It is easy to forget that thirty years ago Britain was a different place for food and drink. A restaurant revolution was taking place in the 1980’s and the opaque wartime licensing laws were being amended slowly, but still members clubs were generally divided between stuffy archaic Men only affairs of London’s Pall Mall and their polar opposites, the working men’s clubs in the north of England.
In the mid 1980’s a group of publishers including Carmen Cahill, Ed Victor and Liz Calder and literary agent Michael Sissons had a plan. They wanted somewhere where they could all meet, work and socialize that felt like a café, a bar, a restaurant, an office and a sitting room. It would also welcome woman as equals.
Tony Mackintosh of chocolate family fame had been busy establishing Dingwalls Dance Hall in Camden Lock, and then on the back of that success had opened a members bar in Covent Garden called, The Zanzibar. This was a nice place to go and have a drink and members could be fairly confident the person sitting next to them at the bar was someone they would be interested in talking to. Also its membership status meant The Zanzibar was allowed an all-day and slightly later night license, which was still a big deal.
Tony Mackintosh was approached by the publishers and immediately warmed to their idea, he was already working on an exciting new restaurant in Notting Hill with wine dealer John Armit and architect Tchaik Chassey, and this new idea fitted with Tony’s vision of mixing the modern and traditional. The Notting Hill restaurant became the ubiquitous 192, and now the hunt was on for a home for this new style club.
London’s Soho is an odd little area boxed in between the major thoroughfares of Oxford St, Regents St, Charing Cross Rd, and Shaftesbury Avenue. A patchwork of narrow streets, Soho had for many of years harboured London’s ‘red light district’. Notorious for its own ‘gentleman’s establishments, illegal drinking and dancing clubs of the 1950’s and then the arrival of Italian coffee shops, Soho was a known for its heady mix of sophisticated and seedy – a ‘bohemian quarter’ in the West End.
The large stucco fronted townhouse at number 45 Dean Street, Soho had been a restaurant since 1880, but is was most famous as Gennaro’s. Here such luminaries as the Kings of Greece, Yugoslavia and Siam dined alongside Caruso and Dame Nellie Melba. Gennaro would greet his guests at the door and present each female diner with a red rose. After Gennaro’s demise, although it remained an Italian restaurant, 45 Dean Street fell in to disrepair and there was little proof of its glamorous past when The Groucho Club arrived in 1984. The now famous Dining Room with its beautiful vaulted roof and glass ceiling was ‘hidden’ in what was a storeroom. There were also tales of dark deeds around the place, including a fatal shooting, allegedly in what is now the Gennaro Room – which is reportedly still haunted. This was the natural home of the new club.
45 Dean St would cost £450,000 for the freehold and the renovations would need the same again to transform the very run-down Gennaro’s into a modern, presentable and functioning operation. Despite this seeming a modest amount of money now, Tony found no interest for the project in the City. So he went back to the literary ‘15’ and they decided to pool their address books and create an unorthodox financial prospectus, complete with cartoons by Quentin Blake, and sent it out to all their friends and associates.
The premise was simple; a members club that was open to men AND WOMEN and would provide a modern interpretation of the traditional establishments. One of the key tenets was, and it seems extraordinary now, that a woman could sit alone at the bar and have an alcoholic drink without being considered, or indeed treated as, a prostitute. There would be a bar, restaurant and later would come reasonably priced bedrooms for country members to stay ‘in Town’, all with personalised service for a regular crowd of like minded people.
The name came about from an oft misquoted line by Groucho Marx of the Marx Brothers comedy group, that seems to be: ‘I sent the club a wire stating, “PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT PEOPLE LIKE ME AS A MEMBER’. The name Groucho Club seemed the right sort of antidote to all the stuffy gentleman’s and politically affiliated clubs down the road.
The prospectus clearly touched a nerve and after some gentle hectoring the final cheques arrived on the morning of the deadline, as Tony Mackintosh says; “It was a great moment as we knew we could go ahead and create the dream we had laid out in the prospectus”. In all around four hundred publishers, artists, theatrical and media types put their hands in their pockets to create this new club. The premises were secured, the renovation work was undertaken, the cellar filled with wine and the kitchens and bars staffed.
On 5th of May 1985 The Groucho Club officially opened its doors for the first time. It seems there was hardly a stampede in those early days and the first year was a nerve-wracking time for the fledgling company, however Tony Mackintosh and his cohorts were confident that its strengths would win through. Like The Zanzibar, membership club status meant that the Groucho could offer daytime and, most importantly, a late night license to sell alcohol. This soon attracted the post-show punters, actors and of course committed drinkers.
