It is hard to believe there was ever a time when it was difficult to find a decent burger in London, yet in 1971 such a catastrophe befell American friends Isaac Tigrett and Peter Morton who longed for a taste of home. Such are the humble beginnings of the Hard Rock Cafe, the very first of the now-Global franchise opening on Old Park Lane. The restaurant proved an instant hit, especially with the Mayfair It-Crowd of the day. It was one regular of the restaurant, non other than Eric Clapton, who changed the fortunes of Hard Rock forever; to mark his favourite spot at the bar, he sent Isaac one of his guitars to hang above his stool, thus starting the trend of Rock’n’Roll memorabilia the restaurant is known for (enhanced by The Who’s Pete Townshead who sent his guitar the following week with a note: “‘Mine’s as good as his! Love, Pete” !)
Although the Hard Rock Cafe is now more of a tourist -heavy destination in the 75 countries in which it is represented, there is something a little different, a little special about the original HRC, and the secret lies deep in their subterranean vault.
The Secret Vault
Set within an old Coutt’s Bank Vault – once said to have contained the personal effects of the Queen, and where Princess Diana supposedly first tried on her wedding dress – there lay a £500m+ collection of Rock’n’Roll paraphernalia. Madonna’s personal credit card? It’s here. The handwritten lyric sheet of “Imagine” by John Lennon? Oh yeah, it’s just over there. One of David Bowie’s guitars? … There are 200+ such incredible ‘artefacts’ on display, and what’s more, you don’t even need to buy a burger beforehand to visit (for free!)
With so many items (over 80,000 worldwide) – some donated and some purchased – it’s no surprise that Hard Rock has no problem filling the walls of every one of its locations. The original London location needed to expand, and as soon as space in the building across the street became available, The Rock Shop at 1 Old Park Lane was born, the prior tenant being Coutt’s Bank; the vault in the basement was still intact, complete with heavy metal doors and still marked with the insignia of the bank, perfect to display the priceless collection of memorabilia.
Although free to visit, you do need to be part of a guided tour (if anything for the vault to be unlocked!) which, when walking through the barred entrance way, feels as if you are entering a top secret layer of an old Rock God.
You don’t have to be a hardcore music fan to be impressed with the collection; sit on a bench once owned by the legendary Jimi Hendrix (while staring at the guitar he played at the Isle of Wight Festival, insured for over £4m!); talking of chairs, sit in one once owned by Freddie Mercury and marvel at Elvis Presley’s leather jacket or the Jean Paul Gaultier-designed bustier worn by Madonna on the Blonde Ambition Tour… Although the vault is small, the collection is monumental in terms of importance.
Visit the Vault at the Hard Rock Cafe at 1 Old Park Lane, Mayfair, London W1K 1QZ.
Entry is free and tours run every 20 minutes.