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MEMBERS ONLY : ‘City’ Clubs Offer Refined Atmosphere in Which the Rich Dine, Drink and Deal

No one says, “Hi, I’m Wendy and I’ll be your server today.” No one asks you how you like your steak done. No one hovers, waiting for you to leave so they can seat another party at your table. No one angles for a tip. No one keeps you waiting in the bar.

They just do it. Automatically, immediately. They know your name, and that you’ll need the table in the corner for at least two hours, and that you’d like a copy of the Wall Street Journal next to your plate. You want privacy, you’ve got privacy. You want deep carpets, elegant furnishings, deferential service, valet parking, fresh flowers, serene views, perfect cocktails, top-notch food . . . it’s all yours.

If you can pony up several thousand dollars initially and as much as $235 a month, plus the cost of food and drink and an extra or two, and if you can get a few of the most wealthy and influential people in Orange County to back you, and another handful to approve you, you can have it.

All that poshness does have a price tag. After all, no one said getting into the Pacific Club and the Center Club--two of Orange County’s swankiest private clubs--was going to be easy.

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The two clubs are homes away from home for the county’s upper crust, exclusive magnets for a few hundred of the area’s most monied and influential. Membership in both is by invitation only, and confers a kind of social cachet that was not available in the county until only six years ago.

Before the Pacific Club opened in 1983, private clubs in the county were mostly of the country club variety--clubhouses with golf courses, tennis courts or yacht anchorages attached.

The far older and better-known Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach, while not specifically a country club, is not a “city” club either. With its private beach, yacht slips, athletic facilities and adjacent residences, the club has been described by members and staff as being dedicated for use by entire families and all ages, more for social than business purposes.

But with the arrival of the Pacific Club (near John Wayne Airport in Newport Beach), and the Center Club (which opened four years ago next to the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa), the county had its first “city” clubs, clubs dedicated to nothing much more exotic than eating, drinking, talking and meeting.

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Those activities, however, take place in some of the most elegant and well-tended environments in the county. The service is impeccable, personal, efficient and solicitous, the atmosphere is quiet, sophisticated, formal and elegant, and members tend to move in the same stratospheric social and professional orbits.

What both clubs are not, however, is stuffy. They are not hidebound by convention and tradition, as are some of the older and more famous “city” clubs--the Jonathan Club in Los Angeles, the Bohemian Club in San Francisco, the University Club in New York and the ancient White’s in London. There are no white-haired men in regimental ties puffing cigars in wing-backed chairs.

Rather, the air in the two clubs tends to crackle with high-intensity mealtime conversation, and the private meeting rooms often hum with the sounds of deal-making. When the wealthy and powerful break bread in Orange County--for whatever reason--it is often at these two clubs.

The reason, said Center Club manager Joe Gatto, lies in a basic human need to be individually recognized and treated with deference.

“It’s more of a cerebral thing,” he said. “It becomes kind of an annex to their home. The staff and the members become another part of their families. They know the waiters and waitresses and the waiters and waitresses get to know their preferences and their idiosyncrasies. It’s just a special relationship, like an extended family.”

Brooke Bentley, the Pacific Club’s general manager, said his club’s members--many from the upper echelons of the county’s business community--appreciate having their way smoothed in what may otherwise be a hectic day.

“Our members know that this is a place they can come and not have to wait for a table, and the employees will know them and what they like and dislike,” Bentley said. “They know they’ll get the finest quality available. It’s an extension of their homes, where they can feel very comfortable, not pushed around or hassled or told to wait in the bar until a table’s ready.

“Our members are all people who are extremely busy, so busy that it’s natural for them to gravitate to a club like this, because we can shorten their day, get them in and out quickly if they want, improve their day.”

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The Pacific Club, perhaps more than the Center Club, has become known as a business person’s haunt, somewhat more traditional in both appearance and attitude.

Situated above a placid green pond (actually a drainage basin that predated the building of the club), the Pacific Club is graceful and white on the outside and darkly woody inside. The front room and bar area, called the living room, is furnished with Queen Anne cases, hardwood tables and soft chairs and couches, with copies of daily papers neatly stacked around the room. The main dining room, with its large wine rack, overlooks the willow-ringed pond (coats and ties are required at lunch and dinner, and newspapers may be displayed by diners--discreetly--only at breakfast) and a second dining room, the grill room, is more informal, darker and intimate (coats and ties not required, and papers may be displayed at any meal--again discreetly).

While the overt transaction of business is discouraged in the dining rooms, there are several private meeting rooms where members can pound out the most intricate deal. And, to help members wind down from all that wrangling, across the carport is a separate building containing an exercise and weight room, a half-court basketball court, and locker, whirlpool, sauna and massage facilities.

The club was proposed in the early 1980s by Bentley, then the general manager of Big Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach, and two associates, who Bentley said saw the need for a meeting and dining facility. They invited discussion from about 30 prominent Orange County residents who subsequently became founding members of the club, among them real estate developers George Argyros and William Lyon, lawyer and former personal attorney to President Richard Nixon Herbert Kalmbach, philanthropist Arnold Beckman and business magnate J.R. Fluor.

The club is limited to 600 members, each of whom own a share of the club. Each share costs $12,500 and monthly dues are $235.

