Fortunately, not all the world's private clubs are quite as exclusive as the Carlton Club, founded in London in 1832 by aristocratic Tories, where, until last year, Margaret Thatcher was the only female who could claim full membership; nor as conservative as White's - the UK's oldest and most prestigious gentlemen's club - where the idea of admitting ladies to the ranks remains anathema, and where the aspiring members are rumoured to wait up to nine years even after being proposed by an existing member and having their request supported by a number of other members. As for the annual membership fees for such clubs, it might be more discreet simply not to mention such things.
Britain, and London in particular, is the birthplace of private clubs. And after exporting the concept around the world in the days of the Empire, the city continues to add to its list of establishments dedicated to a particular hobby or designed to act as exclusive rendez-vous for members only. Beyond the English capital, there are others with plenty of history, from the Tanglin Club in Singapore, founded in 1865, to the Imperial Delhi Gymkhana Club, New Delhi, which deleted the "Imperial" from its name when India gained independence in 1947, or the Mount Kenya Safari Club, founded in 1959 by William Holden and decorated with photos of the many Hollywood stars who filmed in the surrounding African landscape, and now open to all comers, although retaining some additional members-only benefits.
Around the world there are many faded and threadbare clubs that cling to tradition, but the concept has evolved, and many of the establishments that now call themselves "clubs" are places where members and guests can dance until dawn, such as Raffles, Tramp or Aura in London, the Pink Elephant in New York or Sao Paulo, the Sky Bar at the Shore Club in Miami, Volar in Hong Kong and the mythical Jimmy'z in Monte Carlo. Times are changing, though, and many of the exclusive members-only venues have steered a new course, and now open their doors to mere mortals, albeit those whose wallets look like they can stand the strain.
New York's 21 Club is among these, and is a place with a fascinating history. During the days of Prohibition, two students opened a speakeasy in Greenwich Village - unofficially, of course - and the rich and powerful began to patronise it to celebrate special occasions. To gain access, you didn't need to be a member, you just needed to be somebody. The location was changed three times to avoid discovery by the police, before it finally reached the current address at 21, West 52nd Street. It remains an institution of such calibre that it has been used as the location for scenes of Manhattan Murder Mystery, One Fine Day with Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney and, of course, Sex and the City.
When, in 1932, having a drink ceased to be a sin in the skyscraper city, 21 not only survived, but remained a favourite among celebrities, from Humphrey Bogart and Richard Nixon to Joe DiMaggio, an unconditional fan of the Chicken Hash, and Aristotle Onassis. No one ever needed to ask what the multimillionaire was going to eat as he always ordered the 21 Burger, which still ranks among the stars of the menu. Reserving a table at one of the club's three restaurants is a good way to rub shoulders with the city's beautiful people, who remain faithful to the club, both for its legendary status and the well-deserved reputation of its kitchen.
One of the most glamorous hotels in New York, is the Gramercy Park Hotel, and on its 16th floor you'll find its own particular take on the club motif: the Private Roof Club and Garden. It is a spectacular lounge with terrace decorated with works by Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst; all the talent of its creator, Ian Schrager, is apparent in this combination of the bohemian flavour of a traditional Viennese cafe and the charm of a London gentlemen's club. Here, both men and women gain access by means of the private elevator if they are guests at the hotel or members of the club. And here, you can enjoy a classy brunch or a cocktail at twilight, or simply meet with friends in the stylish privacy offered by this essential element of the Manhattan skyline.
The idea is similar to that underlying the different venues encompassed by the Soho House group, where membership grants special rates and benefits as well as access to members-only areas, to which non-members may be allowed entry if they are staying at the hotel in question. In addition to hotels, the group includes restaurants and social clubs with spa and sports facilities, along with private lounges and dining areas that can be used for parties or business meetings and conferences. And the idea seems to work: over the next two years, further openings are planned for London, Miami, Chicago, Hollywood and Berlin, which will add to the list of existing Soho House venues around England, and the spectacular New York premises where the rooftop bar with pool is absolutely unbeatable.
