You used to be able to set your watch by it. Once a decade the late Mark Birley, king of clubs, ruler of Mayfair and grand panjandrum of taste, would open a new members’ club within a hundred yards or so of Berkeley Square. Annabel’s, the nightclub that looked like a country house, opened during the 1960s; next came Mark’s, an Upstairs Downstairs lunch and supper club; elegantly Italianate Harry’s Bar appeared on the cusp of the 1980s; having fed his members, he gave them a gym called Bath & Racquets; and he finished at the beginning of the new millennium with a casual (by Birley standards) brasserie and bar called George.
His son Robin appears to move at twice the speed. In 2012 he opened 5 Hertford Street, the members-only warren of restaurants and bars in Shepherd Market, and this month Oswald’s on Albemarle Street is scheduled to open. Robin is probably very excited about his new club, named after his grandfather, society painter Oswald Birley – but with Birley there is the sense that too much overt enthusiasm might be a bit infra dig. It may be costing millions and it might be due to open in just a few weeks, but when we meet he has the air of a man whose biggest concern is his stock of identical bespoke white shirts made for him at Lanvin in Paris. “I’ve got to have more made because I fear that one day they’re going to shut that department down,” he says after I compliment him on the collar shape. “They’re probably £300 or £400, maybe more. I’m too frightened to look at the bill. I don’t ask because if I do, I won’t buy them.”
It seems that the same spirit of rigorous financial analysis characterises his approach to business. He thinks Oswald’s is costing around £13m or £14m. He is not quite sure how much he will charge for membership, nor is he entirely clear about the number of members. “It’s generally all the people I like and know out of Hertford Street. We’ve written to a small number of them.”
But he is clear on one thing – Oswald’s is a club for both men and women. “It’s very important to me to get the proportion of women to men right,” he says. As well as encouraging women to join in their own right, he wants couples. “I’m hoping and praying their wives come,” he says of the married men he has asked to join. “I will barely charge anything extra for spouses. It’s not just another club. It’s got – to use that American expression – a USP. It is a wine club.”
Oswald’s members can cellar their own wines here or buy them from the wine shop (which benefits from the expert input of the FT’s Jancis Robinson) and then enjoy them at a minimal mark-up in the ground-floor restaurant, first-floor bar or on the little terrace at the back.
He genuinely believes that he has identified a gap in the market. “Anybody looking at a restaurant wine list who knows anything about wine knows the mark-up is fairly hefty. He just can’t bring himself to spend £700 or £800 on a bottle of wine. Some do, but the average spend at Hertford Street is £150 to £175.” To set the tone – et pour encourager les autres – Birley has chosen Krug as the house champagne.
Oswald’s is about what Birley calls the “glorification of wine” rather than its geekification. “Wine societies tend to be clandestine affairs in rented private rooms. Why not have a whole restaurant about it and try to make it social, glamorous and bring everything together?” When it comes to detailing how the glorification and glamorisation will take place, a burst of what you could almost call enthusiasm breaks through Birley’s languor. He describes the ground floor as having elements of “the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles and Chips Channon’s dining room from before the war”. Channon’s house on Belgrave Square was one of the wonders of London during the 1930s and 1940s. Never one to underdo things, the socialite Tory MP was inspired by the Hall of Mirrors at the Amalienburg, a rococo pleasure palace close to Munich; he confided to the pages of his diary that the aim was to “shock and perhaps stagger London”.
It is a typical Birley reference, recalling the style and the taste of a London life long vanished. Even though the majority of Oswald’s members may not be students of the rococo influence on 20th-century interior design, they are likely to be impressed by the effort Birley has put into this room. In order to heighten its effect, he has had glassmakers in Venice create a jigsaw puzzle of around 3,500 pieces of antiqued mirror and glass cornicing. “I don’t think anyone’s done this before,” he says blithely. “It’s been incredibly complicated, unbelievably expensive and a gamble to have all that glass made, brought over, worked on, then put up on the wall.”
Talking of gambling, the chandeliers are based on an 18th-century original that his stepfather Jimmy Goldsmith took from the notorious Clermont Club in lieu of money owed him by casino owner and zookeeper John Aspinall. As well as still bearing the scars of an accident involving one of Aspinall’s tigers while a child, Birley acquired an intimate understanding of the glamour of Mayfair during the 1960s and 1970s when “Aspers” and his father ruled Berkeley Square.
As a child, he says, he grew up “having lunch at my father’s clubs, and that became the norm. So whenever I had a row with him and I wasn’t allowed in the clubs, I never knew where to go. I found everything else uncomfortable.” He absorbed his father’s mania for detail. Nothing is insignificant in what he calls “the quest for perfection without making the place too self-conscious”. He is the sort of man who will agonise over finding the right metalworker to recreate 18th-century balustrades or locating the right kind of soap dispenser (he refuses to divulge the supplier he found after his last one, Lorenzi in Milan, closed).
The importance of soap dispensers aside, he likes to think that Oswald’s will mark a new phase of professionalism. “At Hertford Street I had to learn. It was chaos to begin with; I was building the whole time and somehow we just managed to stay in the saddle. We weren’t professional on day one – we were totally amateur. Now we are fairly professional at Hertford Street, and here,” he gestures around his hall of mirrors, “we’ll be brilliant professionals.”
So professional, in fact, that he is planning what he calls a “business club” in Berkeley Square and a new club in New York. “I’m looking at Singapore, a couple of things in New York and three or four here in London.” In which case, he might like to speed up the rate of openings: he’s just celebrated his 60th birthday – at the current rate he’ll still be opening clubs in his 90s.