In the early hours of a recent Sunday morning, the plebeian masses outside Marquee were growing restless. Women teetering in heels pleaded with the gatekeepers while their menfolk placed frantic cell-phone calls. Most aspirants were turned away from the recently opened boîte; the place was already throbbing and packed to the rafters, threatening to explode and spray sweaty prepsters all over West Chelsea. The only hope for many outside was to wave a credit card and utter the only password that comes close to guaranteeing passage into Manhattan’s inner nightlife sanctum these days: ” Bottle service !”
The time-honored New York City tradition of velvet-rope profiling based on looks, coolness and connections has given way to a cruder calculus: In the ultimate triumph of money over beauty, the willingness to drop hundreds on a bottle of Absolut has become the major criterion for admittance to the city’s desirable nightspots, especially for those who would otherwise be rejected for the old reasons. Like Vegas high rollers, cretinous bores with a little space left on their MasterCards rule the night-until that bottle of Grey Goose goes empty.
On a recent evening at the West 28th Street mega-club Crobar, Anthony, John and Joey, three boys from Philly with tight T-shirts and necks like tree trunks, were presiding over their bottle like kings.
“This is our fifth one tonight!” said Anthony, observing the bevy of women swirling around them as a waitress arrived to top off their drinks. “We’re having a great time!”
Crobar has dedicated vast sections of floor space to roped-off tables where ordering by the bottle is the only option. For around $300 and up, a group gets a tray with a bottle of Grey Goose Vodka (retail price: $27.85), a bucket of ice and carafes of mixers. There’s just enough room for them to dance on the chairs and live like Page Six subjects for a few sweet hours. How much they must spend to reserve this bit of heaven depends on many factors: the number of people in the group, the ratio of men to women (with the deadly all-guy combo likely to pay more) and the prominence of the table, although the average is around $100 worth of bottle consumption per person. The deal might be struck in advance on the phone or, more likely, with the bouncer in line outside the club. After a brief negotiation, the customer hands over a credit card and is escorted inside.
“The money in clubs is outrageous,” said Tamara Lynn, a comely Crobar cocktail waitress. “It’s the greatest hustle ever. It’s all about a little black dress, some high heels and bringing bottles to the table.”
The table-comment card that Crobar employees fill out after each table settles its tab says everything about the mercenary nature of the bottle-service enterprise. In addition to writing in the customer’s name, the number of people, the brand of liquor ordered and the check amount, waitstaff evaluate the group on “Easy to Sell?” (“YES/NO”), “Group Appearance” (“Great/Good/Bad”) and “Rating” (1-10). The information is stored in a database, so the club can keep track of whom to coddle and invite back and whom to give the cold shoulder.
“That’s really used as a tool for aiding customer service,” said Dirk van Stockum, a co-owner of Crobar who was also a partner in the Manhattan nightclubs Life, Float and Spa. “Like what specific requests did that person have, was there a particular music they liked, what were they drinking? So if they do become repeat clientele, we’ll know their habits. … It’s similar to how a casino does things. It gives us an opportunity to touch the customer.”
He said that the “Guest Appearance” question was “just to determine basically how many people are with them and what the makeup is-for example, if it was five girls and six guys.” As for “Easy to Sell,” he thought “that probably was, basically, were they ordering more than the minimum?”
While the practice of providing table reservations and pricey bottles of liquor to high rollers and the bridge-and-tunnel crowd has been an increasing source of revenue for clubs and lounges for years, the branding and monitoring of the bottle buyers as cash cows, rating them on looks and gullibility, is a new nadir, some say. The bottle-buying has reached a saturation point, impacting nightlife more profoundly than the smoking ban.
Casting an eye over the crowd at a typical hot spot-especially on a weekend, when clubs make most of their money-often reveals a homogenized sea of white middle-managers with gold cards and bad taste in music. And some D.J.’s and musicians lament about only being able to play the cheesiest plain-vanilla music to avoid offending the Top 40 clientele.
