The invitation read:
The Master and Wardens of the Worshipful Company of Solicitors of the City of London request the pleasure of the company of …
And there was my name in perfect, rectilinear calligraphy. I was being invited to a livery dinner.
A livery company is a form of association descended from medieval trade and crafts guilds. The livery dinner of The London Solicitors’ Company (a lawyers’ association that, at 110 years old is a comparative newcomer) was to be held at Carpenters’ Hall, which is maintained by the centuries older Worshipful Company of Carpenters. The Solicitors Company is primarily a charitable organization, so to be invited to the livery dinner is to participate in good works. That always engages me, but really, they had me at “Worshipful.” Count me in.
This would obviously not be a sneakers and jeans sort of hop from my home in New York City to London. That was where my personal assistant, who shall be referred to simply as Ms. Moneypenny, took over with her usual charm and copious efficiency. And so, I ended up joining — because she signed me up — the Leaders Club of the luxury hotel collection known as The Leading Hotels of the World. When I arrived at my favorite quarters in London, The Milestone Hotel, I thereby received an upgrade to a room so refined, it had an internal entry stairway. Sitting across the street from Kensington Gardens, The Milestone feels more like a private house than a hotel; indeed, whenever you come in, a staffer will often greet you with, “Welcome home.”
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The next morning, there was my familiar, patient server, Magda, ready with my eye-opener of orange juice and Darjeeling tea. It turned out that, strictly speaking, Leaders Club membership entitles you to two continental breakfasts, and if I were to press that point, I could argue that The Milestone’s breakfast being the treat that it is, I should indeed qualify for a pair of them, but Magda soothed my ambitions with egg whites with kale.
An online test I had just taken had, in only 30 questions, correctly concluded that I had learned my manners in Louisiana — back where knowing what is proper and expected still very much mattered. I was not going into a new social situation, therefore, without adequate preparation.
First: good grooming. Ms. Moneypenny had helpfully booked an appointment for me at Geo. F. Trumper, the barbershop that has been serving London gentlemen since 1875. I went to the original shop, on Curzon Street. (There is a second location relatively nearby.) The decor is woody and refined: a men’s club with sinks for all comers. My appointment was with Basil. I noted his black hair was perfectly cut, quite close, every hair of his full beard finely trimmed, seemingly to identical length. Although he would be hard-pressed to bring me to a similar condition of refinement, he worked nimbly with razors and sheers, trying to restore a garden gone to seed.
Scrolling through my new loyalist club perks, I found that a member hotel, the One Aldwych, had a Basque restaurant called Eneko — and because I had never been to a Basque restaurant, it seemed like a worthy next stop. The hotel is larger than The Milestone and serves famously inventive cocktails in its tall-ceilinged Lobby Bar, where I started the evening with a smoldering delight called The Origin (whisky, Champagne, cherry liqueur, chocolate bitters and fruit flavors). Preparation at the table involved giving me a virtual reality headset for a video about the Scotch while I inhaled the scent of burning pinewood.
Eneko, downstairs, has an open kitchen presided over by the ever-visible, necessarily personable Chef Javi Blanco. My server helped me through an unfamiliar selection, including a rack of lamb that had been cut into segments, the sauce-bearing ribs reclining against each other like sleeping puppies. The waiter strongly recommended, correctly as it turned out, that I try the Basque txakoli sorbete, which is a sorbet served half-frozen in a glass of txakoli, a Basque low-alcohol, slightly sparkling white wine. My culinary experience this evening was intriguing: there were elements of what I understand from Spanish cuisine, some bits that seemed French-influenced, and a refined presentation rather Japanese in appearance.
The next morning, preparations for the livery dinner moved into high gear. Shortly after Magda did her magic with breakfast, I was back on Savile Row, the street celebrated worldwide for British bespoke (that is, custom-made) men’s tailoring. My sartorial sanctuary on “The Row” is Henry Poole & Co. I arrived to find that the shop had weathered a basement flood; weighty ledgers from when Dickens, Disraeli and Buffalo Bill were customers stood neatly stacked in the sitting room inside the entrance.
