The paparazzi were camped outside London’s Chiltern Firehouse, fingers resting on camera triggers, ready to click whenever a taxi or town car approached. And they are here every night, shutters clicking and flashes bursting no matter who emerges, because odds are that it will be someone famous.
No matter the day and mostly night, hotelier and restaurateur Andre Balazs’s latest creation teems with models, actors, socialites, aristocrats, and rock stars (Balazs also owns The Standard Hotel and The Chateau Marmont). Friday’s red top tabloids documented the previous night’s star-studded clientele: Kate Moss, Sarah Silverman, Gordon Ramsay, and Lindsay Lohan.
When I’m there, it's a rather ordinary Thursday night: Michelle Rodriguez, Suki Waterhouse, Cara Delevingne, Kylie Minogue, Noel Gallagher, Lily Allen, Mary Charteris, Robbie Furze, and LiLo herself, who has found a second home at the hotspot, are all in attendance. And while the names of the rich, famous, and infamous infiltrating Chiltern Firehouse might be predictable, the restaurant is also packed with those who want to rub shoulders with them, even as they pretend to just be there for the (underwhelming, overpriced) food.
And all are pretending that being around the interesting, beautiful, and famous is no big deal—avoid eye contact, don’t stare—because the desire to be around the interesting, beautiful, and famous requires studied detachment. It’s this proximity to fame that the non-famous desire (although proximity to Lindsay Lohan, who has been spotted multiple times at the Chiltern in recent weeks, is something few desire).
As with any other hotspot popular with the au courant, much of the buzz around Chiltern is stoked by the drunk-celebrity-obsessed British tabloid press. The Daily Mail recently gushed that “the Chiltern Firehouse is now getting to be such a star-studded location, even on a mid-week night, that it’s almost impossible to keep track of all the celebrities entering its now hallowed portals” (though the Mail desperately tries, filing endless amounts of copy on celebrity comings-and-goings through Chiltern’s “hallowed,” three-month-old portals).
Despite our millions of dedicated readers, The Daily Beast isn’t allowing me to skip many lines in London (though it would have likely worked for William Boot). In the interest of propriety and full disclosure, it was a friend—rather cooler than me—who wrangled a table, later sneaking us into the bar amongst the better-looking, self-conscious clientele.
The restaurant’s ceiling is padded with red and white firehoses, dampening sound from the bustling, 200-person dining room. A single, tall candle sits precariously at the end of every table—precarious because the tables are tightly packed together (at one point I lunged for a teetering flame, saving an elderly man’s jacket from certain immolation as he sidled between tables).
To be clear, there are few elderly men at Chiltern, though tonight it seems to be playing host to a Paul Weller look-alike contest. This is likely due to the presence of ornery Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher, celebrating his 47th birthday, whose entourage has supplanted the usual crowd of pixie-thin women with a large crew of middle-aged men sporting mod haircuts. I can only assume that they, too, were in a band that once mattered.
Despite the presence of so many aging rock stars, Chiltern has the feel of an aristocratic gentleman’s club, with its well-lit, cozy interiors and fireplaces in every room. But unlike those institutions, family history and deep pockets don’t guarantee entry. Pretty, famous faces and a prominent place in culture carry more weight, making Chiltern reminiscent of Manhattan’s Waverly Inn soon after Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter opened its doors. The New York Times called it “An Insiders’ Clubhouse” populated by “some combination of billionaires, movie stars, intellectuals and fashion designers, with a rock icon or sports legend thrown in.”
Even when one breaches the list at Chiltern, other layers of social stratification exist inside. There are “secret” bars, watch towers, and smoking gardens, all requiring another passport scan by a clipboard-wielding border guard (one must remember that these smartly dressed, beautiful young things deciding your fate do, at the end of a day, still work at a restaurant). Beauty, fame, It Girl status, and old money (never new) all lubricate the entry process.
It’s a foolproof PR strategy for keeping the plebs out—and one that Balazs has applied to Chiltern, albeit with a British twist. Their phones do work, and are operated by a disarmingly well-mannered host or hostess. The London Times’ Polly Vernon describes an “extremely friendly man” who “affords me the dignity of pretending to check with the reservations book” before (politely) snubbing her: “I’d offer to put you on the waiting list, but that’s 160-long already…Do ring back!”
No one rings back.
It’s not exactly clear what I am doing at Chiltern—I was never in Oasis and have never appeared in a big-budget, low-concept film. But I am here and, if anyone asks, I’ll mutter something about being a former Hollywood child star. Were I to disclose my true identity as an enterprising young journalist, I would likely forfeit a riveting chat with an It Girl and quickly be relegated to the sidewalk with the other plebs. Instead, I am sipping on my seventh margarita in one of Chiltern’s 26 suites, close enough (and almost drunk enough) to pet the sacred eyebrows of a sacred British model who must not be named. An honorable visitor to Chiltern, of course, never drops names.
But how long will these lovely women and their lovely eyebrows stick around? The life cycle of trendy spots like Chiltern are, of course, invariably short; one magazine restaurant critic told me “another place” would supplant the Firehouse in celebrity affections within two months. It’s us plebs who are usually responsible for their descent into the category of “formerly cool.”
The cycle goes something like this: Celebrity proprietor (Balazs) builds celebrity destination; celebrities, hangers on, and beautiful pretenders (one cannot pretend if one isn’t beautiful) migrate to the destination; photographers and tabloid journalists decamp outside hot new destination, documenting those hot enough to gain entry; a frenzy of curiosity and envy is created—and when it loses its exclusivity, it loses its cool. Time to go somewhere else.
Of course, arbiters of cool know the drill. In 1978, Studio 54 was the watering hole and drug den of the hopelessly hip—Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, Halston, and Brooke Shields were all regulars. By 1981, the line extending around the block were ordinary people, entranced by the mystery of Steve Rubell’s creation. But the celebrities had fled. By the time just about anyone could get in, they no longer wanted to. Los Angeles’s infamous Chateau Marmont suffered a similar fate—popular in the 1970s, dormant in the 1980s—until Balazs purchased it in 1990, restoring it to its former glory.
But the Chiltern Firehouse’s allure might guarantee its quick demise. The morning after my visit, The Daily Mirror, a particularly downmarket tabloid, published a how-to on “How to book a table at the exclusive restaurant favored among A-list celebs.”
Because once we can book a table, they no longer will.