William Sitwell trolls down to the Berlusconi-themed club Bunga Bunga, but instead of orgiastic antics and underage belly dancers he finds only the disconcertingly sober and sensible young proprietors
CHARLIE GILKES AND Duncan Stirling co-own a nascent clutch of bars and restaurants in London. So I meet them together. Charlie is tall, dark, thick-haired and handsome and speaks first. Duncan is fair-haired and gingery-bearded and nods.
We talk in a second-storey glass conservatory in Battersea. The room is part of their Bunga Bunga establishment, a collection of themed rooms: a naff Eurovision, Terry Wogan-focused karaoke bar and disco, a restaurant dedicated to the lecherous has-been Silvio Berlusconi, and the room we’re sitting in, with its old telescopes that line the window sill obviously with the intention that conservatory is turned into observatory.
‘We met nine years ago,’ says Charlie. ‘We put on parties while we were studying and would promote other people’s events. Actually we were rivals. I was doing nights that appealed to a slightly younger crowd with slightly cheaper drinks.’ And then a beautiful thing happened that brought the pair together. One of the clubs that Charlie and Duncan (pictured below left) booked on different nights of the week double-booked them.
‘It was a Wednesday,’ recalls Charlie as I start to well up. Instinctively they knew not to have a young, up-and-coming promoter bitch fight. ‘We did it together,’ he says. Their two crowds met, the party went with a swing and so, adds Charlie, ‘we did more and more nights together.’
So they formed a business alliance, deciding not to promote other people’s establishments any longer. But it was still a hobby for the pair. Duncan had gone into PR while Charlie was still at Edinburgh University (for three days each week). The first joint project was a bar in the basement of the uninspiring but well-located Sloane Square Hotel.
‘The space was being used by housekeeping and for storage and maintenance,’ explains Duncan. ‘The hotel thought the idea of doing a bar was crazy, but we’re very persistent and persuasive.’ They ended up doing a joint venture and split the healthy profits. ‘They were the perfect shareholders and only stepped into the place about twice.’
After this successful venture, Charlie graduated and Duncan left his job so they could set up a full-time business. At which point I address the thorny question of being bar owners, the purveyors of night-time drinky-drinky, dancey-dancey fun. If Charlie and Duncan lived and breathed the spirit of the places they own, they’d be right-wing, louche philanderers. After all their establishment Maggie’s is an Eighties-themed tribute to Margaret Thatcher (they play recordings of her speeches in the loos), while they also have a secret, speakeasy-style joint off Sloane Avenue called Barts, where they serve gin in teapots. And I’ve mentioned Bunga Bunga. Instead we have two well-dressed, sober-looking, healthy-complexioned, nice-talking middle-class boys.
‘We’re not normal club owners,’ admits Charlie, the son of a doctor. ‘We’re in the office at 8.30am and run it as a normal business.’ Oh well. Perhaps that’s what happens in a recession: the restaurant, bar and club owners stay sober, while the suits do the drinking. And business certainly seems healthy for the boys.
‘The economy has made us be a bit more creative,’ says Charlie. So people come to their places both because it’s fun and because the food and drink are pretty affordable. Indeed, Christmas party bookings have been healthy (legions troop to Bunga Bunga from the City — so much so that the boys are considering taking their Battersea concept to the City itself) and the pair are looking beyond their current stable for new ideas.
‘We’d like to open a hotel,’ says Charlie. ‘I think there’s a gap in the mid-market for a place with small rooms, done nicely in a decent location with a buzzy bar and a nice brasserie. What top hotels charge is criminal.’
The bar at Bunga Bunga in Battersea
THE QUESTION IS how to finance their expansion. ‘We are the only two shareholders and are reluctant to give bits of our business away too easily,’ says Duncan. ‘We’ve approached the banks for finance but they have been hopeless and very unsupportive. Fortunately, many people have offered us investment.’
Meanwhile, what of the future of Bunga Bunga itself, post-Berlusconi? The place is filled with images of Silvio and his Bunga Bunga girls. It’s a bit like having a Boris Johnson-themed restaurant in London serving shepherd’s pie, fish and chips, roast beef and sticky toffee pudding.
‘Even when he’s gone, he’s still a part of Italy’s recent history,’ explains Charlie.
‘We’re not taking the piss here,’ claims Duncan. ‘We’re doing our best to showcase Italian cuisine and most of the staff are Italian. We’re being very respectful.’
‘We might be taking the piss out of Berlusconi,’ interrupts Charlie, ‘but we’re not taking the piss out of Italy.’ Whether they are or not, it looks as if business is set to grow. The pair will continue to scour antique stores, car-boot sales and dawn markets for appropriately themed clobber to adorn their walls, nooks and crannies, and the affordable party atmosphere that pervades their establishments seems a recipe for success in the future, whether credit is or isn’t further crunched.
bungabunga-london.com, barts-london.com, maggies-club.com
William Sitwell is a contributing editor at Spear’s