More than 300 men and women draped in black-and-white lace and sequins and tailored suits, their faces hidden behind feathered masks, mingled about the Vertigo event space in Glendale on a recent evening for a black-and-white masked ball. Bartenders poured glasses of Cognac and Champagne while revelers vied for the best selfies, posing next to light fixtures wreathed in pearls and upon plush chaise longues.
"Bacon-wrapped date?" a bow-tied server asked a group of masked women. "Those aren't black and white," brooded one of the nearby partygoers.
The collective glow of smartphones illuminated most of the guests' faces. They were paying close attention to every detail, commenting to one another on the food, meticulously documenting each bite.
The elaborate masquerade ball is an exclusive event for the Los Angeles Yelp Elite Squad, a group of reviewers deemed worthy by a secret Yelp Elite Council. Yelp, of course, is the popular user-generated review website on which men and women nationwide rate restaurants, hotels and even nail salons.
Yelp started in 2004 and has grown to include more than 50 million businesses worldwide, providing anyone who has access to the Internet the chance to be a critic. The San Francisco-based company reported having more than 135 million unique visitors in 2014 and more than 71 million reviews on the site.
Yelp has been organizing parties for its members since 2005; the Elite Squad launched in 2006. The secret Elite Council is kind of like the Freemasons of the online review world: You know of its existence but little else. The company won't even release the number of Elite members, much less how many are on the council.
But the perks of being an Elite member don't quite live up to the level of secrecy surrounding the profile. You get a nifty badge next to your Yelp user name that says "Elite" and an invitation to parties, which often include free food, drinks and sometimes swag bags.
These Yelp-organized events can include trips to wine country and parties on yachts, in clubs and at restaurants.
To become a member, you either nominate yourself online or the Elite Council chooses you. According to Katie Burbank, a Los Angeles Yelp Community manager who organizes Yelp events for regular and Elite members, the frequency and quality of a user's reviews are considered when deciding on Elite status.
Reviews of restaurants, hotels, barbershops and all kinds of businesses are included.
"When I became Elite, the whole world opened up," said Ron Romero, a 36-year-old clothing company director from Burbank. Romero, who attended the masquerade with his wife, became an Elite member last year after his wife, also an Elite member, nominated him. Romero has more than 200 reviews on the site.
"I've had experiences I may not have had as a regular Yelper, with food and beer tastings, going to new restaurant or bar openings, clubbing, museum viewing," said Romero. "Just great life experiences, and all for free."
Jin Yoo-Kim, a 33-year-old filmmaker, is a gold badge Elite member. She has posted more than 1,050 reviews and has been an Elite member since 2007.
"I remember all the Yelp Elite events," said Yoo-Kim. "Maybe it's all the free stuff, I don't know. The latest one was at a restaurant inside a Whole Foods in Pasadena, and it was really good."
Yoo-Kim has her eyes on a black badge.
In the Yelp Elite world, there are different badge levels, including gold and black. Gold means you've been an Elite member for five or more years; if you're sporting a coveted black badge, you've been an Elite member for 10 or more years.
Yoo-Kim, who says her friends often tell her that when they Yelp a restaurant, her review shows up first, believes the badge comes with a certain amount of power on the site.
But according to Burbank, the Yelp Elite status doesn't weigh your reviews any higher than a regular Yelper's reviews on the site. Rather, the biggest difference between Elites and regular Yelpers is the parties — and the swag. (Depending on what level badge you have, certain parties are for gold and black badge members only; no newbies allowed.)
Lisa Safley, a 32-year-old English teacher from Long Beach, has a black badge and has been an Elite member since 2005.
"One of the last gold badge events I went to was only 12 people and it was somewhere in Hollywood with dinner and wine pairings," said Safley. "It was probably like a $100 dinner, so that's nice."
Yoo-Kim says she went to a gold badge party at the Capital Grille at the Beverly Center, where there was an ice sculpture and a cooking demonstration, and each guest left with steak rub and a $25 coupon.
"There are events where non-Elites go, and it just gets so crowded," said Yoo-Kim, who remembers an event in a giant warehouse in downtown with hundreds of people. "That's why I like the Elite events, because it's kind of like being on a guest list."
A private citywide guest list, with badges, ice sculptures — and steak rub.