When someone says ‘Let’s go for a drink at my club’, what do you imagine? A grand St James’s establishment like Boodle’s or White’s, or perhaps a media hangout such as the Groucho or Soho House? What you probably don’t think of is an unmarked door and a flight of rickety stairs. Yet through unpromising-looking doorways in and around Soho are little clubs where you can take a break from the 21st century. Places such as the Phoenix beneath the Phoenix theatre on Charing Cross Road, Gerry’s on Dean Street and the Academy on Lexington Street are relics of a time (Gerry’s has been going since 1955) when pubs had to close after lunch and not open again until the evening. People needed somewhere to drink in the afternoon and after 11 p.m. last orders. These clubs met the demand.
They are subtly different from places like the Groucho, where the successful and the ambitious congregate to sell things to each other. Nobody ever got any work done at Gerry’s. Chris Evans won’t be at the next table at the Phoenix. Not that you won’t run into celebrities — they’ll just be of the loucher sort. At the artist Sebastian Horsley’s 40th birthday at the Colony Room, I found myself drinking alongside Shane MacGowan and Bryan Ferry. A friend reminisced about hearing David Soul of Starsky & Hutch fame belting out his hit ‘Silver Lady’ at Gerry’s one night. The Academy, in contrast, is generally more sedate, and you can order food and wine from Andrew Edmunds, the excellent restaurant below.
To gain entry to these establishments you are supposed to be a member, but I would often get into Gerry’s late at night by claiming to be a friend of the crime writer Martina Cole. All the booksellers on Charing Cross Road seemed to have honorary membership of the Phoenix. At the New Evaristo Club on Frith Street, aka Trisha’s, aka Hideout, there’s a sign saying ‘Membership available’ but I never met anyone who was a member. To me these places are only technically ‘clubs’ in order to circumvent normal licensing laws.
What they have in common is a dominant personality at the door or behind the bar. The Academy has Persian beauty Mandana Ruane and her team of small dogs. People tell me the Phoenix hasn’t been the same since proprietor Maurice Huggett died in 2011. Dying too young is something of a theme of Soho clubs: Bernie Katz, the face of the Groucho, died in August. Michael Wojas went out aged 53 shortly after the Colony Room closed for good in 2008, and dear old Sebastian Horsley overdosed on heroin and cocaine in 2010. Being a legend of Soho takes its toll.
With London property prices the way they are, it’s a miracle any drinking clubs still exist. They are an anachronism but, despite all the talk of London being a 24-hour city, they are often the only civilised places to get a drink after midnight. Treasure their dilapidated doorways, for they are portals into another world: the Soho of Keith Waterhouse or Julian MacLaren-Ross. Some mornings I’d emerge onto the streets of Soho, find my way home and sometime later think: did I dream that?