Private clubs penetrate VIP land

Soho House, Doheny hit members only scene

Forget the fusty furniture. Reinvented in London almost a decade ago and now thriving in New York, the culture of private social clubs has finally come to Los Angeles.

For the past four years, Soho House’s profile has been climbing to ever-starrier heights, drawing Hollywood’s brightest to its temporary Oscar Week houses, which cost the London-based members club around a million dollars a pop.

This year’s house, erected in what will be the club’s permanent Los Angeles home at 9200 Sunset Blvd., was different from the bachelor pad bacchanals of previous years, which played like an episode of “Entourage” with round-the-clock meals, spa services, gifting suites and plenty of poolside antics (in fact, the 2007 location was featured on the show).

The 2008 offering was simpler, but more exclusive: five nights of dinner parties and private events, including a Miramax bash and a birthday soiree for Drew Barrymore that Madonna attended.

Despite the raw state of the 7,000-square-foot penthouse space, slated to open in 2009, the pop-up still had Soho House’s signature homey club feel, with velvet couches and armchairs, lavish rugs and, in a stroke of inspiration, bare Edison bulbs hanging amid the exposed silver insulation.

“The physical spaces are all very different,” acknowledges Mark Somen, Soho’s director of operations, North America, “but the feel inside is similar.”

Indeed, the West Hollywood office building is a far cry from New York City’s Meat Packing district townhouse, but it’s probably safe to assume that L.A.’s headquarters also will include a screening room and rooftop pool.

In addition to the sumptuous George Smith furniture, Soho House offers “exclusivity without pretentiousness,” Somen says. “It’s a comfortable place for members to hold meetings, or to sit with a cup of coffee on a Sunday afternoon with their feet up reading the newspaper” — all in a camera-free environment (Soho is mum on membership fees).

Somen says what really sold them on 9200 Sunset was the 360-degree views.

“It’s a very tall building, and it’s got these incredible views of everywhere: views of the hills, the ocean, downtown, really tremendous,” he says. “With the sun setting it was a gorgeous spot, and with the lights of the city it was breathtaking.”

Downtown impresario and preservationist Cedd Moses seems equally thrilled with the provenance of the Doheny, a private social club he opened in March with the 213 Inc. group and private investors including artist Shepard Fairey. The warmly glowing 100-capacity space, entered via a private porte cochere, is the former headquarters of oil tycoon Edward Doheny.

Exposed concrete beams reveal the building’s imposing structure, while intimate banquette seating invites conversation. Carrie Doheny’s adjoining greenhouse, where she cultivated rare orchids while keeping an eye on her husband, has been converted into a gas-lit smoking patio.

This intimate sanctuary in the center of downtown leaves what Moses terms “the bridge and tunnel situation” outside. As the leader of the team behind the Golden Gopher, the Broadway Bar and Seven Grand, he knows what he’s talking about. Moses has watched downtown radically transform in the past five years, and says the 213 collection is “growing organically based on the needs and the requests of people in the downtown community.”

“To have a private club you can go to where you can relax and have a nice drink and a conversation with your friend is a little bit of an escape from the craziness that tends to happen on Friday and Saturday nights,” he adds.

The Doheny received the first new private club license in Los Angeles since the Playboy Club opened in 1968, and there are already 1,500 people on the waiting list (membership is by invitation only, and involves an initiation cost of $2,550 on top of an annual $1,200 membership fee).

Not only are the members among the city’s most accomplished artists, entertainers and entrepreneurs but also the Doheny has elevated the cocktail itself to an art form. Moses hired a team of world-renowned mixologists, whom he says are “kind of like liquid chefs,” who squeeze every juice to order and even make their own bitters.

During the month of May, mint juleps were available but had to be ordered 24 hours in advance to give the bourbon and mint enough time to infuse. Also on the menu are classic cocktails like the Los Angeles, a whiskey-based drink invented at the Hi-Ho club in the 1940s.

But it’s not just drinks and good times: The Doheny plans to donate 10% of members’ initiation fees to charity (the current beneficiary is the L.A. Conservancy) and has a 7,000-square-foot space in the same building for larger charitable events.

“We’re trying to elevate cocktail and drink culture,” Moses says, “but we’re also elevating L.A. in terms of the arts, music, entertainment, philanthropy and social causes.”

Let’s drink to that!

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