Gentlemen's clubs, in their original incarnation, were refuges for henpecked aristocrats and politicians, places one might escape to for a spot of drinking, gambling and discreet gossip. Just a handful of the first 17th-century clubs - originating in coffee houses around St James's Street - remain. More modern institutions count as many footballers, musicians and television personalities among their clientele as politicians and bankers. Few clubs have succeeded in keeping out women, but the all- women clubs which flourished in the 1890s have not lasted. ("The problem was that ladies didn't drink enough," concludes Anthony Lejeune, author of The Gentleman's Clubs of London.) Winning membership can be tricky; all are sniffy about admitting hoi polloi. It comes down to the size of your wallet and the extent of your influence, which goes to show that while institutions rise and fall, nothing has really changed.
Cobden 172 Kensal Road, London W10 (0181-960 4222). A working men's club since 1860, now branding itself as the Groucho of west London. The committee includes publisher Nicholas Coleridge, fashion designer Bella Freud and author Will Self. Its 2,000 members, mostly from the media, literary, fashion and music worlds, pay pounds 150 plus pounds 260 a year. Members can use the club's PA system and stage for readings and events, plus two bars and a restaurant. The first floor has a Thirties liner look; the second is retro Gothic. Proprietor Martin Faxon says: "Discretion is what we're best known for."
Blacks 67 Dean Street, W1 (0171-287 3381). This club of 900 was conceived in 1991 by Tom Bantock and Giuseppe Mascoli as the antithesis of crusty White's, appealing to the more Bohemian, possibly body-pierced, Londoner. It is made up mostly of artists and media types who pay pounds 200 a year to belong. There are three floors open from 8am to 1am. Bantock is reputed to drink three bottles of port a day, and once invited the directors of port shippers John E Fells to become members.
Institute of Directors 116 Pall Mall, London SW1 (0171-730 4600). One for company directors, and especially popular with the chiefs of small and medium- sized businesses. The pounds 185 annual fee (on top of a pounds 185 joining fee) includes perks such as free business advisory consultations and an upmarket Internet cafe ("to encourage members to upgrade their IT skills") in an otherwise palatial setting. The IoD has been going for 97 years, and 10 per cent of its 43,000 members are women. There is no strict entrance policy but you do have to be proposed by a member.
Teatro 93-107 Shaftsbury Avenue, London W1 (0171-494 3040). Footballer Lee Chapman and his actress wife, Lesley Ash, set up Teatro seven months ago. "I love food and wine and wanted a really cool restaurant," he says. The 1,000 members, who pay pounds 150 plus pounds 300 a year, are from television, theatre, film, music and fashion - Lee Evans to Yasmin Le Bon. There is a two-month waiting list but no strict policy on admissions: "If you're a nice guy you've got a great chance of getting in - if you know somebody," says Chapman. Non-members can use the restaurant next door.
Two Brydges Two Brydges Place, off St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (0171-240 7659). Whiz-kid proprietor Rod Lane started the club 17 years ago "on the basis that I didn't like going to places where people clicked their fingers at the waiters". There are five discreet rooms with space for up to 80 people; lawyers do business at lunchtimes and theatre and media luvvies come out at night. No papers are allowed on the table after 6pm. Membership fees are only pounds 150 a year and there is no joining fee but applicants must win approval from four of the club's existing 1,000 members. Activities include Sunday roasts, club evenings and a Peruvian dice game introduced by the proprietor's South American partner Alfredo. Members include the actor Simon Callow.
University Women's 2 Audley Square, London W1 (0171-499 2268). This women-only club, founded in 1886, has a smattering of non-graduates and men are allowed in to dine. It is famed for its theme evenings and has bedrooms for the use of its 1,100 members, who pay pounds 125 to join and - for London membership - pounds 329 a year. Betty Boothroyd, Speaker of the House of Commons, and the opera singer Sarah Walker are among them. Most others are professional businesswomen.
The Colony Room 41 Dean Street, London W1 (0171-437 9179). The club, founded 50 years ago by Muriel Belcher, is famous for its bilious interior and Bohemian style. Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud were early members, and today's enfants terribles of art - Tracey Emin, Mark Quinn and Damien Hirst - are also on display in work and in person. Club ambience, according to proprietor Michael Wojas, is "bacchanalian". An anniversary exhibition opens on 18 October. Annual membership is just pounds 75.
