A Revitalized Mark’s Club in London Is Luring Back Former Denizens

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A bartender pours a cocktail at Mark's Club during London Fashion Week on February 19, 2013. Michael Bowles/REX

When I first heard that Mark’s Club had been refurbished, I was pleased—but also a little alarmed. Mark’s Club is so discreet you might miss it. It occupies a handsome townhouse on Charles Street at the bottom of London’s Berkeley Square, but there is nothing to indicate that this is anything other than a rather smart private residence.

I have a particular fondness for the place, since I was introduced to it by its creator, the late Mark Birley. A perfect blend of luxury and comfort, there was none of the off-putting air of newness about it. Perhaps that was why it was such a favorite of the queen mother—the last time I saw her was at Mark’s Club, where she was having lunch. When she left, the whole dining room rose to its feet.

That room was a sumptuous assault on the senses: rich, carmine walls decorated with an almost Victorian density of paintings. But my favorite perch was on the first floor, where, sandwiched between a bay window and the bar, there stood a little leather armchair with more craquelure than W.H. Auden’s face. It was the perfect seat in which to sit and observe the charming world of London’s Mayfair neighborhood.

Over 6 feet tall, never less than perfectly dressed and always irresistible to women, Birley was the personification of elegance. An excellent skier and gentleman rally driver, he was old Mayfair in human form. If there is, as the French suggest, an art de vivre, then he was its Picasso. He was a cigar-smoking connoisseur capable of telling you if the peach juice in your Bellini had been freshly hand-squeezed and willing to offer an opinion on the subject of ordering socks bespoke. He made the James Bond of Ian Fleming’s novels seem like a loutish football hooligan.

I once rang him at home, and his housekeeper informed me that Mr. Birley was unable to come to the phone because he was “busy relaxing.” Birley was often busy relaxing: The reason he had a tapestry playing field on his bespoke Hermès backgammon set was so that no audible rattle of the dice would destroy the sacred sense of relaxation.

Roughly once a decade, he decanted some of his immense personal style into a club in Mayfair. In the ’60s, there was Annabel’s; thereafter, at intervals of about 10 years, he opened Mark’s, Harry’s Bar, the Bath & Racquets Club and finally George. (It is a talent inherited by his son Robin, who has opened the phenomenally successful 5 Hertford Street, just off Curzon Street.) Of all his clubs, Mark’s was most like his house: walls crammed with pictures; beautiful flowers; sumptuous sofas that swallow the sitter in down-filled comfort; and loyal, unchanging staff.

Before his death in 2007, Birley sold his clubs to restaurateur Richard Caring, and while the other clubs flourished, I began to feel that after a few years that Mark’s had lost some of its luster. It was nothing I could quite pin down; I just stopped going. As it happens, I was not the only one to feel a little sorry for the place. Peter Dubens, a longtime member of the club, clearly felt the same, and unlike me—an armchair nostalgic in this case—he did something about it.

Dubens became Caring’s business partner and, together with Howard Barclay and Charles Price, son of a former U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, he suggested to Caring that the place could do with freshening up and that the man to do the freshening was Tino Zervudachi, an interior designer who knew Birley’s world—intimately. His father had been a founder member of Annabel’s, and Zervudachi had inherited the Birley club habit. But he also had somehow got out of the habit of visiting Mark’s.

“At first, there was a sort of tension about what the old Mark’s was and what the new Mark’s is going to become, and with a place like Mark’s, lots of people did not want too much to change,” says Zervudachi. “I went in there not having been there for years.”

Zervudachi was upset at what he found. “It had got incredibly sad looking. It was looking a little bit,” and here he lowers his voice, “boarding house.” Which, it is safe to say, was not one of Birley’s objectives.

“It needed some TLC and someone to embrace the history and the things that made it special,” Zervudachi says. “I made a list of things that were irreplaceable,” one of which was what he calls “the Tardis.” This is a little cabin just inside the entrance where the hall manager sits, takes reservations and greets members. “It is something of another time, and I thought we ought to keep it, and [we did, and] everyone is very happy.” Other signatures retained are the red Fortuny wall-covering in the dining room and the William Morris wallpaper up the stairs.

But there were also aspects of the club that needed to be improved; for instance, when it came to being seated for lunch or dinner, everyone wanted a table in the red room and not the back room. “It was like being sent to the corner in school, so I tried to make it special, and that is why we paneled it,” Zervudachi says. “Upstairs, the old wall covering was really, really shabby. I thought it would be good to freshen and sharpen the room with white velvet.”

Certain things have changed in society since Birley’s day, when it used to be acceptable to smoke inside. He was an Olympic-level cigar smoker—and at Mark’s Club a postprandial cigar was almost mandatory. Today, legislation has decreed otherwise, and as a result Mark’s now has one of the most pleasant cigar terraces in London. Complete with a working fireplace, it is like an outdoor room. Elsewhere in the club, offices and a private dining room have been transformed into charming rooms members can take for parties and dinners.

Like the space, the menu has been refreshed and sharpened; the balance between classic and contemporary has been maintained on the plate as much as it has in the decoration. Lighter dishes have been introduced—although the brilliant cheese soufflé, which is so good it should be on some register of controlled substances, remains.

I do, however, have one cavil. My favorite beaten-up leather armchair has been replaced by a newer version—apparently the old one fell apart. The substitute is very nice, but it could do with a quick going over with a Stanley knife to impart a bit of patina.