A couple of years ago Cambridge was named the ‘worst clone town’ in Britain by the New Economics Foundation. Cambridge is well known for being a pretty university town but take a look at its nightlife and you’ll be hard pushed to find somewhere decent to go out that’s not a student pub or Pitcher and Piano type chain bar. It might then come as a surprise to learn that tucked away right in the heart of the town is the 12a Club, one of Cambridge’s hidden gems, a private members’ club.
Despite its central location, slap bang in the middle of the market square, it’s still pretty easy to miss the discreetly marked black door of 12a Club Cambridge, which is next to the Marks and Spencer. Members are given a pass to gain entry, we had to ring the bell and wait for ages for someone to let us in. After being escorted up the stairs we were led to our table where we made ourselves comfy in the big brown Chesterfield armchairs and admired the pictures and prints of people adorning the exposed brick walls.
The elaborate drinks menu was presented to us inside books, a nice touch (albeit a slightly sexist one as mine was Sense and Sensibility and Sharps’ the wrestling journal Boxiana) in a nod to the original speakeasys of the 1920s prohibition era. Back then people weren’t allowed to advertise that they were drinking establishments so it was all done through word of mouth hence the carefully hidden drinks card. Opposite our table was a glass cabinet brimming with rows of champagne with shelves stacked with books beneath it. The bar is equally as well stocked with a various rare whiskys and gins.
What I loved about 12a Club Cambridge and what makes it a hidden gem for me is that it’s quite an intimate space. It’s an ideal place to come for a romantic night out, or for a late drink with friends (it’s open till 2.30am on Fridays and 3am on Saturdays), and escape the throngs you can see below from the window. While it has a maximum capacity of 120, it tries to keep numbers low to avoid overcrowding, with members allowed to bring up to three guests, though not the same ones on a regular basis. The 12a Club opened in 2010 and is owned by the same people who run the adjacent Don Pasquale restaurant, which has been around for 40 years. They successfully manage to create the perfect balance between relaxed and not too stuffy – with old crooners belting out easy listening tracks at a level that doesn’t prevent conversation, though they do have a DJ on a Saturday night.
Membership is also pretty reasonable at £275 for a year for one person or £400 for a couple, especially given the distinct lack of high-end, cool cocktail bars in Cambridge. While they don’t serve hot food in the evenings it is possible to get a charcuterie selection or cheeseboard to stave off any hunger pangs. And there are also rooms upstairs (a red and purple room) which are a bit more secluded and offer waiter service and can be used as meeting rooms during the daytime. Plus, this Cambridge hidden gem attracts a slightly older crowd, meaning you don’t have to fight your way through the hoards of drunken students to get a drink. Always a bonus in my (cocktail) book.