If you weren’t wealthy, you wouldn’t have heard of it. In 1963, when Martin Luther King was having a dream, the Beatles wanted to hold your hand and the British were busy inventing sex, the aristocracy was enjoying a revolution of its own – and it’s home was Annabel’s.
Annabel’s was the brainchild of Mark Birley, a paragon of unapologetic snobbery. Once, when sitting in first class, an air hostess asked him to put out his cigar as the smell was upsetting the passengers in economy, to which he famously replied that the smell from economy was upsetting him too but you didn’t hear him complaining.
It was in this ‘sorry, not sorry’ spirit of snootiness that Birley created Annabel’s in Mayfair’s Berkeley Square, a private members’ club that started life as a playground for the upper crust below a casino and ended up becoming, for a period, the most famous basement in the world. Over the years, Annabel’s played host to the cream of blue-blooded society and red-blooded rock royalty. From Mick Jagger to Liz Taylor, Lady Thatcher to Lady Gaga, anybody who was anybody made an appearance at one time or another.
Even the royal family wasn’t immune to its charms. It’s said that Princess Di and Fergie snuck into the club dressed as policewomen to gatecrash Prince Andrew’s stag do, and it remains, according to reports, the only club that the Queen has ever been to. She had a gin Martini, apparently.
‘It was very much part of the zeitgeist,’ says author Tyne O’Connell, an Annabel’s regular, ‘Annabel’s was London getting its groove on.’
‘Mark’s genius was in picking talent and retaining staff loyalty,’ adds David d’Ambrumenil, an Oxford university friend of Birley’s and a founding member of Annabel’s. ‘If Mark said to his staff, take off all your clothes and run to the North Pole, they’d be on their way.’ So over the decades, while you might not see naked barmen, you would see Nando on the door, ‘Little’ Johnny on the bar, George serving the drinks, maître d’ Louis welcoming guests and cockney Mabel James in the ladies loos, comforting young debutantes when they were feeling blue.
‘It was like a family,’ explains d’Ambrumenil’s wife Sarah, a former girlfriend of Birley. ‘It was always so comfy and cosy – the food, the atmosphere. If I could go back to those days, I would – every night was a cocktail party.’
Over the years, Annabel’s bright stardust waned. Although the club survived Birley’s divorce from his wife Lady Annabel (who ran off to marry billionaire Jimmy Goldsmith), largely unscathed, by the 90s, the sheen on the old club started to fade. The regulars were complaining that the wrong sorts were being allowed in and younger members joked they didn’t want to go in case they bumped into their dads entertaining their mistresses. In 2003, Birley brought in his children India Jane and Robin to run the club, although this ended in farce when Mark sacked his son – possibly as punishment for hiring a rogue private investigator to spy on his sister’s lover.
Today, however, Annabel’s looks brightly towards the future. The new club has been done up to the nines, face-lifted, botoxed and moved two doors away to a larger home at 46 Berkeley Square. Gone is the old, country house styled basement, to be replaced by a whirlwind of ritzy bars, restaurants and private dining rooms, all encircling the second largest cantilevered staircase in London – the first is in Buckingham Palace. The enchanting restaurant terrace has a retractable roof with its own weatherman and the ladies powder room is like a set from Gone with the Wind. ‘The result is a space which reflects the Garden of Eden; a place where anything goes and revelry and temptation are succumbed to,’ says Sexy Fish designer Martin Brudnizki, who was tasked with the £55m renovation.
Will the new owner Richard Caring be able to recapture the magic of the club’s former shimmering days in the sun or will the new haunt be Annabel’s in name only? Time will tell. But come what may, Annabel’s has earned its place as an icon of 60s and 70s glamour and for those who were there, Annabel’s isn’t just the latest place to be, it’s a part of history.