Welcome to Last Call, where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.
This time, it's the turn of Brian Clivaz and Laurence Isaacson, chairmen of London's famed French restaurant and private members' club L'Escargot in Soho. The pair may have only been at the helm of the 89-year-old establishment since 2014 but after first meeting in 1990, they've worked together on several projects, including the founding of Home House.
While Clivaz and Isaacson aren't technically the ones behind the bar at L'Escargot, one thing's for sure: they sure as hell know how to throw a party.
"People ask me how I would describe this place. It's a cross between Downton Abbey and a French bordello. If you have a look at the décor, you'll know what I mean."
I'm sitting with Brian Clivaz, one of the two inimitable owners—along with Laurence Isaacson—of L'Escargot, the French restaurant and private members' club in London's Soho. The place sits proudly among the eateries and bars that line the never-sleeping Greek Street, with West End theatres just down the road.
On a morning of rare dappled sunlight, Clivaz and I take a morning coffee on L'Escargot's small pavement terrace, while Soho regulars, including the restaurant's florist pass (poached from another restaurant, jokes Clivaz), pass and say good morning. Kisses on both cheeks are mandatory.
"We've very European here, you see," says Clivaz.
I smelled Clivaz before I saw him. A wave of perfume preceded the man, who also brought Doris the English bulldog with him.
"This is Doris. She's just the best girl," Clivaz says by way of introduction. "She treats L'Escargot as her first home. She's here for longer than she's ever at home, that's for sure."
We're in the middle of discussing the new Aladdin show that has just opened around the corner ("They looked like they were unloading an awful lot of glitter which isn't my cup of tea") when Isaacson bowls up. All I can say is that it takes a certain type of person to pull off a matching purple suit.
After bemoaning the traffic from Primrose Hill ("Just the nicest part of London," according to Isaacson) and the half-lobster-that-could-have-been-a-shrimp served to him the previous lunchtime at The Wolseley ("Well, that's the difference between the smaller Canadian lobster and the proper native English lobster from Cornwall or Scotland," says Clivaz), Isaacson orders a croissant and a latte. He turns to me with a wink: "I really shouldn't be having this for breakfast but I can't help myself."
Isaacson and Clivaz have been the proprietors of L'Escargot for the past two years, but the hosts with the most far longer than that. They met in 1990 and opened private members' club Home House eight years later. It's still there today, tucked away in London's Portman Square just behind Selfridges, catering to those looking to continue the party from the nearby Churchill hotel.
Despite their obvious aptitude for hospitality, both Clivaz and Isaacson came into the business from very different backgrounds.
"I grew up in Liverpool and was in the same primary school class as George Harrison. Unfortunately, we used to fight and I used to lose so I wasn't very fond of George," says Isaacson.
After escaping Liverpool at 17 to study economics at the London School of Economics ("My grandfather said that it was a pity that I didn't get into university," he says, straight-faced), Isaacson set about a career in acting.
"RADA [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] gave me a place but when I said I couldn't afford the fees, they said I couldn't come," he remembers. "So, with my head between my tail, I turned to a company called Unilever to do marketing for them. They sent me to Holland where they had their headquarters and it was like putting a child into a candy shop. I thoroughly enjoyed Amsterdam and most of Amsterdam thoroughly enjoyed me …"
Between returning to live in London, working in advertising, setting up and then selling a business, Isaacson found himself at a loose end.
I'd never wanted to open a restaurant but it's a nice thing to say
"A lady friend of mine who happened to own half of Covent Garden said she had a building in Covent Garden and had got permission to open a restaurant," says Isaacson. "I said, 'Well, I've always wanted to open a restaurant' which was a pile of shit. I'd never wanted to open a restaurant but it's a nice thing to say."
Long story short: after the lady friend agreed to put up the first two year's rent, Isaacson had a restaurant.
"I was fucked," states Isaacson. "So, we set up a restaurant called Café Des Amis du Vin and because we knew nothing about the restaurant business, we were very successful."
Clivaz chips in and turns to me: "You're too young to remember Café Des Amis du Vin but it was a trailblazing restaurant."
Isaacson went on to co-found French restaurant group Groupe Chez Gerard, serving "the best steak frites this side of Paris," which is how he came to meet Clivaz.
Isaacson explains: "I first met Brian when he came to help us with the launch of Indian restaurant Chutney Mary in 1990. And then he came to me and said he'd found this building in Portman Square and thinks it would be a very good club."