From the start of my coming here, Philip Parker has been my cutter. That is the person with the key role of wielding the sheers that snip the chosen cloth to conform to your personal paper pattern; he then supervises the fittings. From there, you arrive at the distinctive Henry Poole cut: trim and gracefully masculine, with strong, padded shoulders, a nipped waist and a look of prosperity far greater than I rightfully deserve. Lucky for me, Henry Poole also invented the garment I would wear this evening: in 1865, the shop made the world’s first tuxedo (here called a dinner jacket), for the Prince of Wales.
I stopped off at the bespoke department of my shirt maker, Turnbull & Asser, on Jermyn Street, which is the shirt-making counterpart to Savile Row. There I was assured by young, dapper George Atanasias that the dress shirts they had made for me to work with the Henry Poole dinner jacket (I had brought along both) were fitting just right. To add a note of good luck after hearing that latest voice of assurance, I ordered another in a different cloth but with the same tall collar.
There was time to fortify myself back at The Milestone with a traditional English afternoon tea, served in the drawing-room-style Park Lounge, and then I was in the dinner jacket plus accessories, topped with the perfectly cut Henry Poole Chesterfield coat I had paid an excess baggage allowance to haul back to its mother country, and off I went to meet the solicitors.
My arrival confirmed my suspicion that you do not make a New York entrance — that is, you do not saunter into a livery dinner, smile at the society photographer and ask for a Diet Coke with lemon. I ascended a formal stairway lined with cadet soldiers, each of whom greeted me, after which I was announced to all by a man with an operatic baritone heard three counties over. There were officers in full-dress uniforms, including a modern major general who wore a single strand of pearls above her red tunic. Unlike New York black-tie events, where the host can only hope just this once for 90 percent compliance with the dress code, every male civilian wore his dinner jacket — no exceptions. Everything I was wearing was indeed spot on. (Thank you and bless you, Mr. Parker.)
We were all at long tables. As indicated with precision in the program, I sat opposite Stephen Sidkin, the distinguished Fox Williams intellectual property lawyer, who had so graciously cast aside caution and invited me. This would not be London without a measure of custom and ritual, and so we all rose for the Loyal Toast — to her Majesty, the Queen. (Cheater’s note: I had practiced at home with a YouTube video.) Following that were toasts to the Royal Family, the Lord Mayor of London, and on down the list. I managed it all fairly well until it got to the toast to “the honored guests,” when I had to be coaxed back into my seat because they were referring in part to me.
With verbal cues from my neighbors, I worked my way through the ancient Saxon ceremony of the loving cup. A veritable punch bowl is passed with bows and thanks down the row of guests. Each accepts a drink, wipes the rim with a white napkin (thoughtfully provided) and, after handing it to the next taker, literally turns around to watch his back as he drinks. The original idea was to stand guard lest anyone do in the recipient while he uses both hands to hold the capacious vessel. Sanitation standards having improved since the Norman Conquest, I was cautioned not to “share DNA with the assembled solicitors of London”; a feigned sip would do just as well as an actual one.
My final dinner was at Evelyn’s Table, which had been recommended by an epicure back home. There is no sign outside, and you are not announced in operatic tones. You enter a pub and, as if heading to a 1920s speakeasy, find someone with whom to give your name; you are then led down narrow back stairs to a basement where you sit at the kitchen counter and watch your meal being prepared. I had tagliatelle with braised beef shin (a justifiably popular dish made many times that night as I watched) and a fragrant rib of veal served with spinach soubise and a rectangular and rather sweet potato cake.
The next morning came my final perk as a member of the loyalty program Ms. Moneypenny had contrived for me join: a complimentary ride back to Heathrow Airport in a Range Rover. “Did you have a good trip?” asked my affable, gray-haired chauffer.
“Very good,” I replied. “Candidly,” I continued, “do people in London ever fret about doing things right in public?”
“Some worry a bit,” he said, then added quickly, “I can’t see the value in it.”