Annabel's in Berkeley Square is still best club in London, rules Michael - even after the doorman initially refused to let him in
Published 4 September 2011 News Review 946th article
Richard Caring and Michael at Annabel's club in Berkeley Square (Jeremy Young)
Groucho Marx said, "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me." Occasionally I'm asked to join prestigious clubs. Why should I pay money each year only to pay more when I go there, which I'm unlikely to do anyway? The best club in London is still Annabel's in Berkeley Square. It was bought, to a chorus of horror from the Establishment, by Richard Caring, the man chosen by the founder and boss, Mark Birley, to carry it on in the way he'd run the place.
I don't go to Annabel's because (a) I'm not a member and (b) I don't do nightclubs. Recently I arranged to meet Richard Caring there for dinner at 8pm. I got there at 7.50pm. The place was locked.
A burly doorman announced in a gruff voice to someone below, "I have some people here."
I said, "You have Michael Winner, who, as I told you, has come to dinner with Richard Caring. You should go back to doorman school."
Inside, everyone was charming. The place looks as it always did. The walls covered with good oil paintings, the atmosphere refined, even though diners can now enter without ties.
Richard took me upstairs, past oil paintings of dogs (Birley loved dogs), to a new area. Annabel's Garden is where people can smoke. It's a greenhouse-like room, beautifully decorated. Mirrors faced me; one was covered with cloth.
"Why is that covered?" asked Richard.
"Maybe your staff forgot to take the cloth off," I suggested helpfully.
Richard responded, "It's a bit obvious, isn't it?" There will soon be steps down to an outside terrace. In the dining room I started with excellent foie gras. Then goujons of sole with rice.
The restaurant manager, Marco Piras, asked, "Basmati or carnaroli rice?" Did he have a wrong number! I don't know one vegetable from another, one meat from another, one dessert from another. Why should I know about rice? "I'll leave it to you," I said. Richard still owns an enormous clothing business. He's been in restaurants and hotels for five years. Many people in the "hospitality industry" sneered at an amateur entering their sanctum. Richard showed he is the professional. Many of his detractors struggle or have gone broke.
I don't know how many places Richard has. By the time you read this he'll probably have added 68 more. There's the Soho House hotel group, the Ivy, Le Caprice, J Sheekey. In Mayfair he has Harry's Bar, George, Annabel's and Mark's club, together with popular chains such as Côte. Why did he go into restaurants? Richard said, "I had good people managing my clothing empire, so I decided to play golf. That lasted three days." Then someone suggested he buy Wentworth golf club. "I overpaid," Richard admitted. He asked the Ivy Group to do the catering at Wentworth. "They were going to charge so much," Richard said, "I decided it was cheaper to buy the group." He later bought Birley's clubs for £100m.
There's still a huge waiting list to join the 4,000 members of Annabel's. Birley hoped his legacy would remain. "I think I've done that," said Richard. He introduced live entertainment. The club had Lady Gaga a few months ago. Nobody told me; I'd have gone.
Richard said, "I don't understand kitchens. I employ people who understand kitchens. I understand front of house, image, consistency and quality."
My goujons of sole were very light with marvellous batter. For dessert I tasted a banana sticky pudding - as good as you could hope for. The special chocolate ice cream was staggering.
If you didn't have to pay a fortune to join for the pleasure of turning up to eat, and there was an Annabel's near my house, I'd be there regularly.
By 9.15pm members were pouring in.
Few men wore ties. They looked perfectly respectable to me, which isn't saying much. Richard was, as ever, immaculate. If we set up house together we'd be the odd couple. Richard the precise one, me the slob. When I left at 9.45pm people were still entering. "It goes on until 4am," revealed Richard. I can't remember when I was last up at 4am. Nor do I wish to.
Hymie's taking a weekend at his house in Norfolk. He hears a shot. A duck falls onto his potting shed roof and rolls off into his back yard.
Hymie goes to get it, when a large hunter appears and says, "Leave that, it's mine."
Hymie replies, "It hit my shed and fell in my yard. So it's my duck."
The hunter says, "Don't be dumb. I've been shooting for two days - that's the first thing I got. I want it."
Hymie says, "Okay, this is what we'll do. I'll kick you in the groin, then you kick me in the groin. Last man standing gets the duck." So saying, Hymie goes back a few paces, takes a run and swings an enormous kick at the hunter's groin. The hunter screams in pain, rolls on the ground in agony.
After 10 minutes the hunter gets up and says, "Now it's my turn to kick you in the groin."
Hymie says, "Forget it. You can have the duck."
So you ate soup, four sandwiches and a chocolate brownie at Earl of Sandwich. I notice your jacket is never done up in your photos. Now I know why!
Mike Mogano, Solihull
The two men pointing at you in last week's photo are saying to the photographer, "We stopped this old geezer in his Rolls; now we're whipping him off to a cash machine while he's still got money left."
Iain Chapman, Marciac, France
At the Spaniards Inn, Hampstead, the gravy with my wife's cumberland sausages looked like tar. My salmon and trout rissoles were mostly potatoes, the chips appeared to have been fried in ancient oil and the bread tasted as if it had been there since the inn first opened in the 16th century!
Stanley Silver, Hertfordshire
Please investigate the "Cheltenham mystery". The Champignon Sauvage has two Michelin stars, yet the food is average to poor and overpriced; the atmosphere, clinical; the welcome, hostile. So how come two Michelin stars?
Anita Warson, Glouchestershire
At Racine, Knightsbridge, which you praised, we were told we were an hour late when exactly on time. Seated by the door, we heard other diners accused of being late despite protesting. Our request for tap water was met with disdain. The waitress recommended a pork dish that turned out to be smoked ham with sauerkraut.
Jean Waller, London
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