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

November 30, 1989

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.

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.

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."

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.

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