John Walsh talks to the entrepreneur and restaurateur behind Soho House about his latest ultra-hip ventures

"Yes, I get Basil Fawlty moments," says Nick Jones, the otherwise relaxed and laid-back club owner and restaurateur. "They usually revolve around suits. I don't like packs of people in suits." His broad, genial face darkens. "When one person has brought all his clients out for dinner and he's thought, 'Where can I take them? Oh I know - Soho House, because it's somewhere they don't usually go to, and they'll think I'm really clever.' But we don't want them." He smiles grimly. "You know those big clubs where they insist you wear a jacket and tie? I feel like giving these people some jeans and a T-shirt and saying, 'Can you go and put these on, please?'"

Bloody suit-wearing riff-raff. Coming into an exclusive club wearing formal attire? Of all the bloody cheek. Don't they know the dress code at Soho House is the ageing-media-hustler look (Paul Smith shirt, Armani jacket, Carhartt jeans)? When your film script is in development, your TV series is in the autumn schedule, your novel is with the lawyers and your girlfriend is in rehab, you have to dress accordingly. It's the Soho House attitude, a cool, don't-mess-with-me, GQ-reading suavity. Knowing how to cater for such people's tastes has made Nick Jones a fortune over the past 10 years.

After some early disasters in the catering trade, he opened Soho House in 1995, opened a rustic sister-club at Babington House near Mells, Somerset, in 1998, and amazed his clubland peers by successfully taking to New York the type of exclusive, members-only club invented by the Groucho Club founders. There it took off like a rocket. When SHNY featured in an episode of Sex and the City (Carrie discovers a membership card in the Ladies and infiltrates the place with her quartet, but all are unceremoniously thrown out) its success was assured. Back home, he's opened a glittery restaurant in Balham, south London, is doing up two hotels in the east and west metropolis and planning future assaults on LA and Paris. And, today, when we meet, he is inspecting his newest venture, the reborn Cecconi's.

This is the posh Italian restaurant in Burlington Gardens that for 20-odd years was most famous for being laughably overpriced. People still talk in awed whispers about the half-grapefruit starter that cost £9 in 1981. "Perfectly true," says Jones, laughing. "In today's prices it would be about £30." The place's ownership changed hands over the years, was managed briefly by Giorgio Locatelli and leased by Jones and his partners.

"It would fill up every lunchtime and was full most nights, but it wasn't fun," says Jones gloomily. "It was very stiff. It wasn't buzzy. You'd arrive there and think, 'Wuuurrrggghhh'." He makes a noise like someone swallowing a sock. "It was very serious, very masculine. It wasn't where women wanted to come. So we bought it at the start of this year and remade it."

Indeed they did. Jones called in his long-standing designer, Ilse Crawford, and they rejigged the whole enterprise, moving the bar, de-tinting the windows and installing the chic green leather décor. Then he poached the head chef from Antonio Carluccio's Neal Street Restaurant, adjusted the menu to a semblance of good value ("You think £24 is a lot for a Dover sole? The Wolseley charges £28. The River Cafe is closer to £30. I think £24 is right. It's not cheap but it's certainly reasonable for Mayfair") and lastly announced that the place would open every day from 7am to 1am.

Four weeks after the big reopening, Cecconi's is very groovy and bustling, very light and airy. A large Geordie called Big John, a combination of maître d', sommelier and hired muscle, strides about menacingly and brings you a slug of Nero d'Avola just as you were thinking of ordering one. In a window table, a lissom East European blonde accidentally up-ends a glass of claret into the lap of a small, nut-brown sugar daddy, and offers to assist him with her napkin. At the bar, a dozen chatty punters on stools nibble through cicchetti (sort of Venetian tapas, a selection of quails' eggs, shelled prawns, slithery mushrooms and grilled aubergine). There's a definite buzz. Nick Jones surveys his new kingdom with satisfaction.

A handsome dude of 42, with a stubbly chin and an open, guileless manner, Jones doesn't come across as the king of metropolitan media sharks you expect. He seems the epitome of Surrey public-school prefect turned property speculator - which is more or less what he is, but with bags of style and clever marketing mixed in.

Married to the former Five News pin-up Kirsty Young, he is endearingly British in voice and attitudes. Close your eyes and you could be listening to Boris Johnson's more financially focused twin brother. He blithely mangles Italian words, turning Cipriani into "Chipperani" and tagliatelle into "taglia-teelya". And - perhaps surprisingly for the owner of a dozen brasseries - he has no time for messed-about foreign muck.

