Is Soho artistically dead? Hardly. Greek Street’s L’escargot – the superlative, French restaurant open since 1927 – has opened a sumptuously upscale, deeply gay-friendly, member’s club.
And it’s crucially needed, because frankly, Soho was looking tired, tattered and – most shockingly – decayed, the worst crime imaginable for a hedonistic paradise. Like other endangered species, the floridly artistic, theatrical and merely eccentric citizens of London’s prized, premier Bohemia have been systemically disenfranchised.
Not surprising. A scorched-earth policy of insensitive redevelopment has closed iconic venues and shut gloriously eccentric shops, junking the avant-garde for the averagely-grotesque. But mercifully, there’s still gorgeous life in Soho beyond chain stores on every corner. Without doubt, L’Escargot’s new member’s club heralds a quantum-leap, quality Renaissance for the entire area.
It’s the staggeringly beautiful brainchild of two highly-esteemed bon vivants and lovers of the arts, Brian Chivas and Laurence Isaacson. Both have impeccable, cultural gourmet credentials, with Brian Chivas having run private member’s clubs Home House and Mayfair’s Arts Club, and Chez Gerard restauranteur Laurence Isaacson co-founding the Covent Garden Arts Festival. Together, their talents create an irresistible force for positive, cultural change, and they’re comprehensively addressing one inexplicably gaping hole – the lack of refined luxury for mature creatives – in Soho’s existing member’s clubs.
Astonishingly, that issue’s never been addressed before, and most probably, stems from creative laziness. Too often, new venture planning assumes a below-40s demographic as a shaping aesthetic. The results, of course, are shockingly mediocre – a voluntary torture regime designer-cut for sociopaths. Jarring, over-loud music and harsh lighting discourage cosy quality time, and encourage rapid, uncomfortable but lucrative, member visits.
But who wants such an empty, soul-destroying experience, especially if you’re a forty-something, gay creative wanting to unwind? Why endure bars, clubs and restaurants where pumping sound-systems drown even bellowed conversation? Mercifully, L’escargot embraces an entirely different philosophy – the soothing of the savaged, civilized soul.
Fully appreciating that its’ members relish experiences beyond a crass battering of the senses, L’Escargot is the discrete, unarguable pearl of Soho’s artistic urban oyster. Set within the glorious of a 200-year old Georgian townhouse, even the slightest, first step across the threshold induces a psychological ‘Narnia Effect’ – the sense of extraordinary, hidden wonders.
Is it really that impressive? In a word, yes. And in a beyond-bland world where corporate ‘adventurism’ spells fifty brands of beige, this is luxury run fabulously riot. Forget sterile atriums with the icy panache of dentist’s drills; L’Escargot is a four-storey, Faberge Easter egg of eclectic excellence.
The multi-sensuous mystique begins with the first, frosted kiss of the restaurant’s cut-glass chandeliers downstairs. All warmly inviting, dark scarlet walls and pale oak floors, Art Deco classicism is married to an enviably French conviviality. Immediately, the space becomes a feast for the appreciative senses, the furthest point possible from globally-franchised minimalism.
That’s barely the tip of a Crown Jewels iceberg. Step upstairs beyond the five-star cuisine and wine cellar, and you’re entranced by a jewel-box warren of six rooms on four floors. With each a uniquely themed highlight in a consistently opulent aesthetic, it’s tempting to draw comparisons with Prince Regent’s beautifully eccentric Brighton Pavilion and Hugh Walpole’s stunning, mock-Gothic mansion Strawberry Hill.
Throughout, there’s a sheer, unrestrained joy in decor designed, in an almost Noel Coward sense, for the pleasure of enlightened living. Designed and executed by the formidable Russell Sage studio, whose clients include Quaglino’s and The Hospital Club, the decor fiercely rejects the English fear of vibrant colour and longing for Laura Ashley limpidity.
Instead, quite triumphantly, there’s a hot-house fantasia of sensations, each richer than the last. A plushly-carpeted, spiral staircase leads to a startlingly elegant, lushly pale green and high-ceilinged dining-room, a delight of white linen and beveled wall mirrors. Turn again, and there’s a secluded library complete with fire, an erudite echo chamber to one’s own thoughts and those of others, and awash with Oscar Wilde associations of fine rococo book leather and mulled wine over fine cigars.
And the jewels – like refugees from the otherworldly Arabian Nights – keep on coming. One brilliant royal blue room is offset by Romanesque gold-mosaic patterned accents, and another, imperial purple chamber boasts gleaming, gloss-black highlights like exotic, patent leather. The compact, all-crimson boudoir especially impresses, like a shimmering mirage of heated desire. And finally, there’s the matt-black, barrel-vaulted and brilliantly sky-lit upper Grand Siècle Salon, artfully set with studded, black leather Chesterfields, a baby grand piano and an en suite bar.
Overall, it’s a superb, and much needed, reclamation of the art of intelligent Maximalism, as exemplified in the pop-art perfection of British artist and dandy Duggie Fields. Never cringingly retrospective or faux-nostalgic, this exuberant maximalism is a furiously effective antidote to an increasingly passé minimalism. In brief, it’s a life-style, art and philosophy cherishing the full richness of possibilities, in art, deportment and mind-sets.
So no wonder that vision’s so dynamically realised here. Artworks by talents as diverse and challenging as Dali, Grayson Perry, Matisse and Alternative Miss World doyen Andrew Logan gild the walls as assured conversation pieces. In essence, the club’s become a deeply addictive space for urbane glamour, a bohemian kaleidoscope as equally suited to F.Scott Fitzgerald’s Lost Generation as to style gourmands David Hockney, Nancy Dell’Olio and Benedict Cumberbatch.And better yet, beyond its’ luxuriant, physical beauty and imminent roof terrace, L’escargot eagerly facilitates pocket music, theatre, arts and film night events. But unlike other grand, London spaces, where opulence is also icily formal, L’esgarcot prizes member friendliness as its’gold standard. ‘The most important thing is how they treat the receptionists and waiters’, co-founder Brian Chivas has said. ‘There have to be places people of my age (he’s an effortlessly charming 55) can go without all the madness that goes with youth culture’.He’s right. In an increasing fractious world swamped by youth culture attitudes, demands and tastes, any contemporary Oscar Wilde or mature epicurean would feel excluded. That’s no critique of youth, just acknowledging that we deepen and become increasingly nuanced in maturity, and gain appreciation of new pleasures never previously considered. They’re states of mind brilliantly evoked by flâneur, raconteur and debut author Phillip Mann, in his upcoming, cultural critique Dandies At Dusk (Flammarion Books, £40). It’s a title which succinctly applies to L’escargot’s inimitable, nurturing ambiance, and which makes it, unarguably, the soul of the new Renaissance Soho.
REVIEW L’escargot Upstairs Private Members Club.
48 Greek Street, Soho.