The blagger's banquet
They're exclusive, elitist, and so fashionable that everybody wants to join. Ed Harris tries to shortcut the waiting lists for the hippest private members' clubs in London. But would he get past the bouncers?
Friday 25 June 1999
First stop was Soho House. This tall warren of staircases and lounges in a street-corner town-house is terribly fashionable - it has attracted celebs such as Robert De Niro, Rufus Sewell and Zoe Ball - and has an 18-month waiting list for membership. Privileges include the use of screening rooms, and you can gaze smugly down on the proles in the street from its comfy sofas.
Getting into the building through its anonymous side-street door was easy: just hang around and wait for genuine members to be buzzed in, and nip in smartly after them. Getting past the greeters at the first floor reception is another matter.
Armed only with my friend Neil for moral support, I breezed in and said we were meeting a Mr X, a big cheese in the music industry. Our ploy looked to be working - until the staff went through their records. Sadly, it seemed there was no Mr X. The staff, polite and helpful to a fault, took Neil's mobile phone number and suggested we wait in the cafe downstairs: they'd call us when our "friend" showed up. If they had seen through our ruse, they didn't let it show.
Next stop was the daddy of them all, The Groucho. Founded in the 1980s and implicated in every anecdote about media excess ever since, this is the temple of Soho clubland. It is filled with young and smart film and media types, all engaged in animated chatter about pressingly fashionable topics. The vibe in this raffish joint is distinctly Eighties, with comfy sofas for the weary to sink into after one drink too many.
Visitors are greeted in the lobby, behind the unassuming Georgian facade, by a beautiful person, who patiently heard out Neil's lies about meeting a young actor called James Edwards. "Really, he's not here?" we blustered. "But he said he'd be here half an hour ago..." After an uncomfortable pause, we were waved into the bar. We were in - but with a proviso. "You can look in the bar and see if your friend is there."
Success! Or so we thought. Trouble started when we tried to order drinks. "You'll need a member's name if you want a drink," the barman said as he tore himself away from serving a crowd of young, lively types. Simultaneously, the greeter, who must have seen us gaping stupidly, reappeared and firmly but politely, escorted us out. We had been rumbled - and we hadn't even had a drink. Top hint: befriend a member, or cultivate a celebrity.
Undeterred, we moved on to what was once London's most fashionable night- spot - the Met Bar, that is underneath the skyscraper Metropolitan Hotel. This little fragment of downtown New York in the windy caverns of Park Lane enjoys a reputation as celebrity central.
The greeter, all blonde bob, white teeth and a tan, looked like an Aussie soap star clutching a clipboard. "We have a meeting with Mr X," we began confidently. That was enough. We were in! Ignoring the greeter, who followed us into the bar, we breezed up to the metal-topped counter and ordered two vodka and tonics, which duly arrived and were paid for in cash (pounds 10.50 for the pair). Rock and roll!
The Met is a cool, subterranean sort of place with not a hint of natural light. Drinkers relax in the red leather booths or lean louchely on the metal-topped bar, where the "mixologists" pour the drinks. A bold, abstract mural runs the length of one wall and the loo doors are cunningly constructed to be impossible to find. But what a let-down - Liam Gallagher was nowhere to be seen, and Robbie Williams had not turned up either. Instead, there were some middle-aged men puffing on giant cigars. Seems like the scene has moved on. Still, there was no time to be bored, for no sooner had we finished our drinks, than a giant bouncer appeared and escorted us politely, but very firmly, out into the street.
Next, Blacks. The club - in Soho's Dean Street - enjoys a raffish, Bohemian reputation and the narrow Georgian townhouse is a refuge for writers and graphic designers who are tired of the Groucho. Its basement members' bar features an impressive fireplace, long wooden tables and a large armchair, while the sitting room boasts sofas the size of double beds.
Barely had we opened our mouths than the man on the door interrupted: "I'm sorry, we're very busy tonight."
We moved swiftly on to Chinawhite's, one of the newest and most fashionable of members-only retreats, located on a dingy street off Piccadilly Circus. Inside, beyond the unpromising entrance (yellow paint, Chinese parasol), ottomans and banquettes are arranged across the dark wood floor of the dimly lit bar, and tapestries decorate furniture and walls.
There are cosier, small rooms, and celebrities who have enjoyed a drink here include Giorgio Armani and the actor, Billy Zane.
First, I had to get past four beefy doormen, clad in thigh-length leather coats, and in the bouncer's feet-apart, arms-folded posture. Getting in here was going to take some nerve. "Er, I was in here the other night and left my credit card behind the bar..." cuts no ice. "Me and my friends will be spending thousands of pounds in your bar..." No chance. They have heard them all before - and a lot worse - and they can afford to be picky. This is the club that turned away Baby Spice. I was shown the door, humiliated and thirsty in central London.
Two Brydges, a members' club tucked away in a little corner of Covent Garden, was the next target. Armed with my secret weapon - the name of a genuine member - success was surely within sight.
The club lurks down a Dickensian alley no wider than Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. Its entrance is the last word in understatement: an anonymous door and a buzzer marked "club". A push of the buzzer, a perfunctory: "I'm meeting Mr X" (a publishing type), and I was invited in. "He's not here yet, would you like to wait? A drink? Some olives?" I was shown to a table and a gin and tonic ("A large one?") appeared. Easy as that. It was only when they refused to take my money and insisted on putting it on the unwitting member's tab that I had an urge to fall to my knees and confess.
But what a lovely place it is, a veritable country house in central London. Odd-shaped rooms, tables covered in white linen, a candlestick on each, book-lined shelves. Yes, I could happily be a member there. But dreary reality intruded as I overheard the couple on the next table discussing a BBC vacancy. "I don't mind taking the job," said the woman, "but not on those terms."
I was anxious lest the charming staff try to contact Mr X on my behalf. Guiltily thrusting a handful of coins into the barman's hand, I made my excuses and skulked away.
I had blagged my way into three of London's smartest members' bars and enjoyed a drink in two of them. But was it really worth it? After all, I had also paid the price for that blaggery - I had been turned away from two establishments and, embarrassingly, escorted out of another two. Not so cool.
If you're that keen to drink with the glitterati, literati and whatever- elserati, that will be a small price to pay. Otherwise, do it properly, fill in the application form, and spend the next 18 months in the pub.
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