We had Stevie Wonder stay there and he said he loved the décor!
Clivaz, on the other hand, had been working his way up from the kitchens of The Dorchester—where he started as a commis chef—onto the reception desks and beyond of top hotels in Paris, Dubai, and Bermuda.
He explains his path into the restaurant world simply: "I got into the business because my father told me not to go into the business."
The son of a caterer, Clivaz originally had intentions of becoming a history professor ("I had even wanted to become a priest at one stage, believe it or not"), but after being told that he could choose any profession aside from catering, Clivaz took a long look at this father.
"I thought, 'Look, he's a large man, smoked cigars, goes to all the best restaurants, has nice cocktail parties and things. Why don't I go into catering?'" laughs Clivaz.
After revealing the plan to study hotels and catering to his father, Clivaz was told that he needn't go to university: "My father said, 'I don't want you to go into it but if you're determined to, you have to start at the bottom.'"
With grand ambitions of working his way up and out of the kitchen, becoming general manager at The Dorchester, and being "up there with all the lovelies," Clivaz put in the hours.
Home House was the first joint venture embarked upon by the pair. It was to be a private members' club, with rooms.
"It was hard work to get off the ground but it helped hugely that Madonna came to stay for a month when we first opened, so we got so much publicity for free," says Clivaz. "Well, we had to foot her bill … Oh, the other great thing is that we had Stevie Wonder stay there and he said he loved the décor!"
Clivaz and Isaacson reel off names of people who stayed and partied at Home House, from Hollywood stars to members of the Royal Family (Clivaz says: "I think we've had all the members of the Royal family, apart from the Queen." Isaacson shoots back: "Although we did have a lot of queens there … ") as they laugh and remember "that time when" stories.
"We had a lot of bad behaviour but we encouraged it. Everyone can't be straight-laced all the time. You have to have a bit of wild play," says Clivaz with a coy smile.
"And we learned a lot of things doing Home House," says Isaacson. "I never had a place with rooms before, only restaurants, so I wanted to show everybody the rooms. I was showing a couple round and we had a very beautiful room called the Lady Islington suite. So, we walked in and there were screams from the bed. There was a German couple copulating. I don't know who was more shocked, them or me, or the people I was showing round. I was horrified. We had to comp them for the night and grossly apologised. I never opened a door again without knocking."
Thankfully for Isaacson, there are no hotel rooms at L'Escargot.
But in the warren of grand sitting rooms and more secluded, cosy corners above the French restaurant, there's still a good dose of bad behaviour.
"The crowd here are eclectic and slightly naughty," says Isaacson when I ask him if the members at L'Escargot are different to those they attracted at Home House.
"No day is ever the same in this business," says Clivaz diplomatically. "People often start the evening very genteelly with a cocktail, and then they go and have dinner and then they go upstairs and then they oh la la and get thrown out at two in the morning. Often it is the quiet ones who come at you from nowhere."
So, we walked in and there were screams from the bed.
It's a clichéd question but I have to ask how the London hospitality scene, especially regarding elusive private members' clubs, has changed since the pair started out. Isaacson thinks for a moment.
"A lot of dining out has become more informal. I think this is an iconic restaurant and will always be that. I'd rather it be the best French restaurant in London than one of many fast food operations," he says. "On the other hand, you have to adapt and have menus for if you want to eat really well or just have a snack."
Clivaz agrees: "It's much less formal now. No tablecloths, the wait staff are much less formal, and silver service has gone. I think people nowadays want to be comfortable. We're not wearing ties, for example (although I've got one in my pocket)."
However, Clivaz proudly tells me that L'Escargot is one of the few places that still upholds the tradition of the glorious long lunch.
"Our members will come for our Wednesday lunch and it's quite often that they'll come for lunch, stay in the afternoon, and they'll still be here at 11 o'clock at night," he says. "When I was at Simpson's-in-the-Strand, people would be sitting there and drinking port at four or five in the afternoon. There are very few places where that actually happens any more.The long lunch still exists here, preserved at L'Escargot."
No wonder Doris likes this place so much. The food may be getting faster and less formal at the restaurants surrounding L'Escargot but once you cross the mosaic snail threshold and climb the spiral staircase, you enter a place where time stands still.
I think back to the start of my conversation with Clivaz and Isaacson. When I described the Last Call feature to the pair, Clivaz laments that they have themselves become the bookends of Soho.
But as George, their charming general manager points out, you need the bookends to hold everything else up.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2016.