It was lunchtime on a Saturday in 1995. I was sitting at a satisfyingly well-placed table in London’s San Lorenzo, the Beauchamp Place restaurant beloved by Princess Diana, with Beatrice Vincenzini, my Italian publishing friend. Mara Berni, the restaurant’s omnipresent and ever so slightly feared co-owner (with husband Lorenzo), hovered around the more illustrious patrons’ tables, dressed in her regular uniform of navy cashmere sweater, jeans, and oversize tinted glasses. Her children—Ghigo, Paolo, and Marina—were never far away.
We observed the social cockatoos around us, and we ordered the same three things we always do: bagna cauda with crudités, asparagus risotto, and cotoletta alla Milanese. We finished with an espresso. We paid by check because credit cards were not accepted. We knew this because we used to visit San Lorenzo at least once, if not twice or even three times, each week. We were in a slight hurry, because Beatrice had a fitting with couturier Bruce Oldfield, Princess Diana’s go-to designer, in his atelier a couple of doors down. At least three other women sitting at tables around us would visit the couturier, too, during the course of the afternoon. Later, we walked past Kanga (a shop owned by Lady Tryon, a special friend of Prince Charles’s); Viscountess Astor’s jewelry shop, Annabel Jones; and Kenneth Jay Lane.
Had you told me that by 2020 this clubby street would no longer exist, I would have laughed in your face. But today all those shops have shut. San Lorenzo has been closed since March, and this once charmed street is now better known as a destination for cosmetic surgeons and a convenient thoroughfare for avoiding Knightsbridge traffic. But the closure of Oldfield’s shop, recently reported by the Daily Mail, speaks less to the vagaries of fashion than it does to the wider dismantling of British social mores.
If You Can Pay, You Can Play
If I come across like an atavistic old Tatler writer mourning a lost time, that’s because I am an old Tatler writer. But I am certainly not yearning for the past, because the order of things that allowed Beauchamp Place (pronounced Beech-am) to exist in the first place—namely the domination of one social group to the exclusion of all others—now feels like an anachronism. And that’s not such a bad thing. A dismantling and democratization of Britain’s long-festering haut monde, fueled in recent years by tax advantages accorded to dodgy foreigners coupled with London’s greedy landlords, means that social cachet is no longer predicated on the ability to be accepted but on the more prosaic one of being able to afford entry. If you can pay, you can play. As a London cabdriver once told me: That’s evolution, mate.
Still, that’s no reason not to take a nostalgic trip down memory lane, particularly one that was so socially formative for so many, including the street’s unofficial mascot, Princess Diana. In its day, Beauchamp Place was alive with matriarchs, eligible young blades, debutantes, pop stars, and visiting Hollywood types. With hauteur and reverence for the famous, Mara ensured that San Lorenzo was an essential pit stop for all who sailed past. Jack Nicholson, Anjelica Huston, Michael Caine, Madonna, Kate Moss, and Joan Collins were all regulars, as were Viscount Linley, Lady Helen Windsor, and Princess Michael of Kent. The street itself was multi-purpose in that you shopped and lunched there during the day, had your hair done at Gavin’s, and then shopped for trinkets. And come nighttime you ate at San Lorenzo, especially on a Thursday. After dinner, you went to Tramp, the Mayfair nightclub on Jermyn Street, and then returned a few hours later, usually around three a.m., for a raucous early breakfast at Maroush, the Lebanese restaurant almost directly opposite San Lorenzo.
In its day, Beauchamp Place was alive with matriarchs, eligible young blades, debutantes, pop stars, and visiting Hollywood types.
Beauchamp Place today is still pretty, in that quintessentially London way, but devoid of the pull it once had. The paparazzi who loitered outside the pub, along with the limo drivers in their ill-fitting black suits, waiting for patrons to emerge from San Lorenzo, have now decamped to the “new” Annabel’s, in Berkeley Square, where the less discerning but more overt gods of Mammon now reside.
But the spirit of the street does live on. Robin Birley (son of Mark, founder of the “old” Annabel’s, now proprietor of private members’ clubs 5 Hertford Street and Oswald’s) astutely co-opted San Lorenzo’s greatest asset, its beloved cloakroom mistress, Roz, who always dispensed wise counsel when you needed it. A visit wasn’t complete without a hug and a chat. She kept a pasteboard on her wall rammed with photos of everyone’s babies, weddings, and parties. I remember seeing her one lunchtime, sitting in serious commune with Diana in the discreet mezzanine alcove. What they were talking about, I have no idea, but I did later see the Princess pop into Bruce Oldfield. I imagine, were she alive today, Diana would have wasted no time decamping to Loulou’s, the basement nightclub of 5 Hertford Street, just so she could visit Roz in the cloakroom. Everyone else is.
Vassi Chamberlain is a London-based Writer at Large for Air Mail