A very private experience

As the world flocks to Soho, Londoners crave new retreats, reports Emma Cook
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Indy Lifestyle Online
London drinkers are rapidly discovering the downside of living in the world's coolest capital, namely too many uncool punters from God knows where flocking to the centre to find out if the hype is really true.

What they're flocking to are the swelling numbers of modernist-inspired bars with chilled designer beers, dishes of olives on chic granite counters and bright, airy interiors to capture the lucrative female market.

Purpose-built to feel more exclusive than a grotty central-London pub, the exercise has proved rather self-defeating. Olives and Absolut Vodka shots aside, on a Friday evening in one of these haunts you might just as well be in a Leicester Square laser-bar at closing time in terms of noise and crowd levels.

It's a nightmare for the thirtysomething crowd who desire something less accessible to the twentysomething hordes knocking back Budvars in Dean Street. "It's like suburbia," sniffs one hackette and Groucho member. "They're the sort of bars you'd expect in Chiswick or Richmond, but not Soho. It's such a relief to go somewhere quieter."

No wonder she and others of her ilk are queuing to join a members-only bar faster than you can say dry martini. Unlike Groucho Marx, seasoned Soho drinkers are keen to belong to any club that wants them.

This is partly because popularity is the curse of the London drinking scene. A new bar that is hyped as half-decent is packed out instantly (see Atlantic Bar and Grill a week after opening) and existing ones are so in demand that managements steps up their members-only policy.

Nowhere is immune. Even Downstairs At The Phoenix on London's Charing Cross Road, once a little-known oddity with flock wallpaper and comfy seating, now has a man at the door to turn non-members away when it's too busy. Restaurants could follow suit; it's rumoured that Quo Vadis is considering the advantages of a small, members-only bar.

It's the same story for established clubs. Soho House, which opened two years ago and caters, says proprietor Nick Jones, for a thirtysomething film and TV crowd, has frozen its membership for the past six months due to oversubscription. Perched above Cafe Boheme in Soho, membership costs pounds 300 a year plus a pounds 100 registration fee.

Further west in Old Park Lane, The Metropolitan Hotel has a public bar that turns out the riff-raff at 6.30pm to make way for members only. "The concept is to have a place for like-minded people," explains Nigel Massey, spokesman for The Metropolitan.

His view is that London is rapidly being overtaken by an army of suburbanites or, as he says, "married men up from Brighton who work for Rank Xerox and think they can get lucky". He adds, "Who eats in Quaglino's nowadays? Londoners don't, it's all out-of-towners. So they're saying, 'This is my town and I can't get a drink.' Now it's becoming more tribal and clubs are an extension of that." There's also the incentive of longer licensing hours - The Met stays open till 3am. Ditto Soho House - and the fact that many are increasingly inexpensive and easy to join. Downstairs At The Phoenix is a negligible pounds 15 a year. The Met is complimentary, although there's a waiting list of 1,500.

Members of The Asylum in Rathbone Street, which has been open for three weeks, pay a modest pounds 95 a year plus pounds 50 to join. Plus the most expensive meal you're likely to find on the menu costs about pounds 6.95. Owner, Michael Estorick, hopes to pull in artists and writers who want "to live well and cheaply and find Groucho's too busy and noisy. It's for people who can be left alone if they want to be. A lot of them have never thought of joining a club before."

Nowadays, they're rapidly changing their minds. So much so, private club- culture could become as accessible as the bars to which they provide a tranquil alternative. "There could be a backlash," muses Massey. "It will be much cooler to go to a bar in a hotel where you don't have to be a member. People will want to make places feel like clubs even when they're not."