Many of the establishments inspired by the old concept of "club" seem to aspire to the heights: one that certainly does, is Bangkok's Sirocco Restaurant, on the roof of the State Tower Lebua; an outdoor venue, 63 storeys above the ground with a 360 degree view. Without actually constituting a club, the bars and restaurants at the top of this skyscraper protect the status and privacy of clients with high prices, exclusive zones for private events, an admissions policy that allows the banning of anyone who does not conform to the "smart & casual" style criteria or who dares to appear loaded down with bags after a day's shopping. There's even a complete ban on cameras in certain areas. You can take photographs in the Sky Bar itself, but not even the best picture can do justice to the experience: the bar is literally suspended over the sky of Bangkok, and you can enjoy a sunset cocktail while, below your feet, the skyscraper lights are winking on.
To end, we'll return to London, where, in the heights of the most exclusive neighbourhood, we find one of the city's best-kept secrets: The Roof Gardens. Belonging to the versatile Sir Richard Branson, this favourite venue of the beautiful people is a rooftop oasis, where, among the gardens, an award-winning restaurant and a private nightclub are tucked away. On a Friday or Saturday night, a reservation in the former grants you access to the latter; alternatively, you may prefer to ask for access as a non-member by filling out a - fairly inquisitive - on-line questionnaire, and leaving your fate in the lap of the gods.
Carlton Club, London
One of the oldest and most traditional private gentlemen's clubs in London has recently opened its doors to women. Application are only considered after recommendation by at least one current member. Annual cost ranges between £390 and £1,140 pounds. Facilities include lounges, bar, restaurant and accommodation for members, and membership entitles you to use the services of 133 clubs in 36 countries, including The Travelers, Paris, the Amstel Club Amsterdam, the Circulo Equestre, Barcelona, Sociedad Bilbaina, Bilbao, and the Casino, Madrid.
The 21 Club, New York
A speakeasy in the Prohibition years, now become a classic, with ten private function rooms and three restaurants where anyone can reserve for lunch or dinner a la carte or set menus ranging from $24 to $150. The famous 21 Burger costs just $30. Dress code: jacket is required for lunch and tie for dinner.
Gramercy Park Hotel, New York
Designer hotel from the hands and mind of Ian Schrager, with a spectacular lounge, The Private Roof Club and Garden, with exclusive access for guests and members. Price for double occupancy at the hotel, from $350 to $2,200.
A very personal club with hotels, restaurants, bars and venues offering spa, sports facilities and social rooms located around London and New York, and with upcoming openings in Berlin, Chicago, Hollywood and Miami. Non-members can reserve accommodation in the hotels and thus gain access to members-only facilities offered at that location. Membership available for a specific venue or for the whole group. The latter option, which grants access to all facilities, is £900 a year.
One of the finest restaurants in Bangkok and, in direct competition with the Vertigo rooftop restaurant of the Banyan Tree Hotel, the most spectacular. On the 63rd floor of a skyscraper, the open air Sky Bar, perfect for an evening cocktail, is literally suspended in the sky over the city. One floor up you can choose between the Flute champagne bar, and Distil, a lounge bar with DJ, where you can enjoy a cigar, and choose from oysters, caviar or lobster fresh from the Atlantic, or ask for the best single malt, which will come accompanied with a jug of Scottish spring water. The top of the dome, the 67th floor, is usually used for private functions. Although entry to restaurants and bars is open to all, access is governed by a strict code of standards to preserve its exclusive atmosphere. A cocktail at the Sky Bar will cost about £12, and a set menu dinner at the Sirocco will set you back between £60 and £85 per person; an a la carte menu is available.
The Roof Gardens, London
Anyone can visit these amazing gardens on a rooftop in the capital's best neighbourhood, or reserve a table at the Babylon restaurant, which, on Friday and Saturday nights grants access to the adjoining private nightclub, a glamour-filled venue from the mind of Richard Branson. Club members are guaranteed entry without queues, discounts in Babylon, and the chance to bring non-member friends or book VIP tables. The annual fee ranges from £150 to £500. For entry to the nightclub without being a member, you can also fill out an on-line form and keep your fingers crossed for a positive answer.
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