Memberships become available only when a member dies or wants to sell a membership for some reason, such as a job transfer. Prospective members must be sponsored by four current members. The application is reviewed by a membership committee. All memberships must be held by individuals; there are no corporate memberships.

“Our goal,” Bentley said, “was to establish a club with 100-year-old traditions in five years.”

While membership requirements are similar at the Center Club--located on what is known as the garden level of the Center Tower, immediately next to the Performing Arts Center--the atmosphere is different.

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Where the Pacific Club is more masculine--duck decoys in hardwood cases, ship prints on the walls, dark wood paneling--the Center Club is lighter, with a decidedly elegant touch. Most of the club is paneled in light, smooth, inlaid pine, and the furniture in the main dining room is covered in light pastels. Small anterooms off the main reception area are filled with comfortable, bright, contemporary furniture, and light streams in across a water garden that encircles the facade of the club. There is a small bar at the opposite end of the club from the main dining room, as well as a less formal dining room. Several meeting rooms are available for business or private dining, including one room known as “the library,” which contains a long table and walls inlaid with shelves of books.

And there is a wine cellar containing small lockers in which members may keep their own wines for use during meals. Coats and ties are required throughout the club in the evening and in the main dining room during the day.

There are about 1,100 members, said membership director Susan Stebbins, and there is no arbitrary lid on how many the club will allow. Prospective members must be sponsored by a current member and a co-sponsor, and must submit three references in order to be reviewed by the membership committee. The initiation fee is $10,000 and monthly dues are $120.

Like the Pacific Club, the Center Club was formed by a group of business and community leaders in the county. Unlike the Pacific Club, however, these people were brought together by a corporation, the Club Corporation of America, which specializes in establishing private clubs across the country. The members do not own individual shares in the club.

Center Club members include hamburger magnate Carl Karcher, William Lyon, Dr. Robert Schuller and astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

“You name the profession and they’re here,” Stebbins said.

In addition to having several members in common with the Pacific Club, the Center Club also insists on personalized service. There is a standing rule among waiters and waitresses that requires them to call members by their names at least three times during a visit.

Both Bentley and Stebbins said that those who hold membership in both clubs probably do so because of geographic considerations as much as social.

“I assume that a lot of our traffic comes from this area,” said Bentley of the Pacific Club. “We selected this location because we thought it was more central and convenient for a lot of people.”

For patrons of the arts--and there are many in the business community--the Center Club serves as a meeting place, Stebbins said.

“Our whole community in this area has a common direction,” she said, “and that is in the area of the arts.”

Still, she said, the art of the deal flourishes over lunch.

Deal-making “definitely occurs here,” she said. “Sometimes I can actually feel the intensity and the tension in the dining room.”

And, said Jim McTeigue, the Center Club’s former manager and now the regional manager for the Club Corporation of America: “There are a lot of subtle things that are done here in terms of table placement and the size of the tables--they’re larger than standard--and the chairs are higher-backed to get more of a sense of privacy. And the waiters are trained to be unobtrusive. People who are going to make those kinds of deals are more comfortable in that kind of setting.”

Developer George Argyros, a founding member of both clubs, said he didn’t think the two clubs were “really comparable. The Pacific Club is really more traditional, what you would call a ‘city’ club. It’s as quality a club as you’ll find anywhere in the country with a good membership roster and an excellent chef and other amenities that are very beneficial, like the gym.

“The Center Club is really a restaurant that charges a fee for membership. It serves a very good purpose in that it serves the business community in that area and it’s a real asset to a businessman who belongs. It’s certainly a wonderful spot to go before the theater or after.”

But when business dealing is on Argyros’ agenda, he said, he heads for the Pacific Club.

If there is a common denominator among members of both clubs, it is money. In fact, say officials of both clubs, it is the only factor that produces any sort of discrimination.

“We have always been non-discriminatory,” said Center Club manager Gatto. “I guess the only people who are restricted from joining the club are people who can’t afford it.”

Both clubs have official anti-discrimination policies, although minority membership is low. McTeigue said about 15% of the Center Club’s members are of ethnic minorities, mostly Hispanic, and Stebbins said that women account for about 15% to 20% of the total membership.

Bentley said that at the Pacific Club “we definitely have more men than women, but I’ve never done the numbers.” As to ethnic minorities, he said: “We have all kinds of people, but that’s not ever an issue. Good people are good people. I don’t even know what their backgrounds are. There’s no reason to check because it’s not that important.”

What will get a prospective member bounced, Bentley and McTeigue said, is dishonesty. If a shady business deal surfaces in a background check by membership committees, or if a prospective member has enemies among current members, a rejection letter probably will follow. Neither Bentley nor staff members of the Center Club could recall precisely how many potential members have gotten the hook, but they said that such rejections are “very rare.”

“It’s compatibility,” McTeigue said. “That’s the big issue. There are occasionally issues where someone has done something that is going to make them persona non grata, but fortunately that doesn’t come up very often.”

Said Bentley: “If we find that a person’s dishonest, he doesn’t qualify. We want to associate with people who are honest and fun to be with.”

And, coincidentally, those who have more than a little financial clout. Still, there is little squabbling about money in the rarefied air of both clubs. There doesn’t have to be.

“For a lot of these people,” McTeigue said, “joining a club like this is not a major buying decision.”


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