London’s Legendary Annabel’s Nightclub is Reborn
A behind-the-scenes look at the reinvention of the iconic Mayfair member’s club.
When the doors of Annabel’s first opened in 1963 in the basement of 44 Berkeley Square, London was a very different city than it is today. The postwar gloom that had characterized the 1950s was finally beginning to lift, and the Swinging Sixties were just beginning—and it was then that a small group of raffish and rarified young men, led by Mark Birley, son of a society portraitist, opened a chic new nightclub.
Reflecting the modern, freewheeling era of the day, Annabel’s was inspired in part by the look and atmosphere of Bemelmans Bar at New York’s Carlyle hotel. Named for Birley’s wife—the glamorous Lady Annabel Birley, daughter of the Marquis of Landsdowne—the exclusive club evoked the feeling of being in a grand English country house, complete with overstuffed couches, Turkish rugs, large Buddha sculptures, and surprisingly good art—all collected by Birley himself.
Every pillar of society turned up for Annabel’s. The original group of members were charged just five guineas a year—a cheap sum at the time, but Birley realized that if he wanted his “smart” set to come, he had to make his club affordable. At the time, one American journalist wrote that Annabel’s had become “the place where you find the prettiest girls in the greatest clothes.”
Although it epitomized the era of ’60s glamour in London, Birley was still an old-world Englishman who required members of Annabel’s to uphold certain standards of behavior. For one, the dress code was strictly enforced: Ladies were required to wear skirts, and men had to wear jackets and ties; jeans were absolutely out of the question. And there were no exceptions—not even for Mick Jagger, who was famously turned away for breaking code.
Other clubs came and went, but Annabel’s remained a constant for a certain echelon of London society. Even royalty occasionally turned up, including the Duchess of York and Princess Diana, who visited for the former’s bachelorette party. It was a club known for hijinks more than wild times, but by the late 1990s, the well-loved sheen of Annabel’s had started to wear thin, and the word around this iconic bolt-hole was that it hadn’t just become old-fashioned—it had become simply old.
That all began to change a few years ago, when the British entrepreneur Richard Caring—Annabel’s new owner—embarked on an ambitious project. He closed the original space and bought a four-story Georgian townhouse two doors down at 46 Berkeley Square. Caring has since spent more than $90 million renovating the house, enlisting the London designer Martin Brudnizki (whose other projects include Lower Manhattan’s edgy Beekman Hotel and Las Vegas’s new NoMad hotel) to recapture the allure of the original Annabel’s.
No longer old or old-fashioned, the new Annabel’s has more in common with Miami’s Hotel Faena than it does with its predecessor. Though England is a place that clings to its past, Caring has bravely forged new territory for this legendary club. (Bold indeed, he even bought Picasso’s Girl with a Red Beret and Pompom and brazenly renamed it Annabel as an ode to his creation.) Here, we take a tour of the reimagined club, from the whimsical terraces and dramatic art to the over-the-top design details found everywhere from the bars to the bathroom.