With ever more members clubs opening to sit alongside traditional clubland and newer establishments, what is the evergreen appeal of a club of your own?
Article by Rupert Watkins
London has long been known as the city of private clubs. However, in the last few years ever more members-only clubs have started to spring up. Papers and magazines now regularly have lists of the “in” places. St James’s clubland is known to be discreetly thriving. With all this in mind, what is the continuing appeal of the member‘s club; what draws people towards becoming a member of such an establishment?
Be it a club on Pall Mall or Brick Lane, is there a common thread that binds members together – a shared desire for the surroundings and atmosphere that can be found behind closed doors? “That sense of belonging” comments Babette Kulik of The Society Club, is incredibly important. As Naomi Sharpe of Lights of Soho points out, “we are social creatures. We will always wish to be part of a community.” In the past, this grouping has been heavily influenced by social class but with modern London a vibrant melting pot, people’s social networks now transcend such boundaries. Mutual interests and passions provide that social spark: Naomi believes “we wish to have safe space to be passionate in.” In an ever busier and frenetic city – perhaps one where traditional meeting spots such as a really good local pub are under threat – we look for that sense of comfort and familiarity.
This sense of familiarity is critical. As Francesco Sica at Coya stresses, “a club has that sense of safety. The staff know your likes and dislikes.” Holly Budgett from the House of St Barnabas club puts it pertinently, “members see it as a refuge.” London is an expensive place to live – as socialising and entertainment become more and more expensive (we have not become a “Netflix and chill” city purely because of House of Cards) we all look for that consistency of entertainment; that place where we know we will have a good time be it with friends or on our own, and we know we will meet kindred spirits for discussion and debate.
The range of establishments now means one can be very precise in what one looks for. Babette argues that, “clubs fit round various stages of life” pointing to several members who are either also members of traditional establishments or who will, in time, invariably be put forward by fathers to such clubs but wish for now to also enjoy the more Bohemian and literary atmosphere of somewhere such as the Society Club. That common thread of members interest is critical – from the Latin and Peruvian interest at Coya, the charitable at House of St Barnabas or the creative and artistic vibe of Lights of Soho, establishments increasingly need to act as a beacon for those interested in their particular areas.
This shared interest, the conjoining of place and individual also drives why the new breed of member’s establishment remains resolutely inclusive, “Lights of Soho wants to be a platform for young talent, it is about what individuals can add to the club and its atmosphere” stresses Naomi. For Barbette “we hope to be an incubator for young writers and poets – somewhere where writers and publishers can meet.” People’s networks are no longer demarcated by social or educational grouping, “it is the connections which makes membership of value” considers Holly.
This focus on the atmosphere – as Francesco remarks, “the club (Coya) is like your sitting room” and he finds many members use it up to four times a week – means the emphasis is on the ambience rather than sheer breadth of facilities. Unlike traditional clubs these days where extensive accommodation is now offered and perhaps a gym, the new clubs rarely try to indulge in the proverbial arms race. Probably only Grace of Belgravia, among the new clubs, has invested so hugely in facilities but then, as the binding interest for its membership is health and wellbeing; this is logical, if rather pricey.
Despite the profusion of newer clubs, St James’s clubland continues in buoyant form. Whilst much has been written about the long term revival of this area – focusing on the improved menus and professionalised management – the continuing sense of tradition still provides a potent draw. Huge effort is made to encourage younger members to join and more and more committee places are reserved for under 30 representation in decision making. Forums such as the Inter-Club group – a body that runs events across traditional clubland for members of participating clubs aged under 35 – allow members and guests to move between and enjoy the surroundings of each other’s establishments. Such is the vibrancy of what 15 years ago was seen as a moribund and archaic area, this writer’s own club has introduced a waiting list to deal with demand (something confined at one recent point to perhaps three to four of the most aristocratic places).
Shining through all discussion when researching this topic is a huge sense of loyalty to people’s clubs. From Coya through to the Society Club, this loyalty is engendered by the uniqueness of each establishment – as Babette describes it, “that one off element.” Clubs are used towards the end of the week, with Thursday, Friday and Saturday across the board viewed as their busiest days. Holly at The House of St Barnabas reckons 60 per cent of the membership use the club very frequently and encouragingly many of these are first time club members. The resolutely non-rarefied environment helps this usage pattern, described as “warm not oppressive” by Holly, and is something that all these new establishments seek to engender. The emphasis is on it being somewhere to bring friends who perhaps in turn become members themselves. Whilst the newer clubs continue the application and vetting process of more traditional club land, it is more open, cheaper and a great deal less socially fraught.
With London’s member’s clubs booming, what of the future? Holly reckons the main issue is, “how to stay relevant and welcoming in a saturated environment. It must remain relevant to members and understand their needs.” Francesco agrees, “members are friends more than anything” and as such this family atmosphere must be nurtured. He also raises the interesting point; for many members a club is a modern out-sourcing of their home life. Work and pleasure is already 24/7 and in London the two are utterly intertwined. Thus with ever less relaxation time, it is the quality of this that truly counts. High quality company, service, food and drink is demanded – all the clubs met with stress their focus on top quality spirits and cocktails.
There will always be that, “air of mystery” to a member’s establishment, that desire to know as Naomi puts it, “what goes on behind closed doors.” However, the new wave of resolutely unstuffy establishments means this is a possibility now for the many – find your passion and there will be somewhere fun and unique where you can take find your place within one of London’s great traditions.
House of St Barnabas, 1 Greek Street, Soho W1D 4NQ / 0207 4371894 / https://hosb.org.uk/our-club/
Coya, 118 Piccadilly, Mayfair, London W1J 7NW / 0207 0427118 / www.coyarestaurant.com/london
The Society Club, 12 Ingestre Place, London W1F 0JF / 0207 4371433 / www.thesocietyclub.com/
Lights of Soho, 35 Brewer Street, Soho W1F 0RX / 0207 1832003 / http://lightsofsoho.com/