We chat to managing director Conor O'Leary about Edinburgh's new Gleneagles Townhouse and get a first look at the glorious venue
It’s due to open this autumn
The scaffolding has been up for nearly three years, so it’s easy to forget about the beautiful 19th-century building that’s behind the black hoarding.
Not for Conor O’Leary, 44, managing director of The Gleneagles Hotel.
Along with looking after the 97-year-old Auchterarder destination, which has undergone its own gradual makeover after being taken over by Ennismore in 2015, O'Leary has been in charge of the project to create the much anticipated Gleneagles Townhouse at 39 St Andrew Square, Edinburgh
“Gleneagles is so well known,” says O’Leary, who is speaking to me from an unglamorous staff-only office room in the five-star hotel. ”This is its slightly younger sibling - a little bit more energetic, fresh and contemporary, both in its look and presentation”.
After covid-related setbacks, it’s still a few months from opening - O’Leary estimates November 1 - and they’re currently laying down floorboards and tiling bathrooms. However, if you squint from outside at a certain angle, you can see one of the bars - up in a glass box on the roof, way above architect David Bryce's Corinthian columns and the statues that represent navigation, commerce, manufacture, agriculture, science and architecture.
Among other things, this members club will incorporate a 33-bedroom hotel, restaurant, spa, gym and bar, all within a vast property that was originally the British Linen Bank and latterly Bank of Scotland.
Although this seems like the perfect spot, they looked at premises in various cities before settling on the capital.
“We thought about taking the brand’s ethos into destinations, and that’s where the idea of a townhouse came along,” says O’Leary. “At the same time, we found St Andrew Square. I had never been into it when it was a bank, but it’s stunning inside”.
Unlike the main countryside resort, there will definitely be no teeing-off in Lyle & Scott jumpers.
“We’ve done a lot of work in the last few years to remind people that we’re not a golf resort, but a playground where people can do lots of things, including eating, drinking and relaxing”, says O’Leary.
The most relevant element to the people of Edinburgh and beyond is probably the townhouse’s restaurant, as it’s one of the spaces that is open to all.
It will be situated in the former banking hall, with its cupola and gilded portraits of important men of history, like James Watt, inventor of the steam engine.
These oldies, like Waldorf and Statler, will have the perfect view down to the buzzing venue. Hopefully, they won’t disapprove.
“It’s quite a grand hall, with a very ornate ceiling and a central bar”, says O’Leary. “The space will be softened so it’ll feel more like an everyday restaurant”.
As with the rest of the project, the managing director is keeping schtum on many aspects of this space, including its proposed name, although he says they’re “95 per cent” there. He does share that it’ll be an all-day concept and a well known Scottish chef is soon to sign on the dotted line. Also, instead of a Gleneagles-style afternoon tea, their focus will be on brunch, especially at the weekend, when there will be live music. There won’t be any attempt to transplant identikit versions of the original hotel’s restaurants. There will, however, be plenty of nods to the brand’s history - perhaps the late Andrew Fairlie will get a mention, and they’ll make reference to the newly restored building.
“We’ve collaborated with people who’ve done some very good restaurants to come up with a concept that we don’t think exists in Edinburgh, though it’s not wacky”, says O’Leary, who cites places like Balthazar or The Ned in London, and the Mercer Tavern in New York. “It’ll use Scottish produce and the food will be relatively contemporary. Nobody will be priced out. If you want to have lovely expensive items, there will be a couple on the menu, but equally if you want a great crab omelette for £12, you can”.
Apart from the restaurant, many areas will be off limits unless you’re in the club or a resident of the hotel.
Although, happily, the glam rooftop bar will be open to non-members at certain times.
“It’ll look like a very luxe conservatory,” says O’Leary. “There will be plants and you can step out onto the terrace, if the wind isn’t blowing too much. You’ll want to dress up, have a few cocktails and stay for a bit longer than you should have”.
It all sounds very appealing. However, before tackling the project, Gleneagles ran a few focus groups to research what locals wanted.
The feedback included a sense that London businesses had set up in the area, but hadn’t adapted their brands to the location.
There was a one-size-fits-all approach that Gleneagles wanted to steer away from. (Their new neighbours include upmarket chains Dishoom, Hawksmoor, Tattu, The Ivy, Malmaison, Harvey Nichols and some other big names, not to mention the new St James Quarter).
“There’s a push-back from people who want the quality of London’s best restaurants but for Edinburgh, in a way that’s personal and relevant, not just copying”, says O’Leary.
Although the idea of a members club is very new to the capital, after only just launching their website, they’ve already had thousands of expressions of interest.
If your application is accepted, an annual membership starts from £2200 (with a one-off joining fee of £350), or half those prices if you’re under the age of 33.
“We’ve seen that model work in other cities,” says O’Leary. “London has many good examples. As does New York. There was one before my time in Scotland called the Hallion club and for a variety of reasons that didn’t do as well. Edinburgh has the traditional gentlemen’s club, The New Club and so on, but we felt there should be somewhere for the creative business world to mix and call their home”.
The idea is that a member can, for example, start their day with a trip to the spa, which incorporates a gym, saunas and cryotherapy, as well as changing rooms that are situated inside the old bank vault, then they can work in the members lounge (once the bank’s boardroom), meet clients or pals for lunch, then retire to the bar.
There will be a cultural programme of talks and workshops, an Edinburgh designer will create their uniforms, and there will be pieces from local artists in the bedrooms. They’re also planning to work with homeless charity Social Bite.
“That won’t be a superficial ‘we’ve written a cheque this year’ thing, we wanted support for them to be embedded in everything we do”, says O’Leary. “We’re also looking for partners on the environmental side to ask about planting trees for our carbon offsetting and how we can work locally with schools and charities”.
They plan to instill a sense of community for members, who will presumably be vetted for what they can bring to the table.
If you do join the club, there doesn’t seem much reason to ever leave.