Brimming with recommendations of places to visit in European cities and self-deprecating anecdotes, Mr. Gilkes speaks noticeably slower when asked about his noble connections. He attended Eton with the princes, and he’s often misidentified as a former boyfriend of his Edinburgh University classmate Pippa Middleton. (“No,” he said flatly. “She is a friend.”)
“I think one thing as a business we’ve tried to do is not ever be about the people we know,” he said. A publicist emailed to say that Ms. Lawrence has been in, but did not point out the appearance of Ms. Middleton or Princess Eugenie of York. both of whom attended Mr. Gilkes’s 2014 wedding.
Mr. Gilkes and Mr. Stirling, former rivals, began working together in 2003, after a bar where they both worked in promotion accidentally double-booked them during the lucrative run-up to Christmas. At the time, Mr. Gilkes was taking a gap year before college and Mr. Stirling was working for an events company.
In short order they convinced a stuffy Sloane Square hotel to let them turn its basement into Kitts, the defunct nightclub where Kate Middleton celebrated her 26th birthday and Noel Gallagher, the lead signer of Oasis, his 40th.
In 2009, after forming a company they called the Inception Group, they began trying the time-honored formula of turning undesirable spaces into “destinations.” A hard-to-find former squash court tucked into a sleepy Chelsea apartment block became, in their hands, a Prohibition-themed speakeasy called Barts, whose address could be obtained only by word-of-mouth. Barts is still open, proudly referring to itself as the city’s “worst-kept secret.”
Instead of fighting the lack of natural light in a former air raid shelter in Soho, they kitted out a bar they named Cahoots like a World War II-era London Underground station, complete with a tube carriage and ticket inspectors on the door.
In 2014 Mr. Gilkes and Mr. Stirling took over the space of K Bar, the place that had double-booked them 11 years before. And in 2015, on St. Martin’s Lane in Covent Garden, they opened Mr. Fogg’s Tavern, their second imagining of the Victorian pub that Jules Verne’s adventurer Phileas Fogg might have returned to after his round-the-world-in-80-days jaunt. (They already had a Mr. Fogg’s Residence in Mayfair: a 19th-century old boys’ club with a hot-air balloon in the corner and penny farthings above the bar.)
“What’s so remarkable and genius and fantastic is that whatever they do, you always want to stay for the whole night because the atmosphere allows you to be playful,” said Alessandra Balazs, the daughter of the hotelier Andre Balazs, who went to the opening of Mr. Fogg’s Residence her second night living in London.
Though Ms. Balazs spoke for over 20 minutes about the partners, the most personal detail she let slip was that she trades texts with Mr. Gilkes about “bathroom porn”; there’s a replica of the Trevi fountain in Bunga Bunga’s and foreign policy speeches playing at Maggie’s.
Mr. Gilkes and Mr. Stirling share an exacting attention to detail and chose to sit facing the wall during an interview at Bunga Bunga so as not to be distracted with a to-do list. The effort failed: a TV above the stage not angled just so and an unpainted curtain rail made Mr. Gilkes fidget. “It’s killing me,” he said.
Described as “an eccentric, hospitality version of Willy Wonka” and “a Sherlock Holmes character” by friends, Mr. Gilkes is mostly the front-of-house guy, hitting antiques markets to realize whatever Narnia he has dreamed up.
He won prep school speaking competitions with irreverent speeches (one was on hair, which the headmaster lacked) and at age 13, wanting to follow four elder siblings to London night life, he organized a Chelsea club outing for pocket money (the place turned off its cigarette machine and refused to serve alcohol to its pimply customers).
It’s Mr. Stirling who is more likely to think about worst-case scenarios; who looks pained at the thought of paying for Savile Row’s Gieves & Hawkes to tailor uniforms for any more staff, as it did with the first Mr. Fogg’s. Subsequent versions of the Mr. Fogg’s concept — and the two that will open next year — have outfits that are more generic but “equally smart,” Mr. Gilkes said.
Nicola Stephenson worked with Mr. Stirling when he was a 19-year-old intern at a public relations company and in 2003 hired him to help start her creative agency. She described an oversubscribed boxing-themed party they worked at on Conduit Street, during which the fire alarm sounded. Mr. Stirling leapt into action to stop it, and then was stuck.
“I walked round past Duncan and was like, ‘What are you doing?’” she said. “And he said, ‘If I take my finger off the button it’ll start again.’”
Not everything the pair has opened has been a success. There was the Studio 54-ish disco where, at the door, staff dressed like Pan Am stewardesses handed out boarding passes “from: London, UK to: Disco, Manhattan.” And a Wyoming-theme log cabin that served group pickleback shots on repurposed spinning wagon wheels. A recent foray into fast healthy food with the treehouse-inspired Squirrel restaurant is proving trickier than a fad diet.
“You don’t make the margins on an avocado as you do on a bottle of vodka,” Mr. Gilkes said.
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