilion in Brighton and Marble Arch), the ballroom, with its soaring ceilings and period features, is the most impressive space within a stunning building.
The IoD’s premises at 116 Pall Mall have also been used for screen; see them in the Batman film The Dark Knight, with Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan, Gandhi with Sir Ben Kingsley and the ITV drama Foyle’s War.
It’s worth noting that the older clubs are often not as stuffy as you might imagine. The IoD is perceived as traditional, but it has had a huge influx of young directors over the past few years, having made a concerted effort to attract younger members. ‘Our new wing, 123, is very modern, with lots of bright colours – it’s more of a jeans and trainers type of place,’ says senior marketing executive Claire Jone.
Often, private members’ clubs benefit from central locations: the City of London Club is in the middle of the City, housed in a grand, Grade II-listed Palladian mansion, and The Caledonian Club, founded in 1891, is placed in the heart of Belgravia, adjacent to Hyde Park Corner and a five-minute walk from Victoria Station.
Of course, some of the old clubs, including The Garrick Club and The Athenaeum, still don’t accept bookings from non-members.
However, like the newer kids on the block, the majority of old-timers rely on private events for revenue and have invested heavily in their function spaces. ‘Events subsidise the luxuries that the members enjoy,’ says Ian Faul, club secretary at the City of London Club. Many, including the IoD and The Caledonian Club, have added function rooms in new wings, so the dress codes and regulations of the main club can be relaxed.
In general, the stricter rules of the more traditional clubs do not apply to events: the City of London Club still doesn’t admit women as full members, but welcomes everyone to its event spaces. ‘As a club, we’re still very traditional,’ explains Faul. ‘But it’s a different kettle of fish as far as events go. There are no barriers.’
It’s still a ‘rarefied atmosphere’, according to Faul, but that’s because of the way people are treated by their long-serving staff. ‘We look after our staff, and I like to think that, in return, people get treated rather better here.’ What more could you ask?
The days of school dinner food and pudding trolleys have long since bitten the dust in clubland…
Robert Reid @ Home House
Reid was head chef at The Oak Room, and has worked under Joel Robuchon and Marco Pierre White. His private dining menu looks mouth-watering: try the rack of Herdwick lamb and niçoise minted salsa verde, or the beef Wellington, spinach and chuffed roast potato with Madeira jus.
Jean-Philippe Patruno @ Quo Vadis
Sam and Eddie Hart took over this Soho institution in 2008 and put it back on the clubland map, adding a private members’ bar upstairs and bringing head chef Patruno over from their Spanish restaurant, Fino. The food highlights old-school English grills, especially shellfish and steaks, along with traditional puddings. It was named Tatler Restaurant of the Year 2009.
Andy Campbell @ 23 Romilly Street
The food here is good value. We recommend the buttery pork rillettes or plump mussels in a white wine and crème fraîche sauce – good enough to slurp.
James O’Connor @ Paramount
The food plays second fiddle to the view, but it’s competent stuff nonetheless. Start off with black pudding, apple and potato salad or wood pigeon with wet polenta and Parmesan, follow on with seabass, crushed new potatoes and sauce vierge, and round off with Cambridgeshire burnt cream or fig and mascarpone trifle.
Keira Knightley and Rupert Friend at Black’s – Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow at Home House – Miley Cyrus, Johnny Depp and Sienna Miller at The Groucho Club – Jude Law, Cameron Diaz, Amy Winehouse and Victoria Beckham at Shoreditch House – Lady Gaga and Agyness Dean at Soho House – Kylie Minogue at Crazy Bear Club – Julia Roberts, Tilda Swinton and Robert Pattinson at The Club at The Ivy – Kate Middleton, Daniel Radcliffe and Sean Bean at Adam Street – Rihanna, Beyonce, Jay-Z, Bono and Chris Martin at The Hospital Club – Jennifer Aniston at Century
A host of socialites and celebs – including Alice Temperley, Mick Jones from The Clash, Charlotte Tilbury, Jacquetta Wheeler, Patrick Cox, Roger Taylor, Steve Winwood and Kate Goldsmith – all
dressed to the nines in Dickensian garb, descended on Quintessentially Soho for The Fair of St Barnabas at Christmas. Prangsta Costumiers dressed guests in Dickensian costumes and make-up as Jones
belted out tunes with his band in the Georgian chapel.
Sam Taylor-Wood held the post-premiere knees-up for Nowhere Boy at the House of St Barnabas pop-up, where she cosied up to star of the film and fiancée Aaron Johnson. Also in attendance were Little Britain star David Walliams, Tracey Emin, Gary Kemp, Neil Tennant, John Hannah, Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman, and Sophie Ellis-Bextor.
The Caledonian Club (terrace)
Century (roof terrace)
City of London Club (terrace)
Eight Club (roof terrace)
Home House (garden)
Naval & Military (courtyard)
Royal Overseas League (garden)
The Groucho Club
The Hospital Club
DID YOU KNOW? Regular Ewan McGregor used to help out on the door at the Union if things got busy
The Athenaeum: Charles Darwin, Sir Jimmy Savile
The Commonwealth Club: Tony Blair, HM The Queen
The Garrick Club: Noel Coward, Charles Dickens, Sir Michael Gambon, AA Milne, Sir Roger Moore, Laurence Olivier, Jeremy Paxman
The Groucho Club: Keith & Lily Allen, Jimmy Carr, Tracey Emin, Steven Fry, Damien Hirst, Sienna Miller
The Reform Club: Sir Winston Churchill, Stella Rimmington
White’s: Beau Brummell, David Cameron, Prince Charles
DID YOU KNOW? Robbie Williams is one of the founding members of Century
This feature first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Spring 2010