To hear it from gossip mavens, party promoters and nightlife scenesters, Hyde in West Hollywood may be the most exclusive nightclub in America — a tiny, celebrity-packed jewel box on the Sunset Strip where the parking attendant won't even drive your car away until it's absolutely clear you're getting in. Designed to accommodate no more than 80 to 100 guests at a time, Hyde has become a beacon to the so-called Paris-ites — the likes of Paris and Nicky Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Ashlee Simpson — who have made it their unofficial clubhouse on the strength of its appealing inside-outside dichotomy: Inside Hyde, there's a strict "no cameras, no press" rule. Outside, famous patrons can count on getting photographed.

"The capacity is very tight, so they only let in people that they know," said Nico Golfar, one of Hollywood's top party planners and club promoters. He calls the place "kind of like your high-end 'Cheers.' "

But things get tricky when you consider that Hyde's reputation is not just for exclusivity but, increasingly, for the kind of tawdry, outrageous behavior that a swath of Young Hot Hollywood is becoming known for. In part, it's the small, exclusive nature of the place that is also responsible for all the drama. "In Hyde, you can't hide," co-owner Brent Bolthouse said. "It's a room, and all the booths face each other. It's intimate by nature."

Hyde's the place where former Miss USA-turned-reality TV star Shanna Moakler allegedly socked Paris in the jaw (and Hilton's companion Stavros Niarchos allegedly poured a drink on Moakler's head and pushed her down the stairs there). And any diligent celebrity-gossip-blog reader knows that exes Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson had an awkward run-in at Hyde last summer. It was also where Lohan was living la vida loca before she missed a set call for the movie "Georgia Rule" (prompting a letter from Morgan Creek Productions' Chief Executive James G. Robinson admonishing her hard partying); where bad boy heir Brandon Davis' "fire crotch" outburst occurred (and was immortalized on Defamer.com) and where pop-punk songbird Avril Lavigne spat loogies at photographers.

Two days before Halloween, the celebrity news website TMZ.com reported that Nicole Richie collapsed at Hyde before checking herself into a hospital for her chronic inability to gain weight — her publicist has strenuously denied the "collapse" part, but the story still resulted in the overexposed club finding itself making worldwide headlines for the umpteenth time.

We know most of these goings-on because TMZ.com has posted videographer Josh Levine in front of Hyde night after night for more than half a year and streams the inbound and outgoing exploits of the club's clientele online nearly every day. Ergo, Hyde is to clubs what Robertson Boulevard's Kitson is to boutiques. It's an entrenched part of the celebrity industrial complex, a place for famous people to have their paparazzo photo op without appearing too eager.

"The reason you see so many pictures and video from outside Hyde is that it has become predictable pickings for photographers — and the stars know they can go there if they want to get photographed," said Ken Baker, West Coast editor of Us Weekly. "So it's like a nightly unofficial press line. I've known celebrities who will show up, get their photo taken, walk inside for five minutes and breeze back out."

TMZ.com Managing Editor Harvey Levin added: "Hyde is the nighttime equivalent of the Ivy restaurant. Everybody who goes knows they're in a fishbowl. Any star who says they're surprised when they discover cameras there is lying."

Adding to the powder-keg atmosphere, Hyde is fundamentally at odds with a major trapping of Angeleno player status: the entourage.

"You come on Saturday night, we're full. We're not lying to you," Bolthouse said. "I can't accommodate the six people who randomly showed up here because there's always people inside trying to get three more people in. If I have five groups trying to get three more people in, that's 15 more people — 15% of our room. If we let every person who has an entourage come here, we wouldn't have a place."

Nightlife impresario Bolthouse, who co-owns Hyde with Sam Nazarian under the SBE Entertainment Group banner, has been promoting parties and operating celeb-packed clubs in Los Angeles for nearly two decades. He sold his partner on the idea of redesigning the bar formerly known as North, which relaunched as Hyde in April, with a deceptively simple idea.

"I said, 'Sam, I know a concept that would work great here. I would like to create a bar for my peers,' " Bolthouse said. "I've been in the business for 18 years and have a lot of friends who don't necessarily go to the clubs that we promote anymore. People have grown up and don't have time. I said, 'I see a hole in the market where we can put a small, intimate room where we can play best-time-ever music that isn't hip-hop.' "

Which means superstar DJs such as Samantha Ronson and Steve Aoki spend long evenings spinning deep album cuts they are discouraged from playing at more bottom line-oriented commercial venues.

Indeed, a significant percentage of Hyde's guests are club promoters and nightlife event planners, which explains its renown as the place where Hollywood's party throwers go to party. But as important as the people Hyde's door-staff lets in are those they keep out. TMZ.com keeps a list of low-level celebrities who have been negged at the velvet rope, among them: Davis, former wrestler Joanie "Chyna" Laurer and Tara Reid, who in an infamous video segment is shown being denied entry to Hyde while Paris Hilton blithely cruises into the club. Bolthouse points out that the club accepts reservations from people with no Q rating to speak of but calls vetting guests a "daunting task." A second Hyde franchise is scheduled to open in another SBE property, Miami's Ritz Plaza Hotel, in 2008.

Sure, there are other potential draws to Hyde — the hand-squeezed organic juices used for drink mixers, professional waitresses who aren't simply underemployed actresses, the menu of Asian-fusion munchies from chef Katsuya Uechi, the crocodile-covered ottomans and reinforced booths strong enough to withstand even the most vigorous banquette-top dancing. But to celebrities, the calculus of the place is simple.

"You may hear stories about what goes on inside, and yes, people like Paris and Lindsay go there. It's safe to them," Golfar said. "There are thousands of paparazzi outside. But inside, nobody's paying attention to you because it's all your friends and people you know."

TMZ.com's Levin views Hyde's ability to provide a tableau for the extremes of celebrity behavior as a godsend for celebrity-followers like him. "The mix of people there and what happens when they're all together. That's spontaneous — and endlessly entertaining," he said.

chris.lee@latimes.com