"I wanted to keep the food here very simple," he says. "I think Giorgio [Locatelli] is great but he - he does a lot with the food. I wanted to find a chef prepared to cook things like his mother used to - not too fussy, simple ingredients." In a 90-minute conversation he mentions just two dishes by name - veal Milanese and spag bol. "I veto things on the menu all the time," he says. "The chefs know I'm quite simple and that, if they fuck around with things too much, it won't go down well. I love the fact that they put a bolognese on the menu."

He is happier talking about restaurant décor and club acquisition, design and management and service, giving the public - and the exclusively minded - what they want. The concept of all-day dining, for instance, through generally held to have been dreamt up by The Wolseley, is his invention.

"We've been doing all-day restauranting for 12 years at the Café Bohème [in Old Compton Street]," he says, "and the Electric Brasserie's been open all day for ages. In the old days, staff used to do split shifts, come in from 11 to three, go home, come back and do the evening shift. That's terribly old hat. People don't want a three-hour break, they want to come in at 8am and finish at 4pm. All-day dining works because there's a day shift and a night shift. And, of course, because British eating patterns have changed. More and more people are eating out as a rule, not just for anniversaries and birthdays. In many partnerships, both partners work, so there's no one at home preparing the evening meal. And people have more disposable income. Times are changing. Brunch on Saturday and Sunday is becoming very big. And people are realising they don't have to have a big evening dinner - they can come in for a bowl of spaghetti at four in the afternoon."

So far, so London-ish. But how will Mr Jones fare when he applies his transformative skill to less sophisticated areas? In Chiswick, London W3, he's just bought Foubert's Hotel which he plans to extend, with an all-day brasserie on the ground floor and a private members' club on the first. The inspiration for the Chiswick project came, oddly enough, from Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly the W3-dwelling TV presenters, whose management invited Jones to come and inspect the hotel's basement, which was up for sale. Jones was so impressed he bought the whole building last May, while Ant and Dec invested in the company.

"Why Chiswick? Because it was a good deal, it's a freehold property, Chiswick High Road is jumping and a lot of businesses have moved west. Nearly every major record company has moved to west London. There's Sky and the BBC. It's near the airport ..."

You can't, unfortunately, make the same inspiring claims about Shoreditch in east London, where Jones's other new initiative is about to open. How can he hope to flog 24-carat media-tart hipness to, as it were, the cast of EastEnders?

"The thing about Shoreditch," says Jones, "is, it's going to be more a lifestyle club, with a swimming pool on the roof, a gym, a spa, eating and drinking areas and two bowling alleys." Bowling alleys? Isn't that a little downmarket, a touch chav, for the Soho House profile? "No," says Jones equably. "I think they'll do very well."

Jones's quiet confidence is the result of his investment in two numbers: 24 and 1,000. Wherever he opens another Soho House, he puts together an advisory committee of 24 souls who somehow define the spirit of the club and will, between them, suggest the network of names who would be ideal club members - the ideal First Thousand. "Wherever you go, whatever the area, there's usually between 1,000 and 1,500 people who are like-minded enough to want to join the club ..."

His other magic number is five, in that every venture should feature five components - private club, all-day brasserie, bedrooms, a range of cosmetics called "Cowshed" and a private cinema. The last is a bit of a fetish of Mr Jones's. He likes to have a cinema in each of his clubs. This is partly because when he bought the property that became Soho House (he bought it from Paul Raymond of the famous Revue Bar) it came with a little screening room, which he decided to maximise. And partly because, from the outset, a large percentage of Jones's clientele has been drawn from the film world. Most spectacularly in Soho House New York where, he shyly admits, on any particular evening, you can find Uma Thurman glowing and vamping at one table and Scarlett Johansson pouting and giggling at the next.

Heady stuff for an insurance broker's son from Cobham, dyslexic and unsporty at school, who went into catering because he liked to see people enjoying themselves at dinner parties organised by his mother. "I always knew I'd go into catering," he says. "I thought, 25 years ago, that there didn't seem to be many good people in it, and I thought I might succeed." Now he's a major player in that hinterland where cooking meals overlaps with the burnishing of images - the exclusive club with the 2am licence.

"When I opened Soho House, I was petrified it would all be over inside a year," he said. "It's an endless challenge doing this. You've got to keep on top of everything. Because customers are so much more sophisticated now."

They certainly are. And they know what brand of jeans to wear for an expensive dinner. Most of them.

Comments