Gentlemen’s relish

The Townhouse in Mayfair is a gentlemen’s club for gay men, combining traditional features with more modern styling. Tim Riley pays it a visit.

Subtle, civilised and relaxing are just three of the adjectives that fail to spring to mind when thinking about many of London’s gay bars. The newly opened Townhouse in Mayfair, however, aims to be all three. Owners John St Clair and Patricia Madden believe there is a market for an updated gay version of the traditional gentlemen’s club, where members can relax, dine and even talk to each other – in contrast with many bars, the music is kept at a level well below the threshold of pain.

Architect Eliot Ward of Fraser Ward Design has set out to marry the original elements of the Victorian house with strong contemporary features. “We needed to create a place that the members – aged 18 to 80-plus – could all relate to.”

Ward has kept the entrance floor’s Victorian cornices and fireplaces in the reception area and private dining room – references to traditional clubs are strong here. In the adjoining bar, the late 20th century asserts itself. High ceilings allow Ward a neo-classical pediment over the bar, contrasting with maple and ash panelling, backlit by magenta fluorescent lights. The bar comes complete with a grand piano for easy listening, and an easy-on-the-eye grand pianist.

The staircase down to the lounge and conservatory restaurant cheekily echoes the red plushness of old St James’s Street clubs – bar the discreet photographs of hunks in trunks lining the walls. This could have been tacky, but the charm with which it is done pulls it off.

Downstairs, Ward abandons the Victorians. He gives the lounge low banquette seating in blues and purples, lifted by scatter cushions in black and white Friesian cow-patterned velvet. It looks and feels like a nightclub minus a dance floor, which is what St Clair and Madden intended. There is another piano down here, with the pianist’s repertoire including Cole Porter and Noel Coward – both of whom may very well have approved of The Townhouse.

St Clair and Madden were clear from the start that The Townhouse must have a good chef. “We didn’t want to be like those gay restaurants – naming no names – where they got by on pretty waiters and you put up with so-so food,” says St Clair. In Jamie Kimm they have chosen the right chef; his pedigree includes Pied Terre, The Square, The Caprice and The Canteen. This is serious cooking (which is not to say the waiters aren’t pretty).

Ward’s 36-seat restaurant extends the design of the lounge into an Eighties conservatory, looking up into hanging gardens created by Lawrence Tucker. The gardens are a touch embryonic, but these are early days – the club has been open for just two weeks.

Like the bar, the restaurant is uncompromisingly modern. St Clair admits that Ward talked him out of a Greco-Roman decor – a good move on the architect’s part as that could easily have descended into bad kitsch, and it would have been a pity if The Townhouse had succumbed to reproductions of Michelangelo’s David (La Cage aux Folles, anybody?). As it is, Ward’s plain, rich blue walls, beech chairs and oak floors set off the glass roof and garden backdrop with some style.

The Townhouse is open from 6.00pm to 1.30am Tuesdays to Saturdays, and from midday to midnight on Sundays. It can accommodate up to 175 members and their guests (of both sexes). With a reported membership of over 900, it looks as though John St Clair and Patricia Madden may indeed have found a gap in the market.

The Townhouse is at 3 Green Street, Mayfair, London W1Y 3RG. Telephone 0171-499 4489.

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