Los Angeles is a city that has long loved clubby restaurants—think Chasen’s, Spago, the Grill or the current de facto insiders’ clubhouse, the Tower Bar. But it has never had a tradition of members-only establishments, apart from a few snobby Westside country clubs and the creaky high-WASP California Club downtown. Even so, a bright-eyed, gap-toothed Englishman named Nick Jones aims to fill what he sees as a lucrative niche.
In the lead-up to the March opening of Soho House West Hollywood, Jones and his team, assisted by a 20-person membership committee, have been scouring the town for 600 founding members willing to pay $1,500 in annual dues for the chance to rub elbows with “like-minded people,” he says. Whether one Englishman’s idea of Brit-pack cool will take root in the TMZ, where celebrities typically gain free access everywhere and warring talent agencies aggressively stake out their dining turfs, remains to be seen.
“I suppose that suddenly people are going to go, ‘Yes, we’ll pay our money to be a member of this club,’” Jones says over morning coffee at Cecconi’s, the restaurant he opened in February 2009 at the prime Robertson Boulevard location formerly occupied by Morton’s. “We hope so.”
Jones, 46, points to the large membership roster, some 4,500 members, at his first U.S. club, Soho House New York, which debuted in 2003 with a dining room full of Swarovski chandeliers and an equally sparkling membership roster. (The club’s social wattage, detractors say, has dimmed considerably as membership has grown to its present, less-than-exclusive size.)
Of perhaps more significance in L.A., Jones possesses considerable cachet as a result of running, since 2005, a lavish “pop-up” Soho House during Oscar week. “Other Oscar houses were tacky, but Soho House spared no expense,” says British-born decorator Amanda Masters, who spent up to four months a year creating Jones’s party palaces, which included a rented mansion in the Hollywood Hills. “People were dazzled. Nick imported the whole Brit-pack mentality.”
With its free food, ample drinks and stringent press restrictions, Soho House’s Oscar headquarters gained a reputation for celebrity turnout and late-night partying. Jones acknowledges that the pop-up was more about establishing the Soho House brand in L.A. than turning a profit, and he was often right in the thick of the bacchanal. “I remember one night there was a police helicopter above us with a searchlight coming down,” says Jones, chuckling at the memory. “Just by running [the Oscar house] for many years, we got to know a lot of people.”
Jones’s first permanent foothold in the city was Cecconi’s, which opened during the economic crisis but became a buzzy hit with the Beverly Hills platinum-card brigade. Over the past year Jones and his mainly British team have been courting prospective Soho House members at lunch meetings with agency honchos and even occasionally by pitching VIPs at home.