Gentlemen's clubs offer a rare pleasure for those in the club, but the food's not flash, writes Fergus Henderson.
Loved by those who are members and hated buy those who are not, clubs are a very London phenomenon, even today. A great many new restaurants opening here now seem to have a club attached. And why would I begrudge those who I find having lunch at White's enjoying fantastic wine at extraordinarily cheap prices? At a splendid club table at The Garrick, a charming elderly actor sat opposite me and ordered the soup. When it arrived he proclaimed it to be the worst soup he had ever had, though I felt this was a daily event, the damning of the soup. He then looked up at me and asked what I did. When I explained I was a chef he replied, "Are you that Gordon Ramsay chappie?"
Gentlemen's clubs are places with no challenges, where everyone knows you and you know everyone, and the real world could pass you by. That sounds quite all right with me, I must say. But what does the term really mean now? Generally somewhere ladies drop their tweeds - or if the tweeds stay on, there's a new generation of clubs where very tall ladies wearing little black dresses cluster around magnums of vodka on tables that cost a fortune to secure. There is always trouble when you put too many of one thing in one room, be it architects, doctors or - often the case - complete prats. But the thing with clubs is that they're your prats who you choose to share a club with.
It has to be said that clubs aren't generally known for their culinary delights. They have a captive audience, so don't really have to try. As any young blade knows, you don't get reviewed if you cook in a members' club, and that is what all fledgling chefs want. This has not always been the case, though. In the mid-19th century, London's Reform Club had Alexis Soyer as its chef. Soyer was a larger-than-life character, a man who once put a feast together with a thousand woodcock oysters, and designed a chef's outfit for himself which, if he had drunk too much, would fall off with the pull of a toggle. A madman, perhaps, but an extraordinary creative, he went to the Crimea and created a stove for the troops so that they could have hot food. Another of his innovations was telling the men to avoid using the rancid butter sent to them from England, and to use the fat from their salt beef instead.
In my first job in a working kitchen I was on a section with a chef who had previously been employed by Buck's Club. His advice on how to make a Welsh rarebit was the fertile base for our rarebit at St John.
I heard some time afterwards that Buck's made a particularly bad rarebit; I'm happy to report that ours is rather good, and has been celebrated for some time, which confirms my theory that recipes should be shared, not guarded as secrets - different people cooking the dish gives it the chance to grow and evolve.
There was until recently a dangerously clubby 200 yards on one street in Soho. Dangerous, that is, in terms of the fun and games one could find oneself involved in. Let me take you by the hand and let's walk those 200 yards. First there's the Quo Vadis, a fine spot to start the long journey, then a 100 yards further is a bit of history: The Colony Room on the first floor was a watering hole frequented by generations of artists, Francis Bacon perhaps most notable among them, but is now sadly no more. A further 20 yards and you're at The Groucho Club, where members find a warm welcome (and Martinis! and rooms!) but they shut at two, so from there it's an 80-yard rush to Gerry's Club, an appropriate basement for the hour, but sadly Phil Dirtbox, who managed the place with great charm, left and the charm went with him.
It is, of course, the fact they are usually licensed till late that makes clubs so appealing. At that point it's also very good if they have rooms to which you can retire or stay the night when there's trouble afoot. A further joy is bar folk who are familiar with your preferences on how you like your Martini made (in my case, Tanqueray gin, painfully cold, painfully dry, with a twist, straight up) and how to make a Dr Henderson. It's an increasingly rare pleasure to have a barman wish you good afternoon before they ask for your order. These are small things, but important.
Illustration Lara Porter