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Not a member? Join the club: The new wave of restaurants chanelling the private members’ vibe

Insider vibes: the private dining room at 20 Berkeley. Right, Maya Jama, Tom Cruise and Naomi Campbell, who have all been seen out across town  (Dave Bennett/Getty/Minna Rossi)
Insider vibes: the private dining room at 20 Berkeley. Right, Maya Jama, Tom Cruise and Naomi Campbell, who have all been seen out across town (Dave Bennett/Getty/Minna Rossi)

On the corner of Hay Hill, where it streams into the end of Berkeley Street that looks up at the Ritz, there is a new orange awning over black lacquered doors. There is no name, just a pair of Roman numerals: XX. “It’s funny, a lot of people this week have asked, ‘Is it a members’ club?’” says Alex D’Aguiar, who alongside Misha Zelman dreamt this place up after recent successes with Humo and Sumi. “And my head doorman Johnny keeps saying, ‘No, no, no! It’s an open door policy, please come in; it’s our house but treat it like your home.’”

This is 20 Berkeley (20 Berkeley Street, W1J, 20berkeley.com), opened a week ago today and one of a growing number of sites where the difference between restaurant and private members’ club is increasingly foggy. At 20 Berkeley, it’s not just in the name or the entrance but in the vibe, and in the looks. “This was never a restaurant,” D’Aguiar explains. “But it had been stripped down to a concrete shell after being offices. Before that, it was a house, and that’s how it’s presented now: you have a drawing room, an orangery, a pantry, and downstairs the bar and a private dining room. We could have opened it up into one big space, but why?”

D’Aguiar’s inspiration came from “seeking out what you find in the countryside — that quintessential English feeling”. With fireplaces upstairs and down, soft carpets throughout, an old oak staircase original to the building, and with a perfect farmhouse kitchen filling the end of the dining room D’Aguiar calls the pantry, that feeling is the kind which might be found in friend’s family home — if that friend happened to either run a bank or have inherited an earldom. Or, for those of us less well connected, in a club. 20 Berkeley is a restaurant to lounge and luxuriate in. Even the food is clubby — straightforward but shrewdly-executed British dishes, of scallops and sea bass up from Cornwall, of rib eyes and fillets down from Scotland. It’s done with sincere intentions — they have their own allotments not far out of town, menus will change with the seasons, but are tweaked daily — and what might be said to be insider knowledge.

Executive chef Ben Orpwood knows what works in these environments; the former Gordon Ramsay man most recently headed up the kitchen at Grafton Street’s Maison Estelle, where an open-door policy is decidedly not the thing. His menu at 20 is one that could be eaten over and over — just as members’ places aim to do.

John Dory at 20 Berkeley (Benjamin McMahon)
John Dory at 20 Berkeley (Benjamin McMahon)

“We’ve already had enquiries about membership here,” D’Aguiar says. He attributes it to the reason many seek out a club to begin with — to belong, to be known, to feel at ease. The best restaurant is the one where you’re known best and all that? He smiles softly. “Membership works for many operators but I’m not a member of anywhere but my local gym.

“I believe there are other ways to recognise your guests, without having to put them in that structure. There are other ways of saying, ‘we love you and we want you to be a part of our wider family.’ We’ve put a lot of work in here, in our culinary programme, our drinks programme, in the way people are treated — and we want as many people as possible to enjoy that.”

Though D’Aguiar might deny it, once inside 20 Berkeley, the feeling is of discovering somewhere select, somewhere where getting in relies on knowing the right people. Its great strength, though, is that while today exclusivity may be more aspirational than egalitarianism, here both are balanced.

It’s something offered, though not as explicitly, at the nearby Twenty Two (22 Grosvenor Square, W1K, the22.london) as well. That air of exclusivity is undeniable — everyone from Jeff Bezos and his now fiancée Lauren Sanchez to Kate Moss, Kylie Jenner and even Tom Cruise have been spotted inside. Unlike at 20 Berkeley, the doors are kept shut, and it markets itself for the most part as a private members’ club, which some of it is. The other part, though, is a marble-floored, blue-panelled dining room where guests spend as much time trying to place each other as tucking into the food. But, keenly aware that no one eats in their club any more if the food isn’t up to scratch, here it’s a cornerstone, and the Sunday roast is one of the best in town. Food is similarly at the forefront of Soho’s 1 Warwick, a through-and-through private club — except the biggest draw is its public-facing restaurant, Tom Cenci’s Nessa (86 Brewer Street, W1F, nessasoho.com). Nessa’s formula is the same as 20 Berkeley or the Twenty Two: straightforward, well-executed British-centric cooking, and strong cocktails. Speaking of which, Amazonico (10 Berkeley Square, W1J, amazonicorestaurant.com) is opening new late-night cocktail bar Octo in a fortnight; not private but it’s meant to feel like it, with its entrance hidden and kept to those in the know.

The recently-revamped Quo Vadis (26-29 Dean Street, W1D, quovadissoho.co.uk), meanwhile, takes a different tack — where at 20 Berkeley or the Twenty Two, diners might anticipate a club and be pleased to find a restaurant, QV’s celebrated chef Jeremy Lee says the opposite is true at his place. “Because we don’t take bookings three months in advance, we have a lot of walk-ins, and I don’t think they’re expecting a club. They’ll come in and there’s a sense of wonder — who are all these people disappearing behind the curtain? Where are they going? It’s a sweet sense of mystery.” In this way, he says, said guests might learn it’s members-only upstairs, but they’re getting an insight into what’s there at the same time — the same food and drink is served throughout what Lee calls “a great shambolic building that can be all things to all people.” Others are trading on welcoming only those in the know. Camden’s party palace Koko (74 Crowndale Road, NW1, koko.co.uk) is primarily for the public — and has fans in Maya Jama and Sienna Miller — but so too is it in on the exclusivity play, with the House of Koko club hidden away upstairs.

The bar at Apollo’s Muse (Johnny Stephens)
The bar at Apollo’s Muse (Johnny Stephens)

The trick is found elsewhere, too: Langan’s has Upstairs at Langan’s (Stratton Street, W1J, langansbrasserie.com); it is a room that glows red, as if with lust, swings with live music most nights and seems happy enough to treat most wayward behaviour with an insouciant wave. And while Langan’s looks the part for a little fun, Bacchanalia, Richard Caring’s preposterous but pleasingly fun ode to opulence (which counts the likes of Naomi Campbell among its fans) has recently just opened Apollo’s Muse (1 Mount Street, apollos-muse.co.uk), which may be the most lavish room in London. The word is absurd: extravagance hardly covers it. Not only is there a wine list where dropping hundreds is a given, the room itself is unlike anywhere in the world. One of the main draws is its collection of “one-of-a-kind, 2,000-year-old Greek and Roman artworks.” That means, for those lucky enough (and with sufficient means) to score membership, restraint may actually be the order of the day: stumbling into a vase here might mean more than being barred — it might mean bankruptcy. And that would mean being admitted into another club all of its own, in a way.