Discretion. It’s what private members’ clubs are all about. And money. As a gossip columnist, I don’t have much of either. What I do have, as an ironic consequence of the job, is an insider’s knowledge of all the best clubs and restaurants in London. Well, an outsider’s: clubs insist on Chatham House rules, so I’m not at liberty to disclose exactly what I saw Kate Moss doing with Robbie Coltrane on that Thursday in March. But I can tell you where is good right now.
Take the Arts Club on Dover Street (pictured). A year ago, if someone had suggested including it in a guide to London’s hip hangouts, I would have choked on my pomegranate sidecar. Back then, the Arts Club meant vomity carpets and white-wine book launches. Membership had dwindled to 600 and the doorman went home at 5p.m. But thanks to chief executive Brian Clivaz, founder of Home House, who has brought in a handful of new investors and completely revamped the place, this is London’s new powerhouse: a vibrant, exclusive hangout for money-makers with taste.
I pop in to see Brian for lunch. Upstairs, a dozen discreet conversations are burbling round muted grey walls. Downstairs it’s all bigger and brasher — high ceilings and white tablecloths. ‘That,’ he says, ‘is where you go to be seen. To broker a deal.’
The club was founded in 1863 by Frederick Leighton and Charles Dickens, and members now include David Hockney and Tracy Emin. Gwyneth Paltrow and the Duke of Edinburgh hit it off famously at the relaunch. There aren’t any slebs in today, but there’s a lot of lolly. ‘That man owns two Van Dycks,’ says Brian, pointing. ‘That one owns an important collection of guitars. You have to remember that the Arts Club has always been for patrons. From day one we have had bankers, solicitors, industrialists, entrepreneurs — all with an interest in the arts.’
With over 3,000 members, the club is full, though ‘key art people’ are still welcome. ‘If you’re just a banker who likes to collect watches or the odd yacht, then this is not for you. What we want are hedgies who in their spare time will fork out £120 million for The Scream.’ It costs £1,500 a year, plus a £2,000 joining fee, and as well as two restaurants and various lounges, there’s a slinky nightclub in the basement, and a programme of lectures and talks. As of next year, there will be bedrooms.
A few streets west, in Shepherd’s Market, the finishing touches are being put to 5 Hertford Street, the long-awaited new club by Robin Birley. The saga behind its creation is worthy of Tolstoy, and has kept gossip columnists tip-tapping away. As son of the late Mark Birley, founder of Annabel’s and Mark’s, Robin has clubs in his DNA. But father and son fell out, and the portfolio was sold in 2007 to restaurant magnate Richard Caring just months before Mark died. Robin was left only £1 million and a sour taste in his mouth. Five years on, he’s laying down the gauntlet to Caring, and is set re-establish Birley as a byword for ultra-exclusive.
The premises are large — an island of five stuccoed houses knocked together to create a warren of lounges and drinking dens, centred on a courtyard. Daytime dining is on the ground floor, with private rooms upstairs and, eventually, bedrooms above. There’s a nightclub in the basement, Loulou’s, named, like all Birley ventures, after one of the family (cousin Loulou de la Falaise was a model and muse to Yves Saint Laurent). Renovation is said to have cost north of £20 million, but 500 founder members have already signed up, all with deep pockets — Jemima Khan, Bryan Ferry, countless Goldsmiths and Rothschilds. A further 1,000 members will be chosen by them, making membership here seriously sought-after.
Across town, in Covent Garden, the Club at The Ivy is one of London’s best-kept secrets. Yes, we all know The Ivy is the restaurant of A-listers and power-brokers, but it’s also open to the neck-craning public. Connoisseurs now head for the door on the right, hidden in a flower shop, and zoom up the crystal lift; here, you’ll find three floors exclusively for use by members, though don’t think it’s at all stuffy. Alice Cooper once shared that lift with Douglas Hurd. It’s that kind of place.
Creating a club here was one of Caring’s smartest moves. When he bought The Ivy, the upstairs was just offices. But with its prime location on the Soho/Covent Garden borders, it was an obvious place for a club. It now pulls in a similar crowd to the Groucho. Was that Kulveer Ranger, Boris Johnson’s secret weapon, I saw letting his hair down the night before the election?
The first-floor bar has a jangly, upbeat vibe, though you do wonder how many times Joe Thompson has played ‘Kissed by a Rose’. He came from Ronnie Scott’s, though he was playing Adele the other night. Tommy and Stephen look after you, and barman Cas Oh will shake up his signature drink, the Twinkle. One of the joys of The Ivy’s triangular floorplan and leaded latticed windows is that you always know you’re at The Ivy, no matter how many Twinkles you’ve seen.
Upstairs is the dining room proper, though they do a mean red onion hot dog at the bar, and above that is the vast function room, hired one night by the Booker Prize, the next by Christian Louboutin. Cigar-chompers sprawl on the heated rooftop stone bench. Membership is £1,000 per year, plus a £500 joining fee: cheap, given the payload.
Back in Mayfair, the new members’ nightclub Low opened in November. Created by David Serlui of Aura fame and Andy Giorgini, ex-Brompton Club, Low is buried two stories beneath Jermyn Street. They want to keep it a secret, and you have to go through a deserted restaurant to get there. There’s no dress code, but obviously they want you to look good enough to dance with at 3a.m. Isaac Ferry had a party there recently, and Rihanna is said to have dropped in. When I went the other night, Guy Pelly, the princes’ social gate-keeper, was getting reacquainted with his ex-girlfriend Susannah Warren, and then spending a lot of time in the street being counselled by pals. Life membership is a mere £1,000, and they throw in a personalised bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Annual membership is £500, for those who think the caravan will move on. Oh, and the urinals in the men’s loos are modelled on Mick Jagger’s lips.
The other closely guarded secret is round the corner at Scotch. If the name’s familiar, that’s because it was big in the sixties. Paul McCartney and Rod Stewart were regulars, and in 1966 a then unheard-of Jimi Hendrix once joined the house band to play some blues standards — his first UK gig. Fast forward two decades, and it was the Director’s Lodge, home to a very different kind of gentleman’s entertainment. It’s still hard to find, discreetly hidden behind the White Cube gallery in Mason’s Yard, though Dinos Chapman’s pals knew where to find him for his 50th in January, when it first opened. It’s open from 10p.m. to 5.30a.m., and entry is strictly by invitation only. They don’t have a website and they don’t want any publicity and I promised not to tell. Oops. Looks like I won’t be asked back any time soon.