Byline: Daniel Peres
NEW YORK — Mark Birley’s is a life of service. After 35 years as one of London’s most stylish and courtly hosts, the owner of Annabel’s, Mark’s Club and Harry’s Bar (in London) boils his success down to one sturdy rule.
“I believe in the philosophy of the innkeeper,” he says. “I have an obligation to provide comfort and hospitality.”
He says his latest project — the launch of his fragrance, Mark Birley for Men — is a natural extension of that.
“It is a different medium, yes, but the same rules apply,” he says. “My life has been made up of trying to do things as I think they should be done. I am offering men a different form of comfort, but comfort nonetheless.”
The debut of his scent here, which he produced with Parisian perfumer FrAdAric Malle and is exclusively at Bergdorf Goodman’s Men’s Store, finally gives Birley an excuse to spend a few days in New York.
“I haven’t been here in some time, because I haven’t had a proper business reason,” he says, puffing a cigar at the Mark Hotel.
But he’s barely had time to do any since arriving on Saturday. And since he takes good care of so many New Yorkers visiting London, they’re lining up to pay him back. It started with lunch at Susan Gutfreund’s on Sunday, followed by a buffet dinner for 50 at Nan Kempner’s that evening. Freddie Melhado gave a lunch on Monday, and Bergdorf’s Dawn Mello had an in-store supper for him Monday night.
“It’s nice to see my New York friends in New York,” he says. “I’ve known Nan for 35 years. She’s a unique woman. More and more people just kept arriving at her house. The place was bursting.”
In fact, at times Birley looked downright terrified. The greatest irony about him is that despite running some of the world’s best clubs, he is shy and a bit of a loner. He does entertain occasionally at his Knightsbridge house but with small dinners.
“My dining room table is not that big,” he says. “And I’m glad about that. I think that any more than 12 people at a dinner party is too much. You can’t talk to anyone. It’s just a lot of hellos.”
His private clubs, however, are a different story. They continue to draw an international elite. Membership at Harry’s Bar, which he opened in 1972, is at 3,000 and nearing capacity.
“If you start making too many members, people get upset when they can’t get a table,” he says.
And if there’s one thing Birley encourages at his clubs, other than relaxing over a good Bordeaux, it’s complaining.
“You can’t please everyone, I know that,” he says. “But if people write letters of complaint to me, I take them very seriously. These places of mine are pockets of resistance against the standards being brought down. They are very personal, traditional. I have continuity in my staff. People are very nervous about how they are greeted in a restaurant. Maitre d’s have the power to humiliate. They can make you feel small. I want to know if any one of my staff is rude, or if something isn’t right. The best restaurant is the restaurant that knows you best.”
That is why Birley has kept his business in London. He says he’s considered opening versions of Annabel’s and Harry’s Bar in New York, but ultimately didn’t because he wouldn’t be able to provide as much of a personal stamp as he would like. When Donald Trump bought the Plaza, he approached Birley about opening an Annabel’s where Trader Vic’s used to be. Birley says he declined. It was also rumored that he would bring his unrivaled style to “21” as a partner to his friend James Sherwood, its new owner.
“I had a good look around at ’21,’ but I thought it would be quite a major job to do what was needed,” he says. “It’s three houses stuck together, and the upstairs is like a rabbit warren. But the main reason is that I couldn’t exercise the control needed with places in New York. This business has so much to do with people, not things. My places are like ’21’ from the old days or El Morocco. ’21’ has a great history, but when places like that start to falter, it is very difficult to breathe life back into them.”
He also doesn’t want to open any clubs in Paris.
“The French are very chauvinistic,” he says.
But limiting his activities to London is what makes his retreats so exclusive. That and his occasionally strict dress code.
“American men are very well dressed,” he says. “English men are a little sloppy, and this dress code can be difficult to cope with at times. You always get the guy in jeans that looks shocked when he can’t come in. ‘But these are $1,500, and they’re made by Chanel,’ he’ll say. What can you do? I let him in. The customer is right — most of the time.”