For centuries, the classic London clubs in St. James’s and Pall Mall were where ‘The Establishment’ effectively ruled society; their highly elitist memberships comprised the inner circle of the aristocracy.
Tradition and historic values were key notes, especially with elder members resisting change. Today, there are clubs reminiscent of the old days, document cases are left with the hall porter; no business should be seen to be carried out. Nothing should disturb the peace and quiet, and the atmosphere is more akin to a religious building. In the Travellers Club, the oldest in Pall Mall, a legendary tale is that a member died unobserved at dinner. It was not until he was offered some Stilton at the end of dinner that his demise was realised.
Today, there is a new generation of London clubs emerging; they possess an energy unheard of in years gone by. A recent addition is ’67 Pall Mall’, housed in a classic former banking hall adjacent to St. James’s Palace. Here, the interior décor presents a very relaxed atmosphere, added to which they have chosen staff who are very personable. In total they have a head count of 120 staff, including 17 sommeliers. The sommelier team are encouraged to taste any bottle in the club’s wine collection which, naturally, should be an essential requirement.
This new club deliberately avoided a City location as the intention was to provide ‘a place to go on the way home’ thus attracting a broader mix of people. The result is a relaxed buzz with strangers chatting at the bar; the common interest in wine is a great leveller. It follows that there are many members involved in the wine industry as they can have their own wines stored in the club cellars; members simply pay for storage and corkage. If members wish to both drink and sell their wines, they can be added to the club’s wine list.
I was privileged to be given a tour of the former bank’s labyrinth of cellars where there is a large strong room containing many highly celebrated wines. There is an amusing story about a television crew from the US programme ‘Today’. They were exploring the strong room and closed the barred inner gate only to find they were locked in leaving their cameraman abandoned outside. As they were due live on air imminently and the key was elsewhere, they had to improvise and broadcast their piece through the bars. Certainly a novelty for their viewers.
The theme of the Club is based on conviviality and dining, enhanced by their wine cellars which currently hold 35,000 bottles from 42 countries – this capacity is being increased to take the number over 100,000 in total. The founder was very unhappy with paying over-the-top prices for fine wines in restaurants and came up with the club’s concept. Here, fine wines are offered with a mark-up of only around 35%, rather than multiples of their cost in restaurants, in order to complement fine dining.
The club has grown quickly to 3,000 members and some 4,000 wines (800 by the glass). There are wines at all prices up to £25,000 a bottle, however, a glass of house champagne is £7.50. The wines I tasted were all less than £50 a bottle; the quality at those prices have not been matched in my experience at any UK restaurant.
There are constant events (most days) both private and open to club members with tastings, talks, master classes, etc.
The success of the London club has prompted ideas for expanding in other time zones. Hong Kong’s prominence in the wine world was seemingly an obvious choice but it is a mature market and they wanted to introduce more people who are relatively fresh to ideas around wines. Singapore was finally chosen, the planning was completed a while ago and the physical side is now in hand. The range of wines will be more than in London at 5,000 until London’s increased capacity becomes available and the wines by the glass will be the world’s largest range at 1,000.
The premises in Orchard Road is the penthouse of the Shaw Centre. This space is currently being converted with a view to opening in late 2020. Keeping faith with the London Club both in name and in style, they have based the design and food approaches on the same ratio; 75% on their London styles and 25% on local styles.
The club concept that sets a modern but timeless style which has all the right ingredients to be successful around the world.