Dining

Members Only

Go inside the new age of members-only dining clubs
Inside a Members-Only Dining Club
Photo: Alyssa Ringler

These days, it's not who you know but where you've eaten.

With diners competing to get the first 'gram at the next hot restaurant, having a quick dinner at the bar doesn't feel like enough anymore. If you really want to be in the know, you need to hang with the chef, get your hands on off-the-menu dishes and go behind the scenes. And the best (and most affordable) way to do that is not via bougie supper clubs, which are a dime a dozen and typically don't even take place in restaurants, but through the budding trend of dining-based memberships clubs.

RELATED   Meet America's Next Top Chefs »

Gone are the days when country and university clubs ruled the roost. As Bloomberg notes, membership clubs are targeting twenty- and thirty-somethings not by offering an exclusive space in which to hang out, but by providing special access to events, travel upgrades and deals at bars and restaurants. Think: a pass to The Surf Lodge in Montauk this summer or VIP tickets to Fashion Week. The mission isn't to keep people out of the clubhouse but to get them in—into the nightclub, the museum or the concert venue. These new membership clubs are connecting young people based on their interests, not their backgrounds, and giving them a leg-up on pursuing those interests, whether it's discovering a new band or a rising chef.

Enter year-old Tasting Collective, which brings guests into restaurants for private, chef-led dinners. For an annual fee of less than the price of dinner at a Tom Colicchio restaurant, members get invited to multicourse dinners and brunches hosted in some of the best restaurants in NYC. Diners get a first look at unique dishes while interacting personally with the chef and mingling with like-minded diners.

Photo: Courtesy of Tasting Collective

Business Insider called it one of the coolest new businesses in NYC last year, and for good reason. The club, which is closing in on 750 members, isn't just capitalizing on the wants of our increasingly food-obsessed social world by offering a new dining experience to savvy—or jaded—restaurant lovers; it's also at the forefront of reimagining what a membership club is all about.

"We're really kind of anti the traditional nose-in-the-air supper club," founder Nat Gelb says. "Obviously, our events are private, but we're accessible. Our members are all different ages and ethnicities."

For two-and-a-half-year-old Victory Club in NYC, the club size stays around 100 members, and they get invited to an array of culinary and visual arts-inspired events for $100 a month. Events range from seated dinners where diners learn about public art installations to tours and treats at museums like the American Folk Art Museum.

Then there's Fork Monkey, a national organization that doesn't host its own events at all but creates a curated platform for members to seek out supper clubs, pop-ups, food tours and festivals. Meant not only as a tool for discovery at home but also for traveling, Fork Monkey recommends dining experiences across the U.S. and even internationally. With all the hit-or-miss supper clubs out there, Fork Monkey's $69 annual fee buys members access to a list of vetted events they can trust.

In all cases, the membership component is key. Tasting Collective, which started as an email blast, added the membership component to foster community and create a more premium experience. "We felt that if anyone could go to the events without the membership, we'd be losing the community," Gelb says. "The membership fee makes our members really engaged in what we're doing. They're committed to it."

Stephanie Nass, founder of Victory Club, feels the same way, crediting the membership aspect with her ability to create and secure access to higher-quality events, as well as attracting participants who really want to be there. She's seen diners forge friendships and even marriages after meeting at Victory Club.

Photo: Courtesy of Victory Club

Not all membership clubs require a fee though. Longtime culinary club The Gastronauts, which takes adventurous diners off the beaten path to try delicacies that range from hard-to-find to taboo (bear, anyone?), requires a membership, but admission is up to the founder; there are no monetary dues involved.

What's particularly interesting about these newfangled clubs, whatever the model, is that they all benefit not just the participants but the businesses on the other side.

Victory Club brings members into cultural institutions like Lincoln Center that are also always looking for exposure, and Tasting Collective does the same for restaurants. "It's always a big win when we can bring new people in," says chef/owner Jonah Miller, who runs East Village Basque restaurant Huertas and has participated in several Tasting Collective events. What's more, "it attracts a certain kind of diner, where they're interested," which means chefs can count on Tasting Collective members to return or spread the word.   

Tasting Collective also hosts dinners at restaurants on quieter nights, which, as Miller says, "is mutually beneficial," because he can fill a space on a day or evening when he wouldn't normally. Or it gives a restaurant like Huertas an opportunity to open for brunch, when it would have otherwise been closed. Finally, unlike pop-up dinners, where chefs are often cooking in a foreign space, these dinners offer an in-house opportunity to test out dishes in the comfort of their own kitchens. It's a win-win for everyone involved.

Ultimately, these membership groups have homed in on needs and desires of both diner and chef, patron and museum. And that, more than anything else, will be the key to their longevity. Time will tell if more groups like this will hit the scene and grow as quickly as the likes of Tasting Collective, Victory Club and Fork Monkey, but in the meantime, consider getting ahead of the curve and joining the club—before everyone else does.

Around the Web

Get the Tasting Table newsletter for adventurous eaters everywhere