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  1. Luxury
December 19, 2023

Why New York’s private members’ clubs have everyone talking

Forget the influential elite. Manhattan's new breed of 'clubstaurants' care about what you can pay – not who you know

By Sarah Grant

Step inside Casa Cipriani, tucked away in Manhattan’s majestic Battery Maritime Building, and you might feel as though you’ve boarded the Titanic. The 1909 ferry terminal reopened in 2021 as an ultra-luxe New York private club luring the modern cognoscenti with epochal décor, cryotherapy chambers and a sunset deck embosomed by the East River. 

[See also: London’s best private members’ clubs: the definitive list]

However, when Taylor Swift reportedly withdrew her membership after guests of the club broke its no-picture policy and snapped photos of the superstar and her English beau at the time Matty Healy, murmurs of a less flattering descriptor emerged: ‘Tacky.’

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In a city where the next hotspot is only ever half a block away, options abound – and redemption can be a tall order. Historically, elite membership clubs have been the sanctuaries of the affluent and influential, and the average age of their members reflected this. But a newer crop of clubs, including Casa Cipriani, with its $3,900 annual fee, do the opposite by tapping into the influencer zeitgeist, reeling in younger generations with Instagrammable interiors and high-quality food and drink offerings that beckon to be tagged, then tasted. 

Forget private members’ clubs, in New York it’s all about the ‘clubstaurant’

‘In New York City, it’s all about the best cocktails,’ says David Graver, Vogue contributor and editor at large of lifestyle magazine Cool Hunting. ‘If your club has one of them, that’s something to be proud of.’ He personally vouches for the Bond Old Fashioned at Zero Bond for its ambrosial ratio of premium components. On Instagram anyone can peek inside Park Avenue South’s Chapel Bar, in a 19th-century church, and its adjacent upscale eatery, Veronika. Both are concealed within the Fotografiska museum. Until August they were only available to Neue House and Fotografiska members.

[See also: Harrods’ first private members’ club opens its doors in Shanghai]

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A League of Their Own

This new breed of members’ clubs, ‘clubstaurants’, are comfortable flaunting their exclusive perks. They also offer more: cultural and wellness programmes, exclusive partnerships and special events with actors, fashion designers, politicians and filmmakers.

Core Club – a favourite power-lunch spot for financiers such as Steven A Cohen – reopened on Fifth Avenue in 2022 with the Dangene Institute, which offers a custom- ised skin rejuvenation programme featuring cryotherapy and ‘medical grade micro-dermabrasion’ that’s geared towards ‘ridding you of all imperfections’. Maxwell Social in Tribeca (where members pay up to $12,000 for an eight-bottle liquor locker) has held fundraisers for Democrat Senator Chris Murphy and star-studded parties with the likes of Oscar-winner Brendan Fraser.

Clubstaurants became ubiquitous in Manhattan after the pandemic, when people were more inclined to invest in memberships that promised intimate venues. Going to establishments such as Zero Bond felt like dropping into an episode of Succession, except you might bump into Kim Kardashian or Tom Brady. It’s popular with celebrities because it discourages smartphone use and, unlike Casa Cipriani, has avoided such high-profile breaches of its rules.

[See also: How to join Annabel’s  Private Members’ Club]

The same is true of Fasano Fifth Avenue, a stylish townhouse where membership is invitation-only and involves a review by a ‘board of approval’. But once you’re in, you’re made to feel at home – for a price. (Rooms for members start at $6,000 per night; duplex residences cost roughly $100,000 per month.)

The anti-social club

Not everyone is thrilled. One New York Post columnist called private clubstaurants a ‘cancer on the city’ where ‘dining in private places is reserved for the privileged few’.

Even established restaurants are becoming clubstaurants. Famed red-sauce institution Carbone opened its first private restaurant as part of the new ZZ’s Club in Hudson Yards (memberships allegedly cost $50,000 a year).

What’s behind the evolution of this new-but-not-new concept? It’s partly a response to the staid social clubs of the past, reckons a British music producer who splits his time between London: ‘In London it’s still hard to shake off the uptight, segregated air of historic clubs. In New York the vibe is chill and there are naturally more people working in creative industries.’

See also: The best private members’ clubs for high-net-worth individuals in 2023]

London’s influence on New York clubstaurant culture remains, however. One of the hottest — and most expensive — is Casa Cruz, an offshoot of the original in Notting Hill. In a stunning Beaux Arts townhouse, the New York outpost features six distinct restaurants in one building. The fourth floor is reserved for its 99 investor partners, who pay $250,000 to $500,000 annually for the privilege. VIPs have access to a private elevator and a special wine list. In a private drawing room they can clink glasses beneath original Warhols and Hockneys.

The other famous London export, Soho House ($2,500 to $4,000 annually), was a precursor of today’s clubstaurant culture. Two decades ago it made its mark in New York within a former electrical warehouse in the Meatpacking District. Its iconic status was cemented in a 2003 episode of Sex and the City, when Samantha (Kim Cattrall) purloined a membership card to sneak her friends into Soho House’s rooftop pool. However, these days Samantha wouldn’t be seen at Soho House. Instead she’d be at a clubstaurant like Chapel Bar, where, just last season, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) drunkenly threw her phone into a pitcher of margaritas.

Loud luxury is having a moment

Soho House, now with 40 locations and growing, expanded too quickly according to some observers. ‘The membership demographics changed,’ said one source who has been a member since 2008. Opening bespoke NYC locations under different names, such as Ludlow House and Dumbo House, helped Soho House reinvent itself. Its latest offering in the city, the Ned NoMad, is another echo of London and may be telling of where New York is heading. The club’s slightly higher price tag ($5,000) comes with floor-to-ceiling marble and an intense application process (prospective joiners must submit a photo, complete an interview and be nominated by two existing members).

‘The space is spectacular,’ says Graver. ‘I attended a Krug dinner on the roof and had a crystal-clear view of Manhattan. Right now it represents what many people are looking for.’

5 Hertford Street, is expected to make his long-awaited New York debut soon

Indeed, ‘loud luxury’ seems to be having a moment. When the Aman Club came to New York earlier this year, its staggering membership fees ($200,000 initiation and an additional $15,000 annually) made a bold statement: we don’t care who you know, only how much you can pay. Membership includes exclusive access to the 14th and 15th floors of the labyrinthine hotel, plus a cigar lounge, ‘wine library’ and the Aman spa. And the clubstaurant scene never stands still.

[See also: How to join 5 Hertford Street, the most influential members club in the world]

Robin Birley, the man behind London’s most exclusive private members’ club, 5 Hertford Street, is expected to make his long-awaited New York debut soon. He has signed a 20-year lease on a site at 828 Madison Ave on the Upper East Side, and the club – though not yet open or even officially named – has already garnered a reputation as one to watch.

‘Birley isn’t chasing the downtown crowd,’ says Graver. ‘He’s after the elite.’ Perhaps Ms Swift will be in touch.

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