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LONDON — London club king Mark Birley isn’t giving up on the silver-haired set, but he’s hoping to bring a younger buzz back to Annabel’s, the legendary aristo party haven celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
Last week, Birley and his ex-wife, Annabel Goldsmith — the club’s namesake — hosted two private dinners for a total of 320 friends, including Nan Kempner, John Profumo, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, Princess Alexandra and Angus Ogilvy, Drue Heinz, Claus von Bulow, Lord and Lady Black, Andrew Parker Bowles, Prince and Princess Michael of Kent and the Earl of Suffolk at the underground restaurant just off Berkeley Square.
Barry Humphries, a longtime friend of Birley’s, did his Dame Edna schtick on both nights. He regaled the audience with tales of a big love affair with Birley. “This place was going to be called Edna’s until that scheming minx, Annabel, came along,” he said.
But beyond laughing it up with old friends, Birley has been showing off some of the changes he’s made — with help from his daughter, the artist, India Jane Birley — in a bid to draw the 20- to 40-year-old crowd back to the club.
“In the Eighties, Annabel’s bar was crammed full of people until 2 a.m. Since then, about 500 new bars have opened in London — the Art Deco bar at Claridges, Zuma and The Collection — and I think there’s a perception among the young now that Annabel’s is snooty and old,” Birley says over a cup of tea and a Cohiba one drizzly afternoon in his study above the club.
So Birley and India Jane ripped out the old bar, which resembled a four-poster, double bed (“It’s gone to that great bar graveyard,” Birley quips), and replaced it with a longer, more user-friendly model. The new, rectangular version has a slick, brass and orange glass surface, and can accommodate up to three barmen and at least 20 guests at a time.
“It still looks like a first-class, 19th-century railway carriage,” says Birley. “But now it’s more theatrical. In the past, people were using the bar as a place to wait before going to dinner. I want it to have its own personality again.”
Birley also has recruited the 26-year-old events organizer, Amber Nuttall, daughter of uber-wealthy Sir Nicholas Nuttall, to lasso London’s bright young set and give the place a more girl-friendly vibe. “For the first 20 years of Annabel’s existence, it was all very masculine. The girl waited at home by the phone for the man to call and ask her out,” says Birley. “Now, women come on their own, and we want them to feel comfortable.”
Annabel’s also is opening earlier — at 8:30 — so revelers can get an early start on the evening. “Everyone’s like Cinderella nowadays — they’ve got to go to bed early in order to function in the morning,” Birley says. A DJ will spin on weekends to liven things up.
“Music has been an ongoing problem here for the past 40 years. Everything seems to be going well and then someone always makes a totally unsuitable request — you know, ‘If I Had a Hammer,’” says Birley, breaking into a smile.
India Jane has spent her entire life, including her infant years, at Annabel’s. “It evokes the same memories and feelings as my nursery,” she laughs.
Her remodeling scheme has been subtle, changing the upholstery and carpeting in the dining room to a deep shade of purple, the walls in a nook near the bar to a brighter shade of mustard yellow, and making over slouchy sofas in an eye-popping red velvet, “like a peeled, ripe tomato,” she says.
But while the decor may have changed, the club rules — or lack thereof — have not. “We smoke on principle here,” says India Jane. “Even if you don’t smoke, we still like you to hold a cigarette and make believe.”