My Pub: the Phoenix Artist Club, Soho, central London

By Robert Mann

- Last updated on GMT

Soho treasure: Ken Wright talks about the independent Phoenix Artist Club and its award success
Soho treasure: Ken Wright talks about the independent Phoenix Artist Club and its award success

Related tags London

Considered one of Soho’s hidden gems, the Phoenix Artist Club is one of London’s last remaining independently owned and operated venues – as well as being an award-winning treasure.

Located in the heart of London’s theatreland, the Phoenix Artist Club, which was once part of the set up for the Phoenix theatre, has been a night spot for everyone from actor Sir Ian McKellen to music legend Lady Gaga and Hollywood’s Jennifer Lawrence.

The venue scooped the Best Live Entertainment Pub award at this year’s Great British Pub Awards. Here, the venue’s Ken Wright tells us how humbled he was to receive the accolade.

The licensee

I’m the managing director and co-owner of the multi-award winning Phoenix Artist Club in Soho. I served with the RAF before spending 20 years working across the world with Thomson Airways. Then I got lucky enough to get involved in the pubs sector.

The venue

I was a regular customer of the venue and, over the years, became a good friend of the previous owner, who sadly passed away some seven years ago, bequeathing the business to me and his partner. To say the news came as a bit of surprise is an understatement. With no experience in running a business, nor indeed a pub, a rapid and steep learning curve – and lots of hard work and mistakes along the way – has resulted in the tired old lady blossoming into a hugely popular and much-loved club.

I still can’t pour a decent pint, much to the great amusement of the bar team.

The customers

The business celebrates 30 years of ‘entertaining entertainers’ this year. We’re based in the former rehearsal rooms of the Phoenix Theatre next door, famous for launching Noel Coward’s Private Lives in the 1930s. The tradition continues to this day, most recently seeing the cast of stage sensation Harry Potter rehearsing here while their theatre was being renovated. Every square inch of the club’s interior is covered with signed artwork from West End productions, some even dating back to the early 1900s.

The entertainment  

There are at least two forms of live entertainment presented every night of the week, which requires military planning to turn the venue around quickly. The Phoenix has its own in-house production team, with an artistic director, technicians and ticketing platform.

We produce more than 700 live performances a year to West End standards. Acts include well-known comedians, musicians, singers, poetry readings, spoken words – and the hugely popular Duelling Pianos – where two musical directors battle it out every week to the delight of a packed house.

The drinks offer

Ken Wright says there is a continuing need for community pubs
Ken Wright says there is a continuing need for community pubs

Premium spirits, wines and a theatre-inspired cocktail list – featuring such delights as Trunch’s Sour and Midnight Masquerade sit alongside an extensive range of beers and lagers. The clubs wine list is also 70% vegan-accredited, which goes down well with a lot of people. 

Although a freehouse, the Phoenix has worked with Marston’s to introduce its craft and premium-listed draught lines to a London audience.

The most popular pint being Revisionist Craft Lager, followed by Shipyard Pale Ale. A recent addition is Founders All Day IPA, which was popular over the Thanksgiving weekend.

The food offer

Celebrity chef Robert Kusy presents both pretheatre and à la carte menus six days a week, as well as providing function food for the many corporate bookings the venue hosts. Dinner is served from 5pm until 10pm, and many customers choose to dine and watch the entertainment shows at the same time. Our most popular dish is the chef ’s own Chicken Kiev, but vegan and vegetarian options are gaining in popularity.

What it was like to win the Great British Pub Award for Best Live Entertainment Pub

To win any award is always very humbling. The process of judging during the John Smith’s Great British Pub Awards is gruelling and not for the faint-hearted. The club was listed as finalists in both the Best Spirits Pub and Best Live Entertainment Pub of the Year categories.

Winning the latter and doing the ‘walk of fame’ to receive the award reduced some of our staff attending that night to tears of pride. The award is a powerful reminder to those that darken our industry with controlling intent that there is a need and demand for well-run, innovative, social spaces in every part of the country.

It also instils a sense of community pride both in our customers but more importantly our staff, who rightly see it as a testament to their hard work and professionalism.

The club is now preparing for a very busy year and summoning up the courage to perhaps enter the 2019 judging process.

The future

We are currently trying out a run of ‘Christmas Specials’ at a nearby neighbourhood centre. They have great facilities but lack the technical and practical ability to run performances. This, in turn, eases the pressure on us, making it easier to turn tables around and concentrate on food and beverage sales in the Christmas period.

In five years’ time, we aim to have our Phoenix Theatricals brand running shows across the UK – taking the West End cabaret scene on the road, innovative pop-up bar concepts, such as converting a black cab or fire engine to accompany us on the journey is also being considered.

The best piece of advice for someone looking to run a busy bar Don’t underestimate the sheer hard work you’re letting yourself in for. There is no shortage of clipboard carrying, hi-vis wearing ‘experts’ all queuing up to tell you how to run your business better, none of whom will ever have to make a profit.

There’s a continuing need for well-run, community-led pubs, and ‘community’ comes in all shapes and forms.

Remember that in this industry, those that can do it, do it, those that can’t become ‘consultants’ and those that can’t consult become ‘inspectors’ – so make sure industry representatives such as The Federation of Small Businesses, Music Venue Trust and, of course, The Morning Advertiser​ are there for you.

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