Tom Parker Bowles had his birthday party at the K-Bar in Chelsea, Laura Parker Bowles had hers at its sister club, Kabaret, and Prince William was reported to have hung out in the Soho branch until 1.30 in the morning. The usual professional socialites are all seen there, along with divergent strands of London society, including celebrities, Sloanes and aristocrats. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson writes of little else and has described it as "the hottest hang-out in London these days".
So what is it, this latter-day Algonquin Hotel where modern cafe society loves to mingle? The chain is the brainchild of the self-made society darling Piers Adam, who masterminded previous Sloane haunts SW1 and the Hanover Grand. He runs it with Ben Elliot, Camilla Parker Bowles's nephew. The management previously included financial director Benji Fry (grandson of cricketer CB Fry, and eligible bachelor-about-town) but they have since parted company.
The flagship K-Bar is in Wardour Street, and there are now branches in Putney, Chelsea, Wimbledon and, bizarrely, Bournemouth. I associate Bournemouth with interminable holidays spent there as a child in the company of my grandparents and other trendy eightysomethings but, apparently, the opening of the K-Bar guarantees Bournemouth's relaunch as a St Tropez for the millennium. Hmmm.
When the Wardour Street branch was launched back in March last year, there was much talk of the mysterious "K500": the 500 movers and shakers who would be invited to take up membership. To the credit of the management, lips were sealed about this particular slice of the gliterati and no names were mentioned, but Piers Adam said at the time that: "The exciting industries in London are fashion, music, media and the City. I want a place where this wok of incredible minds can get together and create a great deal of energy."
Since then, the paparazzi have uncovered at least a few of the beansprouts floating in this mental wok: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Sophie Dahl have been spotted there, as well as people who, in a conveniently symbiotic relationship, are famous simply for going to places like that with people like each other - Jemima Khan, Zac Goldsmith and the Parker Bowleses.
The attraction for them is fairly clear. The portrait painter Jonathan Yeo, a highly desirable quest in these circles, has said simply that: "It makes sense to have a network of like-minded people, it increases the chance of meeting people you'll get on with. Piers's places tend to be good because they're relaxed and he has a big old address book."
Membership as a concept is very much back in vogue. A number of members- only clubs have opened up in London recently, youthful competition for old folks' homes like The Garrick and The Groucho. China White and the bars at Titanic and Bambou, for example - all of which opened in the last year - aim for a similar client list to the K500. As one hard-core socialite explains: "They're not terribly imaginative in who they contact. You're either a member of every club in London, or none of them. "
Do not imagine, however, that these new members' clubs are laid out on the old model of Bertie Wooster's Drones club. There is no chance of snoozing in a big leather armchair while the butler serves tea; these younger places are crammed full of people, the dance floor is busy, the music is loud, and the bar has a big queue. As Piers Adam says: "There is a gap in the market created by the fact that most drinking in London ends at 11pm. Where do you go after that? As people get older they don't want to go to a big nightclub, but they still want to drink a bit, dance a bit, and have conversations. Our concept is extremely simple - it's only a late- night DJ bar, but because of the locations of some of the K-Bars they attract some high-profile people."
To be fair, we all dream of social membership - even if it's not the kind that comes with a laminated card. What is our national love of soap opera, if not the attraction of an old-fashioned world where everyone knows everyone else's business? We'd love to have a local like the Queen Vic or the Rover's Return, where we can just walk in and recognise everybody. A place "where everybody knows your name", where they all shout "Norm" as you take your usual seat (unless your name is not Norm, in which case please modify accordingly).
One hears sometimes of small villages in the Cotswolds where these places still exist. In London, they're a lost Utopia. Nobody knows your name at the local pub; the barman is a different New Zealander every week. If you go alone you're more likely to come across as a miserable alcoholic than a local hero.
A club, then, is an obvious solution. If your whole social circle belongs to a particular club, then it becomes a place you can just drop in to and see familiar faces. Ironically, our increasing desire to read gossip stories is fuelled by the same motive. Soap-opera plots and the movements of celebrities have become our virtual community. We create celebrities out of those who merely "associate" with the famous, just for the sake of manufacturing more gossip. You'd think Tom Parker Bowles was our next- door-neighbour, or first cousin, so keen are we to know exactly what his mum's boyfriend said when he heard he'd been up to no good. Hence the tabloid press is a sort of club in itself - for a membership fee of 40 pence a day, we can pop in and see what everybody was up to last night.
It is inevitable that many of those who go drinking in these central London clubs will be at the richer end of society. At midnight in the West End, the price of a gin and tonic and a taxi home would cripple most of us. It is then also inevitable that some of them will be mooning out of car windows and taking drugs in Cannes: rich people do that sort of thing.
But Piers Adam is not happy to see these types taking over his publicity. "We've been totally misinterpreted lately," he says. "I'm certainly not an Old Etonian - I was brought up in north London and my mother was an art teacher at Wood Green Comprehensive. This odd picture is being painted of chinless wonders rushing around, and we're being painted as flippant lads messing about. But I have had licensed premises in the West End for nine years, this is a proper business and we work closely with the police because we're aware of the sort of problems that clubs can have. We employ over 100 people and we provide entertainment for 6,000 people a week."
This is, Piers believes, a classic British problem. "We saw a niche in the market for a New York-style lounge bar and we set out to create it and provide decent entertainment. What really pisses me off is that when anyone in Britain tries to do something, everyone else wants to slag it off, slaughter it and knock it down."
Poor old Piers. He is dedicated to his clubs: on the opening night of the K-Bar in Chelsea, he even joined his partner Ben Elliot and interior designer Nicky Haslam on stage to perform a lighthearted, Britpop-style concert. A good time was had by all the members, and a good read was had the next day by all the virtual members.
The virtual members probably get the best deal anyway, witnessing all the goings-on from the comfort of their own living rooms. In your own home, after all, the G&Ts are reasonably priced, you're guaranteed a seat and you, too, enjoy the luxury of knowing every person who walks through the front door.Reuse content