Monte's club was the smartest place in London before it even opened. How did they do that, asks Hester Lacey
monte's, the new members-only dining and dancing club in London's fashionable Sloane Street, burst onto the scene a mere 10 days ago. But even before its launch, it had already established itself as the ne plus ultra of places to be seen. Before a flute of champagne had been quaffed at its bar, Monte's was being mentioned in the same breath as Annabel's, the established bastion of elegant London nightlife for the past three decades. Somehow it sprang forth with its awesomely chic credentials fully fledged.

How is this kind of coup pulled off? The astute entrepreneur does not simply install a well-sprung dance floor, lay in catering supplies of polenta plus a few nebuchadnezzars of Veuve Cliquot, stick up some elegant paintings, and sit back to wait for the beautiful (and monied) people to beat a path to his door. Monte's did not just happen.

So if you have the ambition to try and take the creme de la creme of London society by storm, where do you start? With a hefty chunk of finance; Monte's began as a $10m twinkle in the eye of a Mr Mohi-Din Binhendi, director-general of Civil Aviation in Dubai. Then call in the professionals, from all four corners of the globe; such as New York restaurant developer Andrew Young. "Mr Binhendi called me two years ago and said 'I want to start a world-class club in London. How do I do it and how much is it going to cost?'," recalls Mr Young, a veteran of such inquiries - his former projects include the Sun City complex in South Africa.

Apparently restaurant development is an industry in its own right; the US Food Service Consultants Institute has around 6,000 members, all busily styling away in the restaurants of America. Mr Young is at the top of the tree - "on our level I can think of maybe three consultants, two in the States and one in Switzerland". With so much money at stake, he cannot afford to be hit and miss. One of the first papers to hit the drawing board was a financial forecast. "In a normal place I'd look for a three- year payback; here we're looking more at five years, maybe seven or eight," he says coolly.

The property, a dingy suite of former offices, had already been secured. London premises, though, are not the easiest to refurbish. The eager developer cannot charge ahead willy-nilly. "It turned out that we had to add a retail store at ground level - it was in the planning laws. I've worked in 12 countries, including Hungary, Israel and Japan, and London is one of the hardest places to work," complains Mr Young. Plans were redrawn to include a street-level cigar store. On board came a plethora of architects, designers, decorators and furniture makers including Lord Linley, who knocked up the table for the private dining room.

But a club or a restaurant can be in the perfect location, designed and titillated to within an inch of its life, and that still doesn't guarantee a success. Parisienne club queen Regine's attempts to cater for le tout Londres ended in ignominious failure; the Dorchester club, backed by the Sultan of Brunei and boasting Prince Edward as a founder member, has never taken off. How to entice the smart set? Enter the public relations team.

"PR is an applied science," says Caroline Neville, whose agency landed the account. "People think it's all airy-fairy - well, it's nothing like Absolutely Fabulous." Ms Neville is certainly nothing like Edina; she is more of an immaculately groomed and soignee June Whitfield, with elegant white-blond hair and a smart olive suit - plus impeccable connections. Now, she suggests, is the psychological moment for London society to move up a gear; there is a definite niche that Monte's can fill. Indicators include the crop of smart new restaurants that have been thrown up over the last few months - including Terence Conran's new venture Mezzo. "Conran would never have opened that restaurant five years ago in the recession," says Dominic, Ms Neville's colleague and son.

The first step in the wooing of the beautiful people is getting the edge on the competition. Staff recruitment was not a question of advertising in the local job centre. Andrew Young and Caroline Neville set out to construct a club staff A team. Specialist food and wine PRs (yes, they exist) flitted back and forth from London to Monte Carlo to seduce Michelin- starred chef Alain Ducasse. They coaxed the former manager of Annabel's for 30 years, Louis Emanuelli, out of retirement to act as a consultant. Yves Sauboua, president of the Young Sommeliers Club of Great Britain, is in charge of the champers.

And finally, of course, ingredient X: Caroline Neville's contact book. For her, the lunching began a year before the launch with the initial flurry of interest amongst the food and hospitality trade press. She has been approaching pukka member material since April. "For months, I've been meeting key people in London," she explains, "social movers, managing directors of major companies, the big hotel fraternity, without giving any names. There was an awful lot of foundation work to be done, in a very, very subtle, low-key way, talking to people in key positions, building, building. We were trying to market something that wasn't there - we didn't have a product until six weeks ago. It was the marketing of a dream, an image, an aspiration." A difficult task? "Of course the cat's out of the bag if eventually the reality is not up to the dream."

Her targets were carefully chosen. "It's vital to get like-minded people. Monte's is elegant, not flashy. We are not aiming at young people. We're not the Groucho, we're not Kartouche, we're nearest to Annabel's - but not anything like Annabel's." Elegant, not flashy: so, no bimbettes, no fourth division footballers? "You have to think about the dollar and the image," says Ms Neville diplomatically, "and sometimes the dollars don't fit the image." Once you're in, though, the staff emphasis is on charm, however you look. "The relaxed style comes from the American influence. It has to be so. These days you can't look at people and tell what they're worth - those days are past."

So, the (10) million dollar question: what's it like? Pretty impressive. Monte's is over four floors in one of the swankiest locations in London; neighbours include the exclusive Italian store Prada, Georgio Armani is moving in opposite shortly. Guests in the 90-seat restaurant will eat off exclusive Monte's fine china. The decor, by modish Transylvanian interior designer Adam Tihany, is wall-to-wall wood panelling and blue-and-gold furnishings, in the style of a 1930s cruise liner. The ceiling in the bar is a whacking gold-leaf encrusted dome. The entrance boasts much marble (Verde Antique, Boticcino and Rosso Alicante varieties). The restaurant walls are adorned with Lalique glass panels, and the lower-ground-floor dance area with "hand painted faux bois scenes".

"It's best quality, not over the top," explains Andrew Young. "A lot of effort went into it but we didn't want to give the impression of just throwing money about." Min Hogg, doyenne of interior design, editor of World of Interiors magazine, has expressed her approval, says Caroline Neville. The launch was glittering: Sophie Rhys Jones, Anthony Andrews, Darcey Bussell, Penny and Ivan Mountbatten, Susan and Robert Sangster ("very typical of our profile," says Caroline Neville), Alan Whicker, Britt Ekland, plus a Bond girl in an amazing plunging green dress all turned up.

And what next? The Monte's team must be holding their breath. They are aiming for at least 300 members by December; the initial joining fee is pounds 250, standard membership pounds 500 per year, life membership pounds 20,000. Was all this frantic effort enough, now the dust is settling after the first flurry of excitement? Time alone will tell.

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