Feb 18, 2024 - Things to Do

New private clubs shake up Chicago's social scene

Winding staircase with gold railings and red painted walls.

Astor Club. Photo courtesy of Astor Club

There's new competition in Chicago's social club scene, seeking to tap into a crowd of wealthy, young professionals looking to connect in a post-pandemic, remote work world.

The big picture: Private social clubs have existed in Chicago for more than a century, but they haven't always rolled out the welcome mat for younger members. That's starting to change, as venture capital funds, hospitality groups and other collectives launch modern spaces with enticing perks.

Driving the news: Chicago hospitality giant Lettuce Entertain You and New York-based Tao Group Hospitality are bringing a hot, new private club to River North.

  • Lettuce Entertain You originally said the club was to open by the end of last year, but the rescheduled opening date remains unknown. A Lettuce spokesperson tells Axios there are no updates at this time.
interior of restaurant with large glass chandelier, tables and bookshelves.
Soho House. Photo: Carrie Shepherd/Axios

State of play: Soho House set the scene for the hip upscale social club model in Chicago in 2014, when it launched in the West Loop.

  • The club, which caters to Chicago's creative community, has a rooftop pool, screening room, gym, spa, and live music and other events. It also offers a Soho Fellows program — giving some artists a year of free membership to grow their network.
  • There are three restaurants open to the public and events spaces available to rent.
  • Membership fees start at about $600 per quarter and are discounted to around $300 per quarter for members under 27 years old.

The latest: Astor Club, an operation by husband-and-wife duo Adam and Victoria Bilter, joined the private social club scene last summer.

  • Opening in the former Maxim's de Paris spot at Astor and Goethe streets in the Gold Coast, the club is leaning into its rich history.

Flashback: The gold and maroon velvet-adorned speakeasy was the place to be and be seen from the 1960s to 1980s, and photos of its famous attendees, like Frank Sinatra and The Beatles, line the walls.

  • The Bilters purchased it in 2022, and Adam Bilter tells Axios that the club now has 360 members and that most live within blocks of the venue.

Details: Beyond the speakeasy, Astor Club has a dining room with live music, meeting and event spaces and, of course, a "dress to impress" dress code.

  • Membership costs $5,000 to join plus $300 a month. It gives you access to a chauffeur service, tickets to concerts and sporting games, local hotel member rates and a lineup of social events.

What they're saying: "We have offered history talks, sports talks, the Stradivari Society did a private concert with $52 million worth of violins, theme dinners, whiskey and wine tastings, dance parties," Adam Bilter tells Axios.

  • "Overall I feel like it's turning into just a nice neighborhood place, with the added benefit of being private, and our members are able to meet and socialize with other members."

Context: Like any place with membership, private social clubs in Chicago have a dark history of exclusion based on race, gender or religion.

  • The Standard Club, which closed its South Loop home base in 2020, was created for the Jewish elite who were barred from joining other clubs. It was where many Jewish Chicagoans were married, but also where Chicago titans like Julian Rosewald and Max Adler socialized and made deals, Forward reported.

Reality check: Today, high membership costs, and other application requirements, put these clubs out of reach for many.

A fireplace in a large library with newspapers and books on a table.
The University Club. Photo: Carrie Shepherd/Axios

The University Club of Chicago is among the oldest in the city, starting over a century ago. The social club — which boasts private work and event spaces, a fitness center with squash courts, several dining areas, and more — accepts only college graduates and requires letters of recommendation.

  • Initiation fees start at $2,500 and go up to $7,500 with monthly fees ranging from about $250 to $450.

Zoom in: Over the years, the University Club has attracted hundreds of young members, many of whom join for the wine clubs, high-end food, and speakers like Isabel Wilkerson and Tom Hanks, spokesperson Amy Carr tells Axios.

  • Out of its 3,300 members, the club has 600 under age 36, Carr says. Plus, they're civically engaged. "We have a volunteering group that's becoming pretty active. We just donated a large number of clothing items to the Pilsen food pantry to help with the migrant crisis."

Of note: Arts-focused private clubs include The Arts Club of Chicago which has an extensive collection and features regular exhibitions and performances, and The Cliff Dwellers invites members "actively engaged in music, painting, writing, acting, architecture, design, and related categories" or art education.

The bottom line: Many say these clubs, in their various forms, still carry cachet and offer opportunities to network. "Many high society events are still hosted at these clubs," Lauren Brocato, senior managing editor at Modern Luxury magazine, tells Axios.

  • "And there is something to be said about the network members develop through these organizations."

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