14 Jun 2013

RESTAURANTS: Playboy Club, London

BUNNY Farah (not pictured) strokes surrogate ears – fuller of strap, she attests, than those first banded by the lacy lapins which boldly burrowed the warren that was London’s first incarnation of the Playboy Club. Conceived as a decadent adjunct to the 13 clubs already spanning the USA, but with gambling permitted, it was considered Hugh Marston Hefner’s “jewel in the crown” from 1966 until inhospitable changes in tax laws saw it close 16 years later. Reimagined close to the original site of 45 Old Park Lane three decades on, opaque folding-screens with “radial patterns of bunny heads…acting like Arabic mashrabiya screens” characterise the present day interpretation, according to designers Jestico + Whiles (who also revamped Fortnum & Mason, masterminded Borough Market’s viaduct and designed Nottingham’s Alea Casino). Hefner and family flew over to London to host the grand opening in 2011. 

The omnipresent logo, a rabbit in bow tie, is woven, subtly but constantly throughout the fabric, and notably personified via the garb on the girls themselves. Conceived in barely an hour by Art Paul, Playboy magazine’s art director for 30 years, it could have looked rather different. The head of a stag was thought the optimum choice until legal grumbles from the already-established Stag magazine saw that quashed. Other titles considered were: Top Hat, Satyr and, least glamorously, Bachelor.

With an RRP of 50¢, issue one, featuring Marilyn Monroe on cover and as centrefold, accompanied by spirited debate over her vital statistics, debuted in December 1953. In case it proved so unsuccessful as to not warrant a sequel it was left undated. To bring it to fruition, investors included Hefner’s mother, Swedish in origin, and his brother. Today, pristine first editions may be purchased for around $8,000 (including delivery...)

Still banned in much of Asia, including mainland China, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore (although a genital-free version is popular in Japan), Playboy magazine was, in 1970, also the first adult title to be printed in Braille.

Slinky Bunny Farah, whose poise suggests strict adherence to the Alexander technique, tugs my colleague and I from bitter-sweet Breakfast Martinis with slim twists (gin, Cointreau, lemon juice, marmalade) for a personal tour of the 17,000 square foot den’s many decorative moods. We leave the deep seats of Salvatore Calabrese’s eponymous bar, in style, gentrified souk meets top end cruise ship night club. Flanking the exit, fine and very rare bottles are pinpointed behind locks in white LEDs. From this magnificent larder, Calabrese crafted the Guinness-certified, world’s most expensive cocktail (£5,500) last year – an accolade maintained until Melbourne mixologists usurped it with their two days to make, £8,583 “Winston” this February. Both chalices came laden with unequivocally fancy brandies.

Across the main hallway where motif-rich chromed merchandise glitters, is the domain of Salvatore’s son, Gerry. What was conceived as The Cottontail Lounge in June 2011 has already been reinvigorated as Baroque. The result is tactile and fairly sumptuous, with Rubenesque studies reminiscent of the club laid waste beneath Bond Street’s Westbury Hotel. Just before opening, bunnies perch velour for a sternly-pitched staff briefing. Later, a magician will oscillate while a jazz band plays, followed by a DJ’s sets to 3am. A feather from one act sprouts the latter’s console.

Said to be frequented by some of the most famous names of the era, large, atmospheric photographs depicting the original club’s heyday, including chisel-jawed head buck Hefner himself, flank wide stairs. These culminate in a lobby of modern British art and a K6 phone booth. Within, a sheath of pamphlets titled, “Knowing When To Stop”, incorporate such helpful strategies as: “Overall, be optimistic – you can overcome a gambling dependency.”

Past relaxed, bright, sports bar, The Players lounge, is the 24-hour casino, including private gaming suites. Of the automated massage chair at rest in one, Bunny Farah admits to having “always wanted to jump on it, were it not for the cameras.” No amount of cajoling can bend her iron will to abandon the rule book today, so I resort to asking what drove her to join. “I had a few friends here,” she says. “A bunny casting” resulted after online registration, being “a bit like X-Factor.” The day-long procedure panned out in “4-5 stages” amid “30-40 girls,” including “group exercises to see confidence.” To the same question, another bunny later mentions that she took her job to get closer, in purely professional context, to “Maestro” barman, Salvatore Calabrese. Other than accruing wisdom vicariously, bunny benefits sound oddly corporate, including a discount for make-up and on membership, as well as “incentives based on customer service.”

Past the newly-refurbished, Teresa Tarmey beauty salon (which despite the hefty barber’s chair, “does not do hair”) is the cigar terrace. “I pop in,” says Bunny Farah, who may well be showing goose bumps, although I am too shy to look anywhere but her eyes. “But it’s too cold for me to stay.” The smoky effect ceiling is subsequently echoed in smoky effect wallpaper of miniature naked ladies hanging on the sortie back inside.

Other than my pension plan – a weekly direct debit to the national lottery - I am not much of a gambler. The fear of losing an already increasingly meagre lot is simply too great an obstruction to pleasures of that kind. Rather than play with chips, I take leave of Bunny Farah for dinner (bunnies do not frequent the dining room). “But we do have a table later in Baroque if you want to boogie,” she adds, with a not un-charming jiggle.

Korean-American Executive Celebrity Iron Chef, Judy Joo is the author of fare at the pink-hued dining room, which turns rosé wine lilac. To the percussion of swept gaming chips interjected with the occasional whoops of croupiers celebrating being tipped, her dishes prove extraordinarily flavoursome.

Steamed Bo Ssam buns accurately and amusingly (in clap-jawed appearance) file kimchi and pulled pork, while an inter-course of halibut with cubed broccoli stems served with juices in a bowl is simultaneously fresh, cosseting and complimentary. Alas, my companion fails to scale his entire “must try” (according to press release material) “Hef Burger” with fries and what he observes is an “injection-moulded” Champagne chip token (£40). My portion of Asian chicken massaged with citrus and spices is similarly gargantuan, berthed on shiny and slightly sweet potato noodles. Of some 16 side dishes available, molten cheese-laden “Disco Fries”, ordered because of their magnetic name, prove a slightly guilty pleasure.

Considering the generosity of portions, the chairs feel overly coddling, and bread, although not stale, is notably lacklustre – upstaged by the sort of sailor’s cap-like ceramic dish in which it is served. Incidentally, the restaurant also features a private dining area for 14 with zebra-stripe-like table and a ceiling nostalgically plastered with a catalogue of back issues.

With every table taken both in buzzy restaurant and outside on the gaming floor, success seems assured. Another club exists in Cancun, with others planned in years to come. Apparently the 22,000 square foot club once planned for Goa was rejected on the grounds it promoted "vulgarity". Indeed a Hindu nationalist threatened hunger strike if it opened. To shun Ms. Joo’s food (realised in London by head chef, Andrew Hales) would be even more vulgar in my humble opinion, the overall effect being distinctive. It is food worth seeking out rather than simply pit-stop re-fuelling for gaming-table chancers...

(Originally appeared at The Arbuturian before an advertiser complained about negative brand association)