Soho House 40 Greek Street, London W1 (0171-734 5188). This is a new club (1995), with two drawing rooms, a cinema, a small terrace and several nooks and crannies. Its 1,000 members - mostly from the media and music industry plus a few trendy politicians - pay pounds 100 to join and pounds 300 a year but the price includes access to the club's 22-bed country house in Bath. Admission policy is not strict, but there is a long waiting list. According to owner Nick Jones it is "a chilled-out place to come".
Groucho 45 Dean Street, London W1 (0171-439 4685). Economist Tony Mackintosh and friends founded the club in the mid-Eighties and named it after Groucho Marx, who famously said that he refused to join any club which would accept him. This hip Soho watering hole has 3,000 members. Tom Cruise is the latest applicant hoping to rub shoulders with the media, TV, film and music clientele. Members, who include Lenny Henry, Martin Amis and Mick Jagger, pay pounds 150 to join, plus pounds 325 a year (with concessions for under-28s), but there is a waiting list of two years. The club has 19 bedrooms and two restaurants and there are plans to establish a hotel base in the West End. Specialities include very dry margaritas and Groucho burgers - about 160 are consumed every week. There is also a notably strong and loyal cast of women at the helm.
Garrick 15 Garrick Street, London, WC2 (0171-395 4100). One of the last bastions of male authority: here, women cannot use the main staircase or have lunch in the dining room. A move to admit females was roundly defeated in 1992: campaigner Lord Lester resigned, but actor Derek Nimmo declared: "I don't think women are clubbable." Small comfort that Jeremy Paxman was also blackballed. The membership of 1,300 includes Sir Robin Day, Norman Lamont and Frank Johnson. The club, known for its salmon-pink and cucumber-green tie, is now pounds 50 million richer thanks to a bequest by Winnie the Pooh author AA Milne.
Carlton 69 St James's Street, London SW1 (0171-493 1164). A one-time hang-out of Margaret Thatcher, the Carlton - a typical gentleman's club and not, according to a spokeswoman, a "whoopee type" club - extends a warm welcome to all prime ministers. It was founded in Pall Mall after the 1832 General Election by a group of Tory members of parliament. It now has 3,000 members, who pay pounds 776 a year, and a three-month waiting list.
Reform Pall Mall, London, SW1 (0171-930 9374). Since it was established in 1836, this club has seen Liberal politicians and prime ministers come and go, Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George among them. Membership stands at about 2,300; fees are pounds 678 a year. Women have been admitted since 1981. The club was designed by Sir Charles Barry and boasts a library, billiards room, card room, bedrooms and dining rooms.
RAC 89-91 Pall Mall (0171-930 2345). A group of motor enthusiasts founded the club in 1897 (since frequented by Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw and Kim Philby) and it now has a membership of 13,500. It voted this year to admit women and costs pounds 623 to join, plus the same sum annually. Facilities include a pool, Turkish baths, gym, squash facilities, accommodation, and a snooker room. Its Epsom country club includes two 18-hole golf courses.
Home House 20 Portman Square, London W1 (0171-467 5400). Feted as a cross between the Garrick and the Groucho, this club - formerly home to the Courtauld Institute - opens in mid-November and hopes to attract a core clientele aged between 28 and 54. Its 1,500 members, women and men, have access to a spa, restaurant, library, 18 bedrooms and a large garden. Membership is pounds 1,500 for London residents (pounds 750 plus equivalent joining fee for others and members under 30) and is by invitation only.
Chelsea Arts 143 Old Church Street, London SW3 (0171-376 3311). Extremely difficult to get into: just 30 of 800 applications this year will succeed after a lengthy admission procedure. The club was founded 110 years ago by the painter Whistler and his cronies, who saw it as a place for artists "to get away from wives and mistresses, argue, have a bowl of soup and fight", according to its present proprietor. Its 2,300 members - including John Cleese, Bob Geldof, and Eric Clapton - pay pounds 320 a year.
Whites St James's Street, SW1 (0171-493 6671). One of the capital's oldest clubs, it was founded in 1693 in a chocolate shop and used to be described as "raffish". Brooks's, along the street, attracted more intellectuals and became political, while Boodle's, founded about the same time, was patronised by country squires. Pitt the Younger belonged to White's until, according to legend, he was chased by a mob containing fellow club members. These days it is frequented by an quieter crowd. Its 1,200 members pay about pounds 750. The waiting list is seven years or more.
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