Last night, Berkeley Square was a symphony of celebrity. The sounds were Champagne corks, the soft thudding of chauffeurs closing doors, the sushi knife swish of camera shutters. W1 was having the biggest birthday anyone could remember: Annabel’s, London’s grandest — and perhaps greatest — nightclub, was celebrating its 60th.
The club was a diarist’s dream: Rod Stewart alongside Emma Weymouth, the Marchioness of Bath; Ricky Martin belting out Livin’ la Vida Loca to show Liam Payne and Gene Gallagher how an old pro does it. Bridgerton’s Nicola Coughlan at the downstairs bar. Seven-inch heels were de rigueur and even the chic types swapped to vodka Red Bulls to keep them dancing. As 3am approached, Richard and Patricia Caring sidled up to Honey Dijon as she DJ-ed. “You don’t invite someone to a birthday and make them buy anything,” said Richard, sending another round of Don Julio tequila into the howling crowd.
How did the club pull it off? “A magician’s secrets are never revealed!” says Patricia, who co-chairs The Birley Clubs with husband Richard. “Annabel’s is mysterious today as it was 60 years ago.” Mysterious, perhaps, but there’s never been any doubt Annabel’s can pull.
She always could. How did it begin? One apocryphal story has it that founder Mark Birley got his start in 1961 when rogue-about-town and zoo owner John Aspinall, defrauded to the tune of £150,000, needed someone else to fill the basement of his Clermont Club casino at 44 Berkeley Square. Birley obliged and, after having 6,000 tons of coal removed, in 1963 made it happen. It was a dream he’d harboured since his Eton days, and he named the club Annabel’s after his first wife, then styled as Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart (now Lady Annabel Goldsmith). She later reckoned it was “much better than being immortalised as a rose”.
Birley wanted the air to be thick with “exclusivity and sex”, and swiftly showed he could see big and small with hospitality. The small — he was the first man to wrap lemon wedges in muslin cloth — changed the way restaurants ran. The big — opening somewhere aristocrats were just as likely to drink as artists and actors — changed London’s nightlife forever. “Mark Birley was a trailblazer,” says Charlie Gilkes, who runs Barts, Bunga Bunga and Chelsea’s Thatcher- themed club Maggie’s. “He created a phenomenon with Annabel’s, a grand yet homely living room with unbelievable attention to detail.”
Phenomenon is right: Tatler were already hosting photo shoots in the first year, and celebrities couldn’t wait to totter down the vertiginous staircase — even if they weren’t always permitted in. Peter O’Toole was told there was no room at the inn; George Harrison’s lack of shoes meant he couldn’t get a foot over the threshold. Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger found a doorman immovable until Jagger agreed to borrow his tie to meet the dress code. Such commitment to old world standards has waned, but they still scalped Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson along the way, and recently even Drake couldn’t waltz in wearing whatever he liked.
It was the place to be seen — and within 10 years membership had a waiting list of 2,000 (it’s thought to be circa 14,000 today). Diana Ross and the Supremes sang; Ray Charles hammered the piano; Frank Sinatra crooned and Ike and Tina Turner tore it up on the dancefloor. “Members could rub shoulders with both Queen the band and the monarch,” Gilkes says. It’s no exaggeration: Elizabeth II’s order was a gin martini, stirred, no twist, no olive. When he was Prince, it was said to be King Charles’s go-to, while Princess Diana and Sarah Ferguson famously got kitted out as coppers to crash Prince Andrew’s stag. Diana, recognised, was asked if she’d like a cocktail. “We never drink on duty,” she grinned.
Annabel’s rattled through the Eighties; Elizabeth Taylor looking imperious, Jack Nicholson louche, Michael Caine in his pizza box glasses phase. And then came the Nineties. There were moments — Dame Shirley Bassey banned after hitting the maitre d’ because the kitchen was all out of asparagus — but things were slowing. Peter York, co-author of The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, bemoaned it as somewhere “the middle-aged meet the Middle East”.
Ray Charles hammered the piano; Frank Sinatra crooned and Ike and Tina Turner tore it up on the dancefloor
The particulars are tricky — it followed a Birley clan bust-up — but in 2007, shortly before his death, Mark Birley sold his clubs to Richard Caring. The price was £95 million. Caring brought back the stars. In was Kate Moss, snogging Jemima Khan for a full minute — Philip Green, not yet disgraced, had bid £60,000 in a charity auction for the kiss. Hugh Grant added movie-star glitz (and some good-old bad behaviour: at Heather Kerzner’s 41st birthday bash, PR magnate Matthew Freud smeared chocolate cake down the actor’s shirt. Grant replied with a bosh to the eye).
The first Caring decade gave Annabel’s its diamond sheen back: Sienna Miller, Grace Jones, aristos with three surnames. But Caring’s era in earnest began with a finish, with him closing the basement at 44, and opening Annabel’s in next-door 46. It came with an auction of 44’s contents, from the Buddha that had watched John Wayne on the verge of falling-over drunk — sold for £137,500 — to Glyn Warren Philpot’s portrait of his assistant Henry Thomas, which fetched more than £368,000. The £4 million raised overall was put to good use: 46 stands today as a jewelled townhouse of the rare and the precious — Picasso’s Girl with a Red Beret and Pompom is one of the first sights party-goers see.
PR magnate Matthew Freud smeared chocolate cake down the Hugh Grant’s shirt. The actor replied with a bosh to the eye
Where old Annabel’s, in looks, spoke to the aristocratic stiff lip of its owners, under Richard Caring, across four floors and 26,000 square feet, there’s a restaurant, bars, two private dining rooms, a workspace, a cigar salon. It all astonishes. Which room does Richard like best? “They are all my favourite.”
Patricia Caring says the interiors “are not only beautiful to look at, but they also serve as a message of celebration and change in our world” and reflect the pair’s commitment to keeping the club as relevant as ever, while honouring its “reputation as a beacon for luxury”.
It’s where people go after the Brits, where Vogue do their thing, where Elton John held his fundraiser for his AIDS Foundation. Annabel’s is perhaps more starry now than ever: the likes of Harry Styles can be found alongside a Spencer-Churchill. “It is an uplifting experience” says Richard, drolly. Is there one word to describe it? Oh, that’s easy: “Beautiful!”.