Once upon a time, that quintessentially British institution of the private members’ club was a place where men could escape their wives, drink prodigiously, and talk business over endless rounds of oysters, pheasant and Eton mess. Dress codes were strict, and the door policy even stricter.
But Britain’s new members’ clubs are a much more progressive affair. While they still have an air of exclusivity and offer an environment sympathetic to over-indulging, the latest incarnations, especially in London, have attitudes as informal as their dress codes.
Along with informality, they are also much more inclusive. “People join clubs now not to hide from the hoi polloi, but to broaden their networks, meet people from different backgrounds, change their perspectives, and build broader social and professional communities. At least, that’s the dream!” says Jackson Boxer, one of the UK’s star chefs who helms the culinary team at new private members’ club Chess Club in Mayfair, London. “It’s about diversity and inclusivity.”
Members’ clubs also off er an alternative working space for the growing number of people globally who work freelance. They get these freelancers out of the house – or hotel, if they’re travelling on business – into “a more social sphere, where you have all your needs catered to”, says Jeremy Lee, chef proprietor at Quo Vadis in London’s Soho district. “At night, they are places that are open late where you can eat your favourite food, drink your favourite drinks, and enjoy the company of people you’ve got to know and love.”
Here are four of the latest private members’ clubs in the capital that offer fine drinking and dining, top-notch decor, excellent service and a convivial rather than ceremonious atmosphere. For regular travellers to London, these clubs could make an ideal home away from home.
01: The Ned
One of the most talked-about London openings in recent years, The Ned is a 252-room hotel, spa, restaurant complex and private members’ club set within the enormous former premises of Midland Bank in the City of London. The imposing white building was designed in 1924 by Edwin Lutyens, one of the 20th century’s most significant architects, and the new interior channels 1920s and 1930s design, while giving it a refreshingly contemporary opulence.
“We drew a lot of inspiration from the building,” says Alice Lund, an in-house designer at Soho House, the British company that – together with US boutique hotel group Sydell (Nomad, Saguaro) – created The Ned. “You could come here hundreds of times and still be finding new beautiful details.”
One of the most impressive aspects of the building’s contemporary reworking is the rooftop. Open only to hotel guests and members of the Ned Club, the roof has a heated plunge pool, two converted domes with outdoor terraces for eating and drinking, and stunning views of the surrounding skyscrapers and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Below that, members have access to The Vault bar and lounge, the original Midland Bank strongroom, which is accessed through a 20-tonne, 2m-wide vault door and is lined with 3,800 original safety deposit boxes in shining silver. There’s also a members-only dining room, sitting room, gym and spa with an indoor swimming pool, hammam, sauna and steam room.
The spa lobby features gorgeous hand-painted golden wallpaper that depicts Captain Cook’s adventures from England to the South Pacific, as a nod to the building’s past, whereby banks financed some of the world’s great exploratory expeditions.
Members can also, of course, enjoy any one of the eight restaurants and bars open to the public in the former banking hall on the building’s ground level, including the standout Malibu, which offers beautifully presented Californian cuisine that bursts with fresh flavour. Ned Club is restricted to 3,000 members, and is presently waitlisted. 27 Poultry, City of London; www.thened.com
02: DEVONSHIRE CLUB
Tucked away on a quiet back street just a couple of minutes’ walk from busy Liverpool Street Station and located on a charming pedestrianonly square, the Devonshire Club feels a world away from the skyscrapers and office blocks that surround it. The club occupies an 18thcentury former East India Company warehouse and a large Georgian townhouse, and has 68 rooms and suites, as well as restaurants, bars, a gym, yoga studio and meeting rooms.
The main restaurant is the spacious brasserie, headed by talented executive chef Oliver Lesnik. It is only one of five restaurants in London licensed to serve Japanese Kobe beef from Hyogo prefecture. The brasserie is also known for its fish and shellfish, served from a marble seafood counter.
Also on the ground floor is the Garden Room, a highlight on a sunny winter’s day, with light streaming through the glass walls and ceiling, and the greenery creating a tropical atmosphere.
