Whether for business or pleasure, members clubs and bars are thriving across the UK, reports Mark Ludmon
The grand façade of The Commonwealth Club, built in 1885, in Northumberland Avenue off London’s Trafalgar Square belies a stylish lounge, bar, restaurant, internet café and other facilities plus drinks and dining from leading caterer Searcys. However, despite moving with the times since being formed above a shirt shop in 1868, The Royal Commonwealth Society that owns the club closed it at the end of June. While the reasons were not publicised, it comes at a time when a new wave of modern private members clubs and bars are challenging the traditional and long-established establishments. Over the past 20 years, modern clubs such as Soho House and Home House have shaken up the concept, followed by the likes of The Hospital Club, which opened in Covent Garden in 2004, and more recently places such as Eight’s two clubs in the City of London and the QV Bar and club upstairs at Quo Vadis in Soho.
After a few notable failures in the 1990s, members clubs are also taking off outside of London such as the award-winning 29 Members Club covering two floors of a grand 19th-century sandstone building in Glasgow city centre. Opened in 2006, it is run by Lynnet Leisure Group which also operates Glasgow bars, clubs and restaurants such as One Up, The 212 and Rogano. Designed for business and pleasure, the facilities include an oyster and cocktail bar, club, restaurant and roof terrace. Its success contrasts with closures of other clubs in Glasgow over the past decade such as the Royal Scottish Automobile Club, The Corinthian and The Hallion.
In Manchester, the more traditional St James’s Club, in an imposing building in Spring Gardens, dates back to 1825 but newer places have taken off such as The Circle Club in Barton Arcade after being taken over by David Mallon and Craig Ince. The development of MediaCityUK around the BBC in Salford saw the opening of a stylish members’ club, On the 7th (pictured), in November on the top floor of The Landing, a conference and workspace facility supported by the European Regional Development Fund. The members’ bar, lounge and dining are run by the team behind Manchester’s Eclectic Hotels group. The plush interior was designed in-house and, according to spokeswoman Libby Morris, fits in with the look of the company’s boutique hotels such as Great John Street in Manchester city centre. “It is influenced from all around the world but in particular New York, city chic and Shoreditch House and Soho House,” she adds. With an annual subscription of £120, members have access to facilities including private dining rooms, a snug and screening room plus other benefits. Their philosophy is “to create a destination that not only fulfils the basic need to refuel but is a destination to relax, work, socialise and entertain, a destination to impress, surrounded by like-minded souls and ultimately a destination that has a feeling of ownership by the members”.
An extensive cocktail list has been put together by the bar team, including Great John Street’s bar manager Francesco Merola and On the 7th’s manager Gerard Eager who has a background in food and beverage management at hotels in Ireland. Mostly using spirits and liqueurs from Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands, the drinks include Islands in the Steam, a mix of Bacardi Oakheart spiced rum, lime juice, caramel syrup and Fever-Tree Ginger Ale, and a Lychee and Earl Grey Collins made with Bombay Sapphire gin and Kwai Feh Lychee Liqueur. As well as vintage and classic cocktails, there are twists such as a Mademoiselle Bramble, adding vanilla syrup and honey to the Bombay Sapphire, and a Woodford Swizzle made with Woodford Reserve bourbon and Green Chartreuse.
Back in London, the steady flow of new members clubs continues. A second site for “global members club” Apartment 58 has opened at the base of Centre Point in the West End after the success of the first in Poland Street, Soho. Inspired by the idea of a designer apartment, it is aimed at people in the creative industries and covers four floors including a nightclub, lounge and restaurant, designed by the Michael Sodeau Partnership in conjunction with the team behind design exhibition Designjunction.
Also in Soho, bar and restaurant operator Benugo has formed a partnership to launch The Club at The House of St Barnabas in Greek Street in the autumn. After a multimillion-pound refurbishment of the Grade I-listed Georgian building, facilities will include a dining room with a supper club feel, a selection of bars and lounge spaces and a secluded courtyard garden.
Brompton Brands has been breathing new life into The Brompton Club in Kensington after opening it three years ago, aiming for the feel of New York’s Upper East Side. The interior design has been inspired by English country houses and Art Deco plus the edginess of 60s and 70s rock ‘n’ roll. As part of its high-end service, butler’s bells have been installed at every table.
After Shoreditch House brought members clubs to east London in 2007, others have arrived such as the new King’s Head Members Club in Kingsland Road. In Mayfair, Mark Alexiou and Mark Cutler are launching a new members club, Rocking Horse, aiming at the same sort of creative-industries membership as London’s The Arts Club, Soho House and The Ivy Club.
For the past 36 years, one of the stalwarts of Mayfair’s club scene has been Morton’s (pictured) which, since 2002, has been owned by restaurant operator MARC. After an extensive refurbishment in 2009, it went on to develop a new basement nightclub, The 2&8 Club, with nightlife entrepreneurs Jake Parkinson-Smith and Fraser Carruthers, last year. Taking its name from Cockney slang for “state” and “late”, it is an intimate Art Deco-inspired space, designed by Mystery, with opulent mirrors and banquettes that are “stiletto-proof” for late-night partying.
Quickly becoming a destination for the rich and famous, it has gone on to be named best members club in last month’s London Club and Bar Awards, with Jake also winning the title of “sexiest host”. But rules still apply, however famous you are, with The 2&8 Club still scrupulous about keeping up standards: “Tracksuit bottoms, shorts, sports trainers or sandals are not acceptable.”
A private members bar was created as part of Peruvian restaurant Coya (pictured), which was launched in Piccadilly, London, in November by Arjun Waney, the restaurateur behind Zuma, La Petite Maison and The Arts Club. Housed in an impressive Georgian building, the venue also includes a downstairs bar and restaurant open to the public. However, the ground-floor dining area, bar and outdoor terrace are members only. As with the rest of the venue, the members bar was designed by David D’Almada of Sagrada Associates, who also worked on The Arts Club in nearby Dover Street. The opulent but distressed interior is inspired by old colonial Peru, with many features imported from the South American country. Artwork is by South American artists and photographers.
“A members bar was at the very heart of the concept behind Coya,” explains director Adam Bel Haj. “We were keen to offer a membership service where customers could experience a superior level of service, the best entertainment, view internationally renowned artworks and have priority on seating in the main restaurant. I’m pleased to say that four months since we launched the membership scheme, we have a flowing and active group of members who frequently visit the bar and restaurant. We also offer members a rolling programme of music and art, which are changed on a monthly and quarterly basis.”
National Liberal Club
Inside an imposing neo-Gothic building next to Embankment station in London is the historic National Liberal Club. Founded in 1882, it continues to provide top-end service and food and drink in its dining room, bar and reading room. Open from breakfast to dinner, the kitchen handles about 250 covers a day so investments have included replacing an ageing, increasingly unreliable warewasher with a new state-of-the-art Winterhalter MTR2 130. The compact two-tank rack conveyor washer also handles glassware from the bar. It automatically cleans itself, adjusts the rinse temperature, adjusts the wash pressure and turns itself off when empty. “As a chef, it’s the speed and the quality of the wash that is important and the MTR delivers both of these,” says head chef Ken Milne. “Its built-in cleaning programme is another bonus and routine maintenance is simple. English is not the first language of some of the kitchen staff so we needed a machine that is easy to use. The MTR fits the bill as all staff need to do is push a button to start and stop the machine.”
Originally published in the July 2013 edition of Bar magazine.