At the fall pre-opening party for Tavern by WS, a restaurant partnership at Hudson Yards between the magazine Wine Spectator and the mega-complex’s developer, Related, a crowd of invitees mingled in a spacious room with double-height ceilings and murals, sipping Oregon pinot noir and French Chablis. As they nibbled on mini-bowls of pork and beans, a few observant guests noticed that trays of foie gras were en route to a different gathering upstairs.
Above the Tavern is a more intimate and inviting group of dining rooms intended to give visitors the sense of walking into somebody’s country estate. Seats are fine leather rather than upholstered wood, and an amber aura highlights an open kitchen, two fireplaces, and a chic lounge bar that will play host to special dinners planned with chefs like Thomas Keller, whose restaurants TAK Room and Per Se happen to make him a tenant of Related Companies and its billionaire mogul chairman, Stephen Ross.
Sound exciting? Unfortunately, you most likely won’t be able to go. While Tavern by WS is open to the public, the space above it — called simply WS New York — is reserved for members willing to pay a $15,000 initiation fee, plus $7,500 in annual dues. A brochure for WS New York lures people to join for an “insider perspective on rarified worlds.” As one of the club’s managers was heard explaining at the party, “Think Soho House, but 10 years older, so 10 years richer and more exclusive.’’
WS New York isn’t the only place in New York where most people will have trouble scoring a seat. Private restaurants, or those where it’s nearly impossible to get a reservation, are on the rise throughout the city.
Just last month, celebrity hot-spot restaurateur Omar Hernandez opened a new members-only restaurant on the Lower East Side, with chef Flynn McGarry consulting on the menu. There are also places like Fleming by Le Bilboquet and the Polo Bar, where billionaire owners Ronald Perelman and Ralph Lauren, respectively, curate the crowds, reportedly going as far as making staffers google every single potential diner. Even harder to infiltrate are the increasing number of enviable dining rooms at high-end condominiums — like 432 Park Avenue, where esteemed chef Shaun Hergatt oversees the kitchen, or 220 Central Park South, which will house the next New York restaurant from uber-chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. There, all 54 seats will be off limits to anyone who’s not a resident (or guest of one) at the building, where a penthouse sold for $238 million.
In fact, exclusive restaurants with high-end chefs are becoming the latest in-demand amenity of luxury condos, according to Stacey Kanbar and Julie Kopel from the Kanbar Kopel Team at real estate firm Compass, who say they’ve noticed an uptick in the trend among clients looking at new upscale buildings.
“They provide privacy and serve as a convenient place to host personal and professional meetings,” Kanbar says. “It’s something we didn’t see often just a year ago, but now, for some high-profile clients, dining with discretion has become a must-have feature in a new home.”
Private dining rooms have become important points of distinction and selling tools for the properties in part because the luxury real estate market in New York is suffering a glut of unsold spaces, says Stephen Zagor, a consultant who teaches restaurant and food entrepreneurship at Columbia Business School and New York University. A recent report found that more than 25 percent of new condos in Manhattan hadn’t been sold as of September 2019, including some 40 percent of Billionaires’ Row.
“Developers are looking for anything that can distinguish a building by adding a layer of exclusivity,” Zagor says. “If a couple were shopping for an ideal $10 million apartment, and they were told about this private restaurant in one, they would high-five each other at the thought of ordering their room service from Jean-Georges. Of course, we know he won’t exactly be sitting there waiting for them to come down for dinner.’’
Exclusive dining is not a new concept in New York. Iconic Rao’s famously has a timeshare system, with customers owning a table’s scheduled slot; anyone who wants to dine at the famed East Harlem Italian restaurant has to be invited. The more than 10-year-old Japanese restaurant Bohemian in Noho has an unlisted number and only accepts reservations for those referred by regular patrons. Membership establishments, including university clubs, have been around for years — with fees as diverse as more than $2,100 annually, plus a $550 application fee, for Soho House to an initiation of $30,000 plus an annual membership of $12,000 for the Core Club.
In London, dining clubs are a major and accepted part of the social fabric. Robin Birley — a London club owner and the son of Mark Birley, who founded Annabel’s, arguably London’s best-known club — must have gotten wind of the New York trend, as he plans to open a private dining club called Oswald’s later this year on the Upper East Side.
The appeal for the restaurateurs, experts say, is that they better set the mood if they have full control over not only the space but who’s dining there. “A lot of these places have the country-club mentality, which is a totally different mindset from most restaurants,” says Steve Hanson, who owned more than 30 restaurants in New York before selling his company BR Guest in 2007 for $150 million. “The premise is ‘Okay, let’s make everybody happy,’ instead of ‘Okay, let’s make money,’ so the benefits are passed to the consumer — they just want the customer to have a great experience.”
