Perhaps no other place on Earth rewards exclusive access quite like Manhattan. Whether it’s day or (late) night, these are the must-get-in private clubs in Gotham. No civilians allowed.
BY PETER DAVIS
I adore private clubs. “Impossible to get into,” “very exclusive,” “members only” and “don’t even bother trying” are music to my jaded New Yorker ears. I’m the opposite of Groucho Marx, who famously declared, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” Any club which I’m a member of must be fabulous, or I would never bother joining.
Growing up in Manhattan, I was dragged to über-WASPy private clubs with my family: childhood birthday parties in the pool of The River Club, weddings at The Racquet Club on Park Avenue, snoozy, straight-laced drinks at old-guard establishments such as The Union Club, which was founded in 1836 as the first private social club in the US. But despite my blueblood, navy-blazer roots, I was a club kid at heart: discos, bars and dimly lit after-hours haunts were where I truly fit in. Nightlife was my tribe, and I’d been a card-carrying member since copping my first fake ID at 15.
When Soho House New York debuted in 2003 in the Meatpacking District, it was the ideal marriage of glamorous nightlife and trendy dining, all under that “members only” umbrella that makes nonmembers feel, well, like they don’t belong. Vanity Fair Editor in Chief Graydon Carter was given free entrée; fashion designer Zac Posen was on the nominating committee; and Harvey Weinstein signed up. British photo agent Katy Barker was the first to school me about Soho House. Barker was a founding member (meaning, you get to join first and pay less because, naturally, you’re way cooler than a regular member). “You simply must join, darling,” Barker trilled from London. “Do you know Nick Jones [the Soho House founder]? If not, you simply must meet.”
So I joined Soho House New York, spending more time in the now-defunct hot box of a smoking room than I did swimming in the rooftop pool or using the sleek gym. It felt good to slap down that matte black Soho House member’s card as I entered. The place was the OG (that’s “original gangster,” btw) of NYC private clubs and a smart one to join. I’ve now hit Soho House Berlin (where all the chic Germans chain-smoke on the roof), Soho Beach House in Miami Beach (I stayed and had an amazingly intense experience in the spectacular penthouse, ask me privately), Soho House West Hollywood (I rubbed shoulders with Christina Aguilera) and, of course, the original: Soho House London. I still need to check out Istanbul, Toronto, Chicago and the about-to-open “plus houses” (meaning yearly dues will be plus more money) in Malibu, Montauk and Miami. Not to mention Ludlow House, which just opened on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (of which I’m a founding member) destined to become Soho House’s hipster cousin.
After Soho House New York came Norwood, promising to be even more exclusive. Designer Jackie Astier joined pronto, and we dined and boozed—mostly boozed—on all four floors of the 14th Street townhouse with Manhattanites such as photographer Douglas Friedman and rock goddess/jewelry designer Ann Dexter-Jones. “The early days were like a home away from home mixed with creative types who mingled organically,” Astier says. “I loved the nights when people who just met jammed together on the guitar or the piano.” Norwood was the decadent alternative to Soho House. “It feels like Studio,” one member says, referring to Studio 54, of course, and its legendary debauchery. “You can even sneak a smoke when no one’s looking.” But New Yorkers—especially afterparty-loving, chain-smoking socialites—are a fickle bunch. The shelf life of nightclubs is akin to dog years—these places live fast and die young. So Norwood’s Teddy Namuleg just opened Teddy’s at Norwood, an exclusive club within an exclusive club—double exclusiveness! How divine! How New York!
Another of my favorite New York City hotspots is Omar’s, a sexy, dimly lit maze of six rooms on 9th Street in the West Village run by the charming Omar Hernández and restaurant/nightclub veteran, Artan Gjoni. Omar’s is located where the legendary Mary Lou’s once reigned, a Hollywood-like hangout where tough-dude actors Sean Penn and Jack Nicholson sipped stiff drinks next to veritable mobsters. “Mary Lou’s was a family-run party den,” a gossip columnist told me anonymously. “They would lock the doors late at night, and it would be movie stars and wise guys and beautiful women and …” Things are certainly different but just as exciting at Omar’s, which bills itself as a “private dining club.” “I adore Omar’s—it reminds me of Beatrice Inn when it was the best club,” raves social staple Paul Johnson Calderon. “You see everyoneyou know. It’s like partying in someone’s apartment.” And with members such as Madonna, Marc Jacobs, Valentino, Al Pacino and artists Kehinde Wiley and Steven Meisel, it’s truly the most A-List dinner party in the city, night after night. Sublime.
Some private clubs are more work than play. Enter NeueHouse, located in a 1913 industrial building on East 25th Street. Creative power players pound out screenplays on MacBook Airs at long tables on either side of a cute café on the main floor. Downstairs is a screening room and event space. I’ve met up with menswear maverick Nick Wooster as he showed off his line of high-end wool underwear here, and heard artist Dustin Yellin speak at NeueHouse, which claims a diverse group as part of its community. Think Glenn Close, Ed Ruscha, Nile Rodgers and Elliot Tebele, the young guy behind the wildly popular NSFW Instagram account @F**kJerry. You’ll spot Andy Spade power lunching and guys in business suits with Stan Smiths hovered over iPad Pros. But NeueHouse isn’t all work. The elevator—which services four upper floors where you can rent a desk or an office or use the broadcasting studio—often features a mixologist and drink trolley. And NeueHouse just unveiled its second location in the landmarked 1938 CBS Radio Building on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, so bicoastals can work—and elevator drink—on both coasts. Elevated indeed.
Discreetly annexed to an anonymous office building in Midtown Manhattan, The CORE Club boasts a roster of bespoke-suit-sporting CEOs. With what must be the richest of clients, CORE: offers luxe guest suites, fine dining, private personal training and beauty and skin care, along with meeting and screening rooms. With a—gulp!—$50,000 initiation fee and annual membership dues at $15,000 a year, hipsters are sparse and Fortune 500 types rule the room. “It’s a bit like a trading floor,” says one Upper East Side lady who lunches. “My husband goes there for drinks, and I love the spa, but it really is a men’s club. Everyone has a Gulfstream.” Wherever you turn, you’ll fine the 1 percent: Stephen A. Schwarzman, Beth Rudin DeWoody, Ariel “Ari” Emanuel, Patricia Kluge and J. Christopher Burch, to name just a few. To make the super rich feel at home, CORE: hangs big-ticket art all over the place: Andy Warhol, Alexander Caldwell, David Salle and Richard Prince. But unlike old-money clubs like The Brook and The Harmonie Club, The CORE Club is far from stodgy. David LaChapelle’s photographs of near-naked transgender club fixture Amanda Lepore, for example, once graced the lobby.
The new kid on the block is Thompson Square Studios, a SoHo club that offers private workspaces for the high-level creative and fashion crowds. The full-floor penthouse has seven beautifully furnished studio spaces, open kitchens and screening and conference rooms. Located next to SIXTY SoHo, formerly the 60 Thompson Hotel, the club is poised to give NeueHouse a run for its money—beckoning those who want work surrounded by the city’s beautiful people. I love anything brand new, so naturally I’m also a founding member of Thompson Square Studios’ West Hollywood outpost, opening soon.
Lunch at NeueHouse (the food is delicious) and CORE: (where I circuited often as editor in chief of Avenue, the glossy bible for the Upper East Side set) is still a monthly must. And it goes without saying that any night out should end at Omar’s, where I spend more time double kissing everyone than I do sipping my cocktail. I’m sure I’ll see you at all of these private clubs—once you’re granted membership by the board, of course. Turns out the Amex tagline—“Membership has its privileges”—works for grown-up club kids, too. Amen.