If you work in the City and want to start the New Year in style, then Robin Birley’s chic new bar is the place to go – for breakfast, lunch, dinner and all day cocktails says William Cash
If you are a discerning City type or wealth manager and you want a discreet breakfast or late afternoon cocktail, the chances are you may have been found in one of the many West End private members clubs or chic hotel bars that operate like HNW drinking wells. With a few notable City exceptions, such as the Walbrook Club (owned by Lord and Lady Palumbo) and Lombard Street (run by former Mayfair club owner Soren Jesson, with its new restaurant 1776 reviewed shortly) for the best bars and restaurants, it has usually been a case of head West.. head West.
That is until Robin Birley decided to do the very opposite with his latest venture and head East. Yes. To the first floor of a swanky financial temple at 20 Fenchurch Street, EC3 to be exact. Now among the cognescenti of the financial classes, a new Robin Birley ‘opening’ is as anticipated as much as tout Manhattan awaits a new novel by Tom Wolfe. The Birleys have a way of being torchbearers for those wanting to enjoy the Spirit of the Age – and here I’m not talking about Hazlitt writing about 18th century Gin Lane in the City. I’m talking about Bar20 at Birleys, which opened not long before Christmas last year.
Bar20 at Birleys is an offshoot of Robin Birley’s highly successful and award winning City sandwich empire: Birley Sandwiches. Founded by Robin over 25 years ago, using the classical architect Philip Jebb (Mark Birley’s chosen early 1960s architect for the creation of Annabel’s night club) to design the sandwich counters, the mini-empire shows how prescient the Birley eye can be for being ahead of the curve. Birley Sandwiches quickly became the City’s bread and butter in more ways than one, and won best specialist sandwich bar of the year in 2014.
Already Bar20’s signature cocktails are the talk of the ‘after-market’ City cocktail circuit. The opening party featured ‘Beefeater 24 Raspberry Mule’ cocktails that were pure Birley: classic English taste with a quirky and contemporary twist. Beefeater 24 isn’t your usual supermarket gin, or even your usual bar gin. The recipe is two measures Beefeater gin, raspberry coulis, fresh squeezed lime, and Old Jamaica Ginger Beer. It is created from twelve different ‘botanicals’ (none toxic) including Japanese Sencha Tea and Chinese green tea, amongst other unusual ingredients like angelica root, liquorice and almond and orris root. Inspired by a trip to Japan, the twelve botanicals are marinated in the gin for 24 hours. The tea influences set the gin apart from any other, while the grapefruit peel ensures the signature citrus taste remains. ‘The result is a smooth, fragrant and sophisticated gin which lends itself perfectly to all cocktails’ a barman told me on the night.
But nothing is typical or ordinary in Birley-land, hence why Bar20 is such an eclectic and exquisite surprise and such a welcome addition to the City bar scene. It feels like a private members club but actually anybody can enjoy the place. Unlike 5 Hertford Street in Mayfair’s Shepherd Market which has a waiting list, you can be slurping down a cocktail within minutes of the markets closing in the late afternoon. The club is an all-day drinking paradise – an ‘all day cocktail haven’.
Because the Birleys have a DNA predisposition (Robin’s grandfather was the pre-war society painter Sir Oswald Birley) to do things to perfection and are born with an inner aesthetic soul and sense that sometimes makes Ruskin or William Morris seem like suburbanites, the word ‘compromise’ does not exist in their family dictionary. This is a family that have almost singlehandedly re-invented the idea of the modern private club and nightclub with a mantra of The Right To Beauty. Bar20 is a City slice of aesthetic heaven.
Perfection can take time to achieve. The first Birley Sandwiches opened in the City back not long after the 1980’s Big Bang. Robin’s father Mark famously delayed the opening of Mark’s Club for months – or was it a year? – because he was waiting for delivery of a specially commissioned blue Murano glass chandelier from Venice. The opening of Hertford Street – the chicest private club in the world – opened rather later than planned due to a similar pursuit for perfection. Wallpapers were ripped out, lights replaced – all in the spirit of Ars Longa, Vita Brevis. Life is short but art is long. And opening the perfect club or restaurant can take even longer.
For the financial classes, whether decaying aristos or Brioni-loafer Euro-smoothies, a new Birley opening is a calling to the high altar of London society. You are not so much invited along as summoned. Anybody with any tincture of elan or demi-monde sophistication should at least go for lunch or afternoon cocktails. A new Birley club or bar is not so much an opening as a cause. The Right to Beauty; the Right to enjoy a drink without being surrounded by tee-shirts and trainers. I’m not sure of the exact dress code at Bar20 (or if there is one) but all the guests I saw, including Stanley Johnson, Angus Deayton and Lady Pakenham suggests that Bar20 is already going to be the watering hole of choice for the City after-work glamour crowd.
Open for breakfast from 7am, Bar20 fills a much need void for City types and discerning local residents who want club-like sanctuary without having to bother with subs and membership forms – social visas – that usually foes with entry to Birley-land. The club serves breakfast, cocktails, lunch and dinner and is open all day – until 11pm.
At the opening, Robin Birley said a few words thanking his dedicated team (staff love and reciprocated loyalty is another Birley trait). Long speeches tend not to be a Birley thing. My first meeting with Robin’s father Mark (as editor of the Annabel’s magazine) was in the drawing room of his house opposite the Brompton Oratory. It was memorable in that almost nothing was said about the club. The reason for this peculiar silence soon dawned on me. Mark Birley liked things just so (i.e. perfect) – whether it was the room he liked to stay in at his beloved Le Sirenuse Hotel in Positano, Italy; the texture of the famous Annabel’s bitter chocolate ice cream; or the grain of Italian green marble used for the showers at the Bath and Racquets Club, London’s most exclusive gym, next to Claridge’s hotel.
The last thing Birley wanted to discuss with a stranger was how the exclusive clubs he had spent a lifetime fine-tuning into social works of art could be improved. A female friend of mine who had lunch with Mark Birley shortly before his death remembers him getting irritated with one of the waiters at George because he thought the brown sugar cubes in the sugar bowl were too small. ‘These are the wrong size,’ he muttered. ‘You’ve used cubes from the bottom of the packet.’
That Robin Birley is opening a new bar will not come as any surprise to students of the Birley social art form oeuvre. Bars are in the Birley blood. Mark Birley began his London club empire with Annabel’s designed to be a subterranean piano bar under the Clermont Club in Berkeley Square. It was never originally intended to be nightclub – the idea only came about when architect Philip Jebb said that he could dig out the Berkeley Square basement.
Unusual and exotic spirits and the very best bar drinks were always a source of fascination to Mark Birley (Poir William was always a favourite) and Robin has followed suit. At Hertford Street, you can buy vintage Gordon’s gin – gin in a bottle that looks like it was last served in the Raj – as well as stocking the most exclusive cognac in the world: Louis XIII, the Dom Perignon of brandy.
The last time I saw Mark Birley at his house we were talking about his love of Positano, and he explained how he had helped ‘invent’ a new type of pale limoncello liqueur with the owner of the Sirenuse because he found conventional limoncello too sweet. ‘I got the local maker to use a special filter that takes out the natural lemon rind colour,’ Mark told me. ‘There’s no going back to commercial limoncello now.’ Next time I’m in the City, I know where I am heading and what I’m ordering. Even if it’s at breakfast.