Lumaca chef John DeLucie, who opened the exclusive Waverly Inn with then-Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter but is no longer there, says that knowing who’s coming in makes it easier for the restaurant on the service side. He’s visited Annabel’s and understands how it’s easier to execute personalized hospitality in these contexts, he says. “When you have a more limited number of guests and you know who they are, you can really deliver on the promise of making people feel special,” he says. “In places with memberships you are paying for the privilege of being with people who can afford it, and you are buying a more pampered existence.’’
And for some of the restaurateurs, it’s just as much of a branding play as it is a place to get food. At the Polo Bar, designer Ralph Lauren can theoretically make everything he does more “visceral,” Black Tap restaurateur Chris Barish argues.
“It’s a brand extension for a lot of these owners, for Hudson Yards, Wine Spectator, and Polo,” Hanson says, “and neither Ralph Lauren nor Ron Perelman are looking to make a living from their restaurants.”
For diners, entrance to exclusive restaurants can ease some of the more daunting aspects of New York dining — like difficulty making reservations, long waits after arrival, or rooms so loud that conversation isn’t audible. Some people welcome the civility and level of service at exclusive dining rooms, particularly when looking to impress a business or romantic interest.
There are other cultural perks, too. He likes that the space used to be artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s studio, and that diners might be seated with people like Sofia Coppola or Rami Malek. Bohemian also has a private vacation house in the Caribbean that its regulars can visit.
And perhaps most importantly, there’s value to being an insider and having access in New York; a recommendation to Bohemian or an invitation to dinner at another exclusive spot has social currency. Gaining entrance brings the ability to network — and it doesn’t hurt if that community is solvent and influential. Ross, for instance, is not only a landlord but also the owner of the Miami Dolphins and Equinox and a major investor in the Momofuku restaurants, while Perelman has stakes in everything from Revlon to pharmaceutical company SIGA Technologies.
“There is a seductiveness to private dining; people who have resources would like to spend more time together with people who have resources,’’ says Zagar. “At WS, you get to be a part of Steve Ross’s club, which is being curated by one of the most well-known, successful people in the country. If you want to show yourself off, this is a great place to do it, although in January, when no one is crawling across the Vessel, it might be slightly less appealing. Like the characters in Downton Abbey, these people are trying to maintain their lifestyle.’’
DeLucie refers to these spots as enclaves of “aspirational dining,’’ for those who want a sense of belonging to an elite crowd. Waverly didn’t have a public number, and all requests went through Carter’s office. “I’m a member of Soho House and I like going there because I feel there are other creative, like- minded people,” he says.” “And when you go to Bohemian, even if you are not very in the know, you feel like you are part of something cool.”
Plus, tons of restaurants in New York have good food — the social element matters more than ever as an added bonus in a competitive field, says John Meadow, who’s president of LDV Hospitality (Scarpetta, American Cut) and has been approached to do private restaurants. “Like all trends in New York, the chef-driven esoteric food-porn craze is slowing down, and the pendulum shift is back toward the restaurant experience as an opportunity for community-centric connectivity,” Meadow says.
Despite understanding the appeal, many industry experts have reservations about the concept, from the demographics of the crowds that exclusive restaurants draw to whether or not they’re sustainable as businesses. “It’s a weird nondemocratic idea I’m not sure I love,” says DeLucie. “If you like more diversity, maybe it’s not exactly what you are looking for.’’
And an exclusive restaurant inherently means fewer customers. At Fleming, employees reportedly research every person who tries to make a reservation and will reject people “even if it means we’re slow.” (A staffer told the New York Post that diners are only accepted there if they’re “rich.”) If an owner is not a real estate developer or someone with extremely deep pockets, like Ross, Perelman, or Lauren, that financial model doesn’t always work.
Zagor points to “a long history of casualties” in the world of exclusive restaurants, like when the 21 Club tried to make its upstairs a members-only situation. “Many of those out there now are challenged to make money,” he says. “When you have a restricted membership, you don’t necessarily have the number of bodies to cover the cost.”
New York Post restaurant critic and longtime real estate reporter Steve Cuozzo says that “highly specialized” places like the members-only cigar bar the Grand Havana Room or the new Wine Spectator club might work. Generally, though, he’s dubious.
“Private dining rooms in fancy apartment towers can rely on rich residents to keep them afloat,” Cuozzo says, “but free-standing clubs that exist mainly to let members think they’re special usually fall flat on their faces.”
Beth Landman is a contributing reporter to Eater NY.