Chez Dining Room: The London Private Club

Sunday May 23, 2010

One of the characteristics of the London dining scene is the existence of the private restaurant club culture. The lunch and supper club—small, intimate, nourishing—is a long held tradition. The first clubs were in the 17th century, an offshoot of the St. James coffee houses modeled after the Viennese Empire’s legacy leftover from the Turkish occupation. Remember the Gentleman’s Clubs of the British Raj, the sacrosanct hangout of aristocrats and politicians for a drink and earthy gossip in hushed rooms with overstuffed chairs and the roaring fire? Enter the world of London’s private members clubs, and it’s like joining a secret underground network, where a society hitherto hidden from outsiders unravels, contact by contact, and the only guide is hearsay. It is an old concept in dining that is experiencing a very popular revival, not just in London, but around the world.

It caters to a publicity-shy society and the appeal of being part of a private members club that is tribal and aspirational – instincts that span the stretch of human evolution. And London, an essentially cliquey city where its inhabitants long for social viability and inclusion, has nurtured these clubs for centuries, be they gentleman’s drinking clubs, drinking clubs for night-working actors and stage hands, or clubs that evolved simply to circumvent the previously restrictive licensing laws. Most clubs you need to be nominated by at least one existing member to become a member, a run over of secret societies.

There are now hundred of member-only restaurant clubs. Each club has its own particular style and attracts a particular level of member. The style-conscious private clubs have mushroomed over the past 20 years, diversifying over time: there are clubs for Sloanes (Annabel’s), foodies (Mosiman’s), media and Bohemian arty types like Mick Jagger (The Groucho Club, Black’s), thespians (2 Brydges Place), fashion and literary (Cobden), and young trendies (Fred’s, the Union Club). Other clubs boast a female staff-only policy, and a membership committee (by invitation only, of course) can comprise of 100 women, leftover from the all-women clubs so popular in the 1890s.

I became fascinated with a photo of a “discreet” cozy upstairs dining room set in a narrow little room that is feel-good in a way just like in a private home. When I did some research, I found out it is one of the private dining rooms in the 2 Brydges Place, off Charing Cross Road near Covent Garden. It’s an exclusive members’ only club which isn’t swanky, but more quaint and described as a “hidden gem”. There are 1,000 members. Lawyers and business men for lunch, the stage crowd for dinner.

It is known for its rickety, ultra-relaxed charm and its unfussy but great food. It is situated down a very creepy narrow alleyway in a rickety four-story Georgian house that dates back to the Dickensian era (the floor beams slightly sag-have a visual of London backstreets in a 1940s Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movie). If you didnt know the door, you might pass it unnoticed. But what makes it charming are the eclectic mixture of bric-a-brac, paintings and folk art that the owner has brought back from South America to decorate the rooms. Together with slightly shabby sofas and well sat-on cushions, the place has an unpretentious, homey feel. One of the interesting components of 2 Brydges is that there are cozy nooks and crannies in which a woman could safely sit by herself unnoticed and undisturbed. There is a waiting list of at least 3 months this place is so popular and then a yearly membership fee of over 200 pounds, which is nothing for the likes of show people like Andrew Lloyd Weber, Simon Callow, Emma Thompson-Greg Wise, and a host of Shakespearean thesps.

The dining room pictured here is painted Chinese Red, and called the Red Room, a color I first encountered in James Beard’s living room and found very appealing. Red is not often a color associated with a dining room, as red is a sensory stimulator and can rush a diner, rather than soothe and help proper digestion. The room is small, possibly a child’s room in the original home, or a servant’s quarters or dressing room. One is drawn to the vista out the window–an ancient brick wall, bringing the room in closer. The table is set so basic–white linen, white tableware, extremely plain functional glassware. The bookshelves give a sturdy, serious feel to the room.

The menu at 2 Brydges is sensory, soul-satisfying traditional British with hall of fame school dinners with that undeniable appeal (bangers and mash), prime rib, glazed duck, leg of lamb interspersed with Mediterranean fare, dishes that are still considered delicious, inventive, and accessible despite being familiar. Well-crafted food that is prepared by competent kitcheneers with traditional culinary training is de riguer in the competitive field of restaurant chefs, so that it is important that all is well executed enough to have the diners want to come back for more. The chefs have enough ambition and skill to make traditional food still viable enough to act as an incubator of celebrity chef culture, hidden downstairs in the steamy recesses of the lower level and utilizing the upstairs-downstairs dumb waiter method of delivery. Regular civilians dont realize how much work it is in the restaurant biz to deliver a meal. Being a chef is very, very hard work. If you can’t cut it as a chef or people complain about the food, you’ll lose your job. It takes a long time and a lot of cooking to gain a reputation that lasts.


Mint and Lemon Crusted Rack of Lamb with Mascarpone Spinach

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