“It’s symptomatic of the demise of the idea of a scene, because with bottle service anyone can get in, and that defeats the whole purpose,” said Noah Kerner, who used to D.J. for Jennifer Lopez and is now a partner in a marketing company. “There’s certainly no inherent connection between cool and rich. There might even be an inverse relationship. So the less space there’s going to be for fun people who have good energy, people who make a room.”
The art of selecting the magic combination of young artists and musicians, models and celebrities, black and white, perfected at places like Studio 54 and the Mudd Club, is long gone. Now the goons at the door-who used to pride themselves on their intuition-are more likely to sell to the highest bidder in line.
When Mark Mathewson opened Table 50, a lounge on Bleecker Street, a few weeks ago, he was confronted with a struggling economy and new venues opening (and folding) every week.
“The half-life of most popular lounges in Manhattan is, you’re lucky if you get six months to a year. And given all kinds of variables, you kind of have to make your money as fast as possible,” Mr. Mathewson said. “The sad backlash is, bottle service has been picked up by everyone and their brother.”
“I’ve heard numbers,” said Mr. Mathewson. “If you do the math …. Say 400 people come in: That’s a lot of people. If they each buy two drinks at $10 a pop, that’s a busy bar. Those same 400 people could do $40,000 now buying bottles. And there’s a lot of drunk people and a lot of waste. No one finishes them.”
Clubgoers have been trained to fork over the money; in exchange, they jump the line out front, bring in their friends and mix their own drinks. They sit in a prominent spot, visible as big spenders to everyone else in the bar. They get drunk out of their minds.
The other perk, especially for men, is that they can invite women into their own mini-V.I.P. lair and ply them with Red Bull and vodkas. Some waitstaff described situations where men who were reluctant to order up became more cooperative once the waitress brought a few girls over.
“When they have a $300 minimum, it’s our job to make them spend that,” said Ms. Lynn.
“You have one of two scenarios,” said Mr. Mathewson. “Either people can afford it-then they can relax and not have to deal with the door and they can get their five friends in. Or you’re dealing with people who really want to come in and are putting it on their credit card, but they otherwise couldn’t afford it. You get the wealthy types and the desperate types.”
For this reason, it’s standard practice at Crobar and other clubs to take credit cards and a driver’s license from people before they’re allowed inside. Once the party has been cleared for entry, a runner escorts them past the hordes inside to the maître d’, who seats them. The ID is photocopied and kept for the evening, just in case there’s any buyer’s remorse; sometimes the patron signs a separate release form verifying that he was of sound (and sober) mind.
“If they don’t finish what they ordered, or they decide they don’t want as much as they committed to before coming in, I have to charge their credit card anyway, and we tell them that we’ll save their bottle for them,” said Ms. Lynn.
Walter Kim, who owns Rehab, Light and Jet East and is about to open Quo in West Chelsea (where 75 percent of the 8,000 square feet will be devoted to bottle service), said the measures were painful but necessary.
He’s not alone. “This is a business, and those tables are real estate, and we have break-evens to consider,” said nightlife impresario and Bungalow 8 owner Amy Sacco. “The economy has changed drastically. Everybody’s doing bottle service because it works …. There are some places that will take anyone with a wallet who wants to buy bottles. It happens at a lot of places, but I don’t blame them.”
The big drawback, in Mr. Kim’s opinion, is that the experience has been cheapened by exploitative club owners.
“Buying a bottle was supposed to be a very elite thing when it first started, and not everybody did it,” Mr. Kim said. “But so many venues opened up that now people get harassed to buy a bottle …. If I’m spending $400 on a bottle, I want presentation, I want a beautiful girl to pour it.”
“I think it looks good,” said Mr. van Stockum. “When you walk into a place and see that there are bottles on every table, you can assume you’re in a higher-class business.”
On a recent night, three men in navy blazers and two women in pastels stood around their table adjacent to the dance floor. They stared as a waitress with long blond hair held their credit card in her teeth as she wriggled to the ground to open their magnum of Grey Goose.
As one of the guys, Bernie, started mixing their drinks, a blond woman in tight jeans swayed and fell onto the floor, almost knocking their glasses down.
“I’m so drunk!” she said, giggling and hoisting herself back to her feet.