The year was 2007: Neither the U.S. economy nor Lindsay Lohan’s career had yet plummeted into deep recession. The nightclub scene in New York was thriving with a bevy of hot spots, from Bungalow 8 to The Beatrice Inn and — riding the Cosmopolitan wave of “Sex and the City” — Club Row along 27th Street that included havens B.E.D., Home and Guest House.
While some of the businesses above have met their demise, three others — The Box, Goldbar, and 1Oak — survived the club culture’s downturn, with each marking their 10th anniversary this month with Champagne-soaked celebrations toasting their lasting success.
Ronnie Madra, co-owner of 1Oak, says the club “has remained relevant with a pop-up presence everywhere from Coachella to Cannes and a calculated focus on proprietary partying. We always knew we were building a brand.”
“We were the toughest door [to get into] consistently for five years,” continues Madra when asked of the club’s secret to success. “Slowly, slowly we opened it up a little bit. When you let only the cool people in to buy a drink at the bar or buy a table you’re not really serving the nightlife industry, you’re serving an ego.”
A strategic approach to guest selection is consistent across the board, but each venue realized it is fiscally impossible to maintain such a strict ivory tower approach. On Feb. 14, The Box, known for its raunchy burlesque entertainment, hosted a party for itself with longtime fans of the brand including Lohan — who celebrated her salacious 21st birthday at the club— and actress Susan Sarandon. The guests were treated to a surprise performance by incendiary group Pussy Riot just after a well-endowed man, partially clad in a bear costume, played with himself on stage.
But the louche theatrics of The Box are not for everyone. According to a friend, Britney Spears fled the club’s sumptuous fin de siècle interior after a relatively tame act back in 2011, announcing to pals, “Holy s–t, I don’t know if I can do this, y’all.”
“We’re superlucky that we represent a place for maybe fringe-type denizens of the night,” notes The Box co-owner Simon Hammerstein. “It’s a release valve for New Yorkers to go crazy in a safe space.
“The first year it was very different in that it was the top 500 people in New York and only them because they reserved every table in advance every night,” he continues. “It’s fun to watch people come for the first time and fall in love — it’s so silly and ridiculous.”
Consistently changing and shockingly outrageous entertainment is one ingredient to The Box’s success, but a calculated system of data collection has been in play since the venue’s inception with bustier-clad hostesses secretly gathering intel on guests.
“My first night there they showed me the ropes and basically there was a whole questionnaire that consisted of: Who are these people? What industry are they in? Were they attractive? What was the guy-to-girl ratio, were they polite to the waitress and overall, would we like to invite them back or are we banning them forever?” reveals a former employee. “As I say now, that database was pure f–king gold.”
Wearing fishnets, curled hair and red lipstick (think: a Thirties Berlin cabaret), these coquettish covert agents would “float around with a glass or two of Champagne, chat with the guests, and figure out if they were cool or not. Generally speaking it wasn’t like, ‘We’re not going to have them back because they were ugly as long as they had money,’ but there was a certain priority to somebody who had all of the boxes checked.”
While money and beauty have as much clout as ever in the moderately superficial world of nightclubs, societal shifts have forced business owners to keep up with the times. “The irony is that when [Goldbar] opened, there was — and still is — a plaque outside that says ‘no photography,’” says Shaun Rose, co-owner of the gilded Broome Street venue that was once a regular hangout for John Mayer. “A place that had no photography allowed probably has become one of the most photographed rooms in NYC [on social media].”
Designed by Robert McKinley — whose résumé includes Sant Ambroeus, The National and Ruschmeyer’s in Montauk — the intimate space features a wall of 3-D gold skulls and impressively maintained banquettes.
“People who are coming for the first time should have the same experience as someone did when they walked in 10 years ago,” continues Rose, who hopes to expand the brand to places like Chicago or Las Vegas, while maintaining attention to craft cocktails rather than sparkler-topped bottle service.
The world — and the nightlife industry — has inevitably changed from a time when owners had the luxury of extreme exclusivity. “It was a lot cheaper to run this business back then,” adds Rose. “You could afford to be at 50 percent occupancy and still have a great vibe in the room.”
But now that it’s somewhat easier to access these once exclusive enclaves the million-dollar question looms: Will we want to?