Where to find the world’s best club sandwich — and the story of this triple-layered paean to poolside delight

The club sandwich, arguably the most famous of all sarnies, is a poolside staple, but its origins are tricky to trace, says Tom Parker Bowles.

I want to tell you a story. Well, two actually. Possibly three. Perhaps even four. It’s the epic tale (or tales) of how a lowly sandwich rose from humble beginnings (or, perhaps, more exalted roots), to international fame and fortune, bestriding the globe like a chicken and bacon-stuffed Colossus, an adored denizen of the finest hotels in the world.

I’m talking, of course, about the club sandwich, that triple-layered paean to poolside delight, the eternal superstar of the room-service spread.

But back to the beginning, And the bustling, searing-hot kitchens of The Saratoga Club, a tiny casino in upstate New York, US, towards the fag-end of the 19th century. It was here that crisp buttered toast was first stuffed with warm bacon and chicken, together with cool lettuce, tomato and a lusty slick of mayonnaise. Behold, the ‘club’ sandwich.

But wait, I hear you cry, what utter bunkum. Any fool knows it was born in the club cars of the Pennsylvania railroad, in 1895, as they chugged from state to state. Or at the Union Club in New York. Or even in the lavish home of a well-heeled New York banker, around a similar sort of time, who, stumbling home one night, somewhat tired and emotional, craved a midnight stack. His servants had gone to bed, so he rustled around the icebox, toasted some bread, and, hey presto, created the club sandwich.

Whatever the truth (believe me, this is only the tip of the iceberg lettuce when it comes to origin stories), all the above share one thing in common… the sandwich they describe was made with only two pieces of toast. Whereas what makes a club sandwich stand out from the rest of its soberly breaded siblings is that extra slice in the middle.

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“Sarah Tyson Rorer’s 1894 recipe for a ‘Club House’ sandwich, is a baroque beauty, made up of not three, but four layers of filling. Those were the days.”

James Beard, the great moustachioed American gastronome, errantly believed that the extra layer ‘bastardised’ the dish. It does nothing of the sort. What it does is transform the club sandwich from drab, everyday creation into something special. With its handsome, noble height and elegant edges, it stands proudly above the other also-rans. And, when served with a side of French fries (as it must be), it is less sandwich and more a proper plate of food.

As for that extra slice of toast — the only truly empirical evidence of its birth lies in an 1894 tome, by a Sarah Tyson Rorer, imaginatively named Sandwiches. Her recipe, for a ‘Club House’ sandwich, is a baroque beauty, made up of not three, but four layers of filling. Those were the days.

It has to be a triple-decker. No compromise. Credit: Getty

Still, three is very much the magic number. I’m all for a little innovation, but there are certain rules to which a proper club sandwich must adhere. The bread should be thin cut, toasted, lightly buttered and cut into triangles. Crusts sliced off, too. Brown will just about do, if you insist, but sourdough is a definite no-no. Way too dense and robust.

And, although the basic filling of chicken and crisp smoked streaky bacon must never change, alongside the essential lettuce, mayonnaise and tomato, the odd embellishment is okay. A fried egg, as at the Hotel Bel-Air, in Los Angeles. Or a thin slice of Gruyère or avocado. Or perhaps even both. Oh, and it always requires a toothpick or two to hold the whole thing together. But this is most emphatically NOT the time to start deconstructing the sandwich, or any other similarly revisionist nonsense. There is no place for prawn, lobster or, God forbid, steak. The true beauty of the club sandwich lies in its simplicity.

French fries, as I mentioned before, are an essential companion. As is a cold bottle of Coca-Cola or beer. White wine at a push. But this is one dish that must be ordered and consumed at a proper hotel, poolside in the Californian sunshine or late at night, in bed, from room service, pleasantly pickled after a Parisian night out. Because that’s the one fundamental truth about a club sandwich — it simply never tastes the same when you make it at home.

Tom’s top 5 club sandwiches in the world

Claridge’s, London

A bona-fide classic club sandwich, made using toasted pain de mie bread, from an absolutely classic London hotel. For me, the gold standard of club sandwiches.


Plaza Athénée, Paris, France

The toast is elegantly thin, there are 15 different kinds of salad greens and the chicken and bacon are of impeccable quality. Classic and elegant, just like the hotel.


Hotel Bel-Air, Los Angeles

Best devoured by the pool, in the shade of the palm trees, this beauty has smoked ham, maple glazed turkey and a perfectly fried egg.


Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo

The only time I’ll ever eat anything Western in the city (well, save for the astonishingly good Neapolitan pizza on the 38th floor), this is as pure and clean as a Japanese alpine stream.


Upper House, Hong Kong

With a judicious whack of cayenne pepper and paprika, this one has a sly punch. A twist, rather than spurious reinvention, and best eaten in your room, gazing out over the glittering lights of Kowloon.