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Club Fed--For Members Only

June 19, 1988|JONATHAN GOLD

St. James's Club, 8358 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 650-7100. Members and hotel guests only; non-members may audition the restaurant by appointment. Breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner daily. Valet parking. Full bar. All major credit cards accepted.

I've been hearing from the sort of people who ought to know that St. James's Club in West Hollywood is the hottest new restaurant in town, even though-- because --its members-only policy keeps out most of the celebrity-sniffing hoi polloi who stuff Spago and Nicky Blair's to capacity. The dining room of the Art Deco private hotel, the first American branch of a 140-year-old British institution, is reputedly a discreet playground for the leisure class--"That was no lady," one CBE says to another, clipping his consonants, "That was my . . . er . . . astrologer "-- and the kind of place you can bring, say, Sting, for a quiet business lunch.

The building itself is an impeccable $40-million restoration of the old Sunset Towers, a glamorous Deco apartment building where Jean Harlow lived, John Wayne reportedly kept a cow on the balcony of his penthouse, and bandleader Tommy Dorsey was dangled by his ankles 10 stories above Sunset Boulevard. Those deemed clubbable now, sources said, are feted night after night with old-fashioned English servility, exquisitely non-English cuisine and unimpeded views of Miss Liza Minnelli. Concrete palm trees glow softly outside by the pool. The drinks are very large. It's all off-limits.

Is the restaurant hot? What would it be like to dine at a private British club amidst the billboards and all-night coffee shops of the Sunset Strip? Is St. James's Club without peers? I dream of foie gras, Champagne, caviar, old single-malt Scotch, fresh kippers.

I call the club and learn temporary residential membership is available to anybody willing to pay $180 a night for a tiny though overdecorated hotel room. A friend agrees to join me for five meals and 24 hours of putative luxury. We're in.

7:20 p.m. We roll up the driveway in her dented Toyota, which has been washed for the occasion, and a clean-cut attendant takes the car without flinching. He waves jauntily as he drives off to the garage. We walk through the revolving door into the ornate marble lobby.

7:21 p.m. The desk clerk tells us her first name, registers us without comment and hands me glossy brochures describing the club. She seems eager to give us a tour of the premises and insists on leading us to our room. We take the elevator, which is kind of like the ones you see in the Chrysler Building, only less so. When we reach our destination, she shows us where the closets are and points out the room's features: a bed shaped like a giant clam; a spectacular view of the city lights if you stick your head out of the window and crane a little. The room is quite small, and three suddenly seems like a crowd . . . what floor space there might be is almost entirely taken up with Art Deco chatchkes. The clerk thrusts a handful of remote-control devices at me and exits, stage right.

7:32 p.m. Somebody bearing a tray knocks on the door. He hands us each a flute of the Champagne-peach juice concoction called Bellini. The cocktails are delicious.

7:35 p.m. I absent-mindedly push a button on one of the remote control devices. What I assumed was a dresser heaves, and an honor bar rises as majestically as the organ at Radio City Music Hall.

8 p.m. Our dinner guest, a local muckraker, telephones. I confirm the time and remind him that he'll need a jacket in the dining room.

9 p.m. We walk downstairs, veer left through a hall lined with Hollywood portraits by glamour photographer George Hurrell. I see that the muckraker, jacketless, has been detained by the doorman. I take him by the arm and sweep him into the dimly lighted Members' Dining Room. The hotel seems sparsely occupied, but the restaurant is full. We are led to a small table on the periphery of the raised bar area, as far from Lionel Richie's exalted window seat as it's possible to get. We spot men in dinner jackets, women in Ungaro, and one Joan Collins type in a metallic green dress that makes her look just a little like the Michelin man.

9:15 p.m. There are giant dry martinis and little swans sculpted from butter. I lop off a head, sever a wing and smear a light, hot roll. A busboy refills each water glass from a cold bottle of Evian, and we are brought baby lettuces topped with tiny boiled potatoes topped with caviar. (The chef here uses caviar and baby lettuce the way Denny's uses parsley.) The butter is stale, but not quite as stale as the lounge pianist's repertoire.

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