Enter the world of London's private members clubs, and it's like joining a secret underground network, where a society hitherto hidden from outsiders unravels, contact by contact, and the only guide is hearsay. It's a publicity-shy society - several club owners refused both access and interviews.
The appeal of being part of a private members club is tribal and aspirational - instincts that span the stretch of human evolution. And London, an essentially cliquey, aspirational city, has had clubs for centuries, be they gentlemen's drinking clubs, drinking clubs for night-working actors and stage hands, or clubs that evolved simply to circumvent the previously restrictive licensing laws.
Despite licensing law revision, a recent burst in private club activity indicates there's life in the old concept yet, with three major openings planned in the next six months: the Capital Club, Soho House, and an as yet unnamed £5m club in Knightsbridge. Serious money is being spent on style at each club.
The Capital Club, a lush, business-oriented club opening in the City in September, is backed by a Far Eastern consortium, CCA International, that owns 170 clubs around the world. This is its first foray into Europe. Peter Inston, hotel stalwart, is designing the reworked interior of a five-storey 1915 building near Bank, that started life as the Gresham Club.
The media-oriented Soho House will occupy four floors of three converted Georgian town houses in the heart of Soho, on Old Compton Street above Café Bohäme. Café Bohäme owner Nick Jones is behind the venture, handsomely backed by none other than Soho landlord Paul Raymond - who wouldn't invest more than £1m of his money without being pretty sure of making a profit.
The last is a US-backed venture employing the skills of New York-based project manager Andrew Young and international restaurant designer Adam Tihany. They are converting four floors of a Knightsbridge office
building into what, with typical US hype, they are claiming will be "the best London club" offering fine food and dancing in a chic setting.
These newcomers will join a batch of mixed, style-conscious private clubs that has grown up over the past 20 years, diversifying all the time: there are clubs for Sloanes (Annabel's), foodies (Mosiman's), media and arty types (The Groucho Club, Black's), thespians (2 Brydges Place) and young trendies (Fred's, the Union Club, and a host of others).
Tom Bantock, co-proprietor of Black's, believes genuine, appropriate design is one of the 10 crucial ingredients in creating a successful club. "You can't screw up on design," he says.
He feels that, although only a handful of his members might realise it consciously, the fact that his Georgian interiors are authentic down to the last detail undoubtedly affects their appreciation of it. Prior to Black's opening, two years ago, he worked in tandem with English Heritage to recreate the Thomas Meard-built 1732 house exactly as Meard would have had it, complete with seven open fireplaces. He took 300 scrapings from walls to ensure that the paint colours - vivid, dark reds and greens - were correct and he even mixed the paint himself to an 18th-century formulation. He also obliged English Heritage by refraining from putting any light switches or sockets on walls - all lights are controlled from a basement vault.
With open fires, scatter cushions, dark colouring, plus low-cost food and booze, Black's leans towards decadence and hedonism and attracts a suitably lively crowd.
Bantock is scathing of the ever-changing mix of trendy private bars, saying: "One out of 10 of the clubs that have opened since Black's will close." And he cites 2 Brydges Place, off St Martin's Lane, as "the last club before Black's to get the design right".
The Groucho Club, spread over three floors used by clubs since the 1920s, is all bright, showy colours and chic styling, with paint and furnishings regularly updated by co-owner designer Tchaik Chassay. But 2 Brydges Place is very different. Owners Rod Lane and Alfredo Fernandini have taken it back to a sort of period look, with clubby touches such as wood panelling in one room, dark red walls in another.
But what makes it charming are the oddities - an eclectic mixture of bric-a-brac, paintings and folk art that Fernandini has brought back from South America. Together with slightly shabby sofas and well sat-on cushions, the place has an unpretentious, homey feel.
But there's room for all styles. The Groucho Club and 2 Brydges Place and probably have a substantial mutual membership who choose the latter for showing off and the former for a discreet, convivial night with friends.
One feature of the new breed of clubs is the lengths to which they will go to make women feel comfortable. Black's, 2 Brydges Place and Soho House all make a point of creating cosy nooks and crannies in which a woman could sit by herself unnoticed and undisturbed. Black's also has a female staff-only policy, and its membership committee (by invitation only, of course) comprises 100 women.
So how are the newcomers going to differentiate themselves? The Tihany/Young venture promises a "glamorous, international style". Tihany has plans for a restaurant, "a sexy 1930s ocean liner with beautiful detail and a lot of metal and glass and murals."
Sons and daughters
The club is appealing to "sons and daughters" of Annabel's clientele - wealthy young double-barrelled types. And they have brought a former manager of Annabel's, Luis Emanuelli, out of retirement, to provide the right connections. It will have an advantage over Annabel's, in that there will be a separate dance floor from the dining area.
The Capital Club is somewhat more staid. Archetypal club elements such as dark wood wall panelling and clubby greens mingle with oriental carpets and elegant chandeliers. It has to be a suitable atmosphere for both relaxing and doing business. A kitchen on every floor will serve function rooms, the classic restaurant, and a livelier basement brasserie.
Soho House is aiming for an authentic-looking Georgian interior furnished as if it were a private home. However, the scale of the place - three houses knocked into one - might prove a challenge to the homely look, as might the fact that several different parties are involved in the decor and furniture, working to a basic idea from Café Bohäme designer Gordon McAteer. n