The panoramic views of the city were stunning, but nobody really noticed. Not when CAA titan Bryan Lourd was hosting a long, formal dining table that included manager Jason Weinberg, Matt Dillon, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. Across the room, indie-film power couple Cassian Elwes and Holly Wiersma breezily greeted Endeavor agents, while Working Title partner Eric Fellner huddled with pals. Penelope Cruz was expected. Maybe even Tom Cruise too.
"Are you a member?" one agent asked another. He wasn't talking about the Academy.
The Soho House -- a decidedly English private club with an outpost in Manhattan -- opened Tuesday night in a penthouse on Sunset Boulevard for its fourth annual week of parties leading up to the Oscars.
Since then, an A-list crowd including Madonna, Javier Bardem and Casey Affleck has ambled in to sip Perrier-Jouet or nibble on a Maine lobster claw. Miramax held its pre-Oscar party here Saturday night. Tonight, word is that Harvey Weinstein and company will overtake the chic English manor-inspired loft -- replete with silk settees, Chesterfield sofas and $50,000 worth of Oriental carpets -- to host a bash that's expected to rival past Vanity Fair parties.
But this year, the British aren't just coming and going. In the next six months or so, the management will assemble a review board, peruse applications and accept 500 to 1,000 members to a Soho House in West Hollywood.
"How are we approaching L.A.?" asks Soho House founder Nick Jones, who's charmingly self-deprecating. "Very nervously. We know that private clubs are not a thing of the culture here."
Don't tell Cedd Moses that. The downtown night life impresario -- best known for lounges Golden Gopher and Seven Grand -- will open a private club called the Doheny in the next month. He's not leery in the least. "I'm seeing a trend toward more premium spirits in my bars," says Moses, who will charge $4,950 for the first year of an annual membership and $2,200 each consecutive year. "People want a more high-end, exclusive experience."
Moses and Jones may be onto something. It's not as if Hollywood night life has ever been some great democracy anyway. One could argue that the most popular venues in town already operate like sleek, sweaty country clubs for the Red Bull martini set.
Despotic promoters oversee lists for every night of the week at hot spots such as Hyde and Teddy's. In the last five years or so, the Los Angeles scene has become as cliquey as a Southern sorority. If these private clubs do flourish, a Saturday night on the town will be a veritable tale of two cities: the members and, well, everybody else.
"Night life is definitely going in that direction," says Vinny Laresca, who co-owns Villa on Melrose Avenue. The bar operates on a "referral only" policy, which means that you don't get in unless someone vouches for you. "People want great service and to know everybody else in the place."
Clearly, the Soho House will become a biosphere for the entertainment industry -- the first club opened in London in 1995 to cater to movie people. Already, bicoastal players such as Ben Silverman, Harvey Weinstein and Uma Thurman belong. In typical fashion, Hollywood execs refuse to talk on the record about its viability, but no one expects Soho House to flounder.
"The same people who ask you if you got invited to this premiere or that party will die to be members," one producer says. "It will definitely make things interesting."
Still, how to persuade a studio exec with a $6-million mansion to pay $2,500 to join this club? Unlike Manhattanites, people in L.A. already have great rooms for entertaining and impressing their peers. To entice anyone questioning Soho House amenities, the club this week brought in 6,000 pounds of cured meat and cheeses, 220 lobsters and enough Perrier-Jouet to flood the Sony lot.
"We know that this week is important," says Jones, who plans to spend the summer living in Los Angeles with his family. He will also manage the transformation of Morton's into Cecconi's, which will be modeled after the eponymous Italian restaurant in London. "So far, everyone is very nice and very encouraging."
Sure, until it's time to collect the dues. Jones may soon learn about Hollywood's six degrees of notoriety rule. Example: You may not be George Clooney, but you manage him and hence, that makes you a VIP by proxy. Typically, those who suffer from ego edema share one common symptom: an acute allergy to paying for anything. Even for rich potentates here -- from celebrities to screenwriters -- it's a matter of principle rather than principal.
"We get a lot of requests from people in L.A. who want to have a dinner for 20 and not pay," says restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, who owns Social Hollywood. "It's this freebie mentality."
He also knows firsthand what happens if you open a private club and membership wanes. In 2006, Chodorow debuted Social on the site of the former Hollywood Athletic Club as a restaurant and upstairs VIP private haven.
Chodorow didn't charge for the 2,000 special membership cards that were mailed out, but the concept still fizzled at the 28,000-foot space on Sunset Boulevard. Now, the restaurant has been revamped as Citrus and the second floor is reserved for special events.
The private club concept didn't soar at Spider Club either. In 2003, West Coast scenester Donovan Leitch was appointed cultural emissary and created a list of 900 locals who received a black leather membership card needed for entry. The idea was to create a salon, with pioneers of fashion, art, music and film colliding at the bar. Nowadays, the Spider Club is open to engineers, accountants and dental hygienists too.
"Maybe if I had charged money for the cards, people would have felt like they had to come," muses Chodorow, who belongs to the Soho House.
One unique and decided draw to Soho House is its paparazzi-proof entry. TMZ and tabloid photogs lurk outside the door of clubs like hungry mongrels at the gates of Versailles. Not at Soho House. An underground parking structure beneath the club means no paparazzi shots of Champagne-soaked starlets tottering out at midnight.
Some believe that it's celebs like Lindsay and Paris who make and then break a bar or club's reputation. "My places have longevity because we don't comp checks for those types," Moses says. "The Doheny will have a no-celebutante policy."
Over at Soho House, Jones hasn't blackballed anyone yet. "I'm not going to say that I don't want this person or that person," he says, sounding like someone who already understands the politics of Hollywood.