The day time business was also quite robust; in the late 1980’s lunch was very much not for wimps. Publishers were particularly renowed for embracing a hearty midday repast and it is said that most business was done over the lunch table. Which often consisted, unlike the feeble desk based comestibles of today, of; aperitif drinks, then bottle of wine with the starter and another with main course, occasionally a desert wine with, obviously, dessert and then it was not unheard of for a table of four to order a bottle of Port to go with the cheese. Then as Lunch naturally segued into the evening instead of being shooed off the premises, Groucho Club members simply repaired to the comfortably upholstered bar and were able to continue unmolested until the 1am license officially ran out.
Members were always expected to act with courtesy to staff and other members, but generally they were left alone to enjoy themselves. People in the know soon realised this was a place to see and be seen and applications for membership increased. The Membership Committee was formed and selection was decided by simple ‘rules’: The applicant would have to be proposed and seconded by two members ‘in good standing’. The other being; does anyone know this person and would you like them sitting next to you at the bar?
The membership committee quickly established itself as fearsome, fickle and notoriously difficult to impress. Even if you got through the gauntlet of membership it didn’t always guarantee actually getting in to the club: Eric Clapton, who was a member in good standing, was turned away at reception unrecognized, and celebrity alone didn’t make an impression as the Spice Girls at their height of fame were unsuccessful.
By the 1990’s The Groucho Club was firmly established as the preferred watering hole for the famous and infamous and of course like any bar with bedrooms came tales of naughtiness and excess – and as many of the clientele were celebrities it was inevitable the notoriety of the Club would spread. The Groucho Club got mentioned a lot in the media, despite many of the rumours and accusations being wildly inaccurate, the Club became a by-word for the media top table, and a safe place for Actors, Comedians and Artists to work, rest and play.
Some of the staff too have become minor celebrities and the original Club Manager, Liam Carson was a natural and benevolent host, who was generally unimpressed by the luminaries, but would happily play poker with anyone who could stay the course. His successor, who became Managing Director, Mary-lou Sturridge presided over the Club like a benign headmistress, saying that her job was so much more than just managing as she was often friend, counselor, occasional shrink and even landlady to her brood. “We have put members to bed and woken them up in the morning, we have taken them out with us and even a few came home. Some regulars became more than just customers, their lives, loves, successes and failures were interwoven into the fabric of the Club.”
The Groucho Club provided the facilities and the ambience to service the members needs and this included being a long time supporter art and artists. Exhibitions are often staged at the Club with the artist donating a piece to the collection by way of payment. Soon the membership, and so collection, was swelled with artists and art world figures. When the YBA’s shot to fame so the Club was associated with a new generation of Artists. The Groucho Club art collection includes an impressive anthology of British works of late 20th early 21st Century and curator, and artist herself, Nicky Carter presides over an ever growing repository of fine pieces.
As The Groucho Club grew in stature and success so other members clubs were created in its image, many were media based and indeed one was allegedly formed simply for rejected Groucho applicants.
The Groucho Club was a PLC and listed on the AIM market, after several years of publishing good profits it soon attracted potential buyers. After a failed take-over attempt by Benjy Fry (also from a chocolate family), finally in 2001 a genuine sale was brokered to a conglomerate of Joel Cadbury (yet another chocolate heir) , Matthew Freud and Rupert Hambro. After the fragmentation of that group Joel Cadbury sold the club in 2008 to the current owners Graphite Capital.
The Groucho Club can be proud of many things especially the Streetsmart charity, founded by former MD Mary-lou Sturridge, it simply adds one pound to each customer’s bill in the run up to Christmas to aid the homeless. The concept has spread outside Soho and around the world, helping countless at-risk people. Another by-product of this was the Groucho Gang Show, created to help raise Streetsmart funds, it was a fun show originally performed by the staff, but soon the members got involved and the event grew into a fearsome and famous array of celebrity talent. Performers have included: Chrissie Hynde, UB40, Heaven 17, Roland Gift, Matt Lucas, Annie Lennox and Babyshambles, Armstrong & Miller, Stephen Fry, Michael McIntyre, Jack Whitehall, Lily Allen, Rumer, Eliza Doolittle etc etc.
The Groucho Club membership now approaches five thousand with members joining from across the globe. The Club has associations and reciprocals with members clubs from New York to Hong Kong and intends to maintain its position as the most desirable Arts & Media private members club in… well the World.