Members have a choice of three bars: the elegant Champagne Bar, with its angular metal furnishings and sweeping Art Deco-styled bar of gold, cream and glass; the Cocktail Bar, with its comfortable armchairs; and the oak-panelled Library Bar, with brown leather sofas and yellow bar stools.
While the Devonshire Club is set up particularly to facilitate professional meetings, interviews and networking, the club arranges a schedule of social activities, such as DJ nights, Champagne Fridays and wellness workshops. Here, it’s business first, but pleasure a close second. 5 Devonshire Square; www.devonshire.club
03: QUO VADIS
This well-loved Soho restaurant and private members’ club, founded in 1926, has recently been refurbished. “When members see that you’re investing in the betterment of their club, their comfort and enjoyment, that becomes a great source of pleasure and pride for them,” says head chef Jeremy Lee. “We now have a beautiful new members’ dining room upstairs, where they can entertain guests, and an intimate Blue Room bar, where they can work and drink, or which they can book for events.”
While the club has a fresh face, its history, which is as colourful as this part of London’s, remains centre stage. The building was a notorious brothel before becoming the home of Karl Marx, who started writing Das Kapital in one of the upstairs rooms. The building’s past, and the infamous characters of Soho entwined with it, are recorded in captivating black and white drawings by resident artist John Broadley. They decorate the walls of the club, along with other contemporary artworks.
“Soho clubs, particularly Quo Vadis, have always been less austere and friendlier than the original members’ clubs in St James’,” says Lee. “Over the years, all private members’ clubs have become more relaxed and diverse, cosmopolitan and all-encompassing, which is a very good thing.”
Quo Vadis’ laidback and creative atmosphere tends to draw artists, writers, and those working in media fields. There are spaces for casual business meetings and interviews, or catching up on e-mail, as well as more bubbly social areas where laptops are stowed away under chairs and barstools.
The menu in the new green velvet-clad dining room features contemporary British classics such as roast grouse, smoked eel sandwich, or fish of the day in verdant green sauce. “Our members are loving our new menu items, which always change with the seasons. We also have a programme of guest chef and literary events, for which they have exclusive priority booking,” says Lee.
A supportive environment, indeed, for today’s budding creative greats. 28-29 Dean Street; http://www.quovadissoho.co.uk
04: CHESS CLUB
By the group behind the hip Experimental Cocktail Club in London’s Chinatown, Chess Club redefines the often stuffy and old-fashioned Mayfair private members’ club.
“We’re a small club, so we don’t have room for time-wasters,” says Francesca Zampi, co-founder of Chess Club. “Our members are people who do stuff – we’re excited by the excitable, and we thrive on energy and ambition.”
In this brand new club, the dress code is relaxed and the decor is lively. The dining room is decked out in caramel marble, with faux specimen trays of butterflies decorating the walls, and yellow and blue seating at casual wooden tables.
Upstairs at the bar there are pale blue walls, soft gold hanging lamps and a curving peach sofa, while a room off to the side features eye-catching murals of palm fronds, orchids and pythons – in deep blue, white and burnt orange.
Socialising is key at Chess Club, so drinks and dining have been crafted with care. Chef Jackson Boxer, of Brunswick House fame, has created a refined menu that highlights British ingredients. From roasted cod with Cornish mussels and cider, and warm venison sausage roll with apple mustard, to cheese churros with black olive powder, the menu is creative and contemporary; the execution excellent.
“All people like and deserve good things,” says Boxer. “The relentless pursuit of excellence can be applied to a simple seasonal menu of comforting staples; takeaway on the sofa at the end of a long day is the bane of modern life, not its apotheosis.”
Complementing the food is an impressive wine list that focuses on smaller independent growers and sustainable wines from all over the world. The cocktails are, expectedly, outstanding, drawing on the group’s cutting-edge mixology skills. There are lighter options for lunchtime tipples, and grownup, but still creative, cocktails for into the evening, all shaken with craft spirits.
To keep members’ minds, as well as their bellies, stimulated, Chess Club arranges an interesting array of talks and activities, covering art, cuisine, wine and spirits, science, and wellbeing. There are also DJ nights and, of course, regular chess events at which to brush up on board strategy skills and meet other members. 1A Chesterfield Street; www.chessclublondon.com
Chess Club photos courtesy of Annabel Elston.