It’s 7 p.m. on a Friday. Imagine strolling casually to the hottest new bar in town, friends smiling at you and greeting you by name as you pass their tables. The bartender slips you a pour of the latest Oregon pinot because he knows it’s your favorite; he reminds you that later a jazz trio will be playing on the patio and that in just a few minutes there’s an oyster tasting in an adjoining room. It doesn’t matter you left your wallet on your kitchen counter because your dues (for the private dining club) are prepaid for the year.
This is the scene Rebecca Maddox, the grande dame developer of two of Bayshore Drive’s biggest draws (Celebration Park and Three60 Market), envisions for her new establishment, opening soon. It’s a giant complex of glass structures, designed by architect David Corban in an airy coastal California style that will be home to both its showpiece The Maddox, a private wine club, and Rebecca’s Wine Bar & Market, open to the public. The Maddox’s dues-paying members have access to a 17,000-square-foot zone with a private bar and lounge at the center, with tasting rooms around it, plus an outdoor stage. There’s also a full social calendar with tastings, live music and cooking classes. Naples is home to so many country clubs that if you marked them on a map, it’d start to look like a Seurat, but a members-only, wine-focused clubhouse at this scale? That’s a first.
The venue is in line with a broader national trend toward privacy in the post-COVID era. ZZ’s Club in Miami, a contemporary Japanese restaurant and lounge, is the first private resto-club from Major Food Group (the founders of the sublime Dirty French, among others, in New York City), and it has a waitlist in the thousands. It has been so successful, they are redeveloping the former home of The Tavern in Hudson Yards to be the second ZZ’s Club with a Japanese restaurant, as well as the first private Carbone, one of their flagship eateries. And in Palm Beach, a resto-club opened last season: Carriage House is so shrouded in mystery you need a code to access its website. From reservations-only cocktail bars, like The Wells in D.C., to members-only co-working (-and-playing) spaces, such as the global chain of Soho Houses and Philadelphia’s Fitler Club (where James Beard Award-winning chef Marc Vetri was the culinary advisor), there is high demand for smaller crowds and meaningful encounters.
Nowhere needs that crowd-control more than Naples, and Florida in general, which has seen an influx of new residents over the past few years. In North Naples, another high-profile members-only endeavor debuts soon: Butcher Private. It’s an upscale steakhouse in the former Agave space on Vanderbilt Beach Road, as initially planned, but at the urging of top clients from their original restaurant (seafood bastion Sails), the owners decided to take it private. Only card-carrying members can venture past the 9-foot-tall, wrought-iron doors. The service is so personalized that they dry-age steaks for each guest to their exact number of preferred days in the dining room’s centerpiece, a meat locker lined with Himalayan salt. Down the street from Sails, Cameron Mitchell is working on Prime Social. The restaurateur recently announced that his new locale will have a members-only component, when it debuts above Chops City Grill as Fifth Avenue South’s first rooftop restaurant.
Besides exclusivity and the perks that come with it (getting a table in peak hours, having the servers remember your preferences, down to what type of ice you want in your favorite cocktail), a huge motivating factor for people to seek out any type of private club is the opportunity to meet other like-minded individuals. One of Rebecca’s leading drivers was what she saw as a yearning for connectivity among potential members—a place to belong, especially for the town’s new residents. She decided to cap The Maddox at 300 two-person memberships because she envisions people will treat it like their home away from home, drifting in and out for morning lattes and reading the paper, then popping by for an afternoon tasting of French wines and cheeses, and again after dinner for a round of tequila and live music. “We are not looking for people who say, ‘I want to belong,’ but never show up. I spend between two and three hours with each couple who expresses interest in joining. I’m looking for people who enjoy other people. I can build the best building in the world, but it’s about the people who are in it. There’s going to be a lot of social interaction—canasta, singing, dancing. I’m curating a club for people who respect and love and enjoy one another,” Rebecca says.
Rebecca is forthcoming with her goals and requirements for membership to her private dining club—annual dues are $15,000 with tax and a 20 percent service fee. And yes, her unbeatably low $3.60 markup that she established at Three60Market will apply to all bottles purchased, even if you’re itching for Opus One.
Meanwhile, Butcher’s stellar duo, partners in work and life, Corinne Ryan and Veljko Pavicevic, discreetly shy away from talking exact numbers. What they will say is that their private dining club has different levels of membership. “We wanted the opportunity to elevate the experience even further than what we can offer at Sails. We really want to get to know our guests, their needs and their likes,” Corinne says, noting every square inch of wall will be lined with temperature-controlled wine storage units, with an excess of 150 lockers available to members. Corinne also stresses how a dependably smaller audience allows service to be completely thorough. “It’s difficult for restaurants, even the best, to keep the quality consistently high with a large number of guests dining in season. Butcher Private takes away that variable.”
The recipe for success for any club is privacy (ample closed-off spaces for wheeling and dealing) as well as perks (like storing your Naples Winter Wine Festival loot on premise). Corinne is also excited to flex her Rolodex for the benefit of her loyal guests. Before opening restaurants, she spent two decades trading meat and seafood internationally. (Veljko’s nickname for her since the days they began dating is “the Butcher.”) Her relationships have led to her procuring some of the newest and, dare we say, most luxurious protein on the market, like the new line of English-bred cattle out of Australia, Portoro, which is not currently available anywhere else in the United States. They’ll also have the exceedingly rare Moreton bay bugs (think of them as mini, juicy Australian lobsters), as well as the 100 percent grass-fed Little Joe beef. They envision having steak tastings where guests can compare different breeds and cuts, and guided wine seminars in the club’s library room, which has a direct video connection to vintners around the world. Tiny details catch discerning eyes: All the private dining club chairs and booths are upholstered in navy leather and stitched with the same diamond pattern featured in new Rolls Royce and Bentley vehicles.
Blue Coyote Supper Club in Fort Myers, which has been going strong since 2002, proves that a private dining club restaurant model without extras like golf or beach access can work in Southwest Florida. Founder Mitch Schwenke was inspired to keep it going after the University Club in Fort Myers closed in 2009. He keeps his yearly dues low (less than $1,000) to create a more casual—but still clubby— environment. It’s also a simpler membership, limited only to dinner reservations (there are no reciprocals with other clubs). Mitch says it is a model that works well for the local business community, and guaranteed seating has proven to be a big enough draw for people. “Any restaurant requires good food, good ambiance, and good service, but for a private dining club, people also have to feel like it’s a place where they belong, where they can hang their hat,” Mitch says. “A key to that is a great staff. Many of ours have been there for six to 10 years, and the members get to know them and vice versa. We attract great servers because we have a nice clientele, with a good check average and a good schedule.”
His partner who manages the day-to-day operations, Corey Swarthout, works the room every night. Corey also takes pride in curating a unique wine list for members that’s upward of 70 percent small-production, boutique California reds, keeping guests excited to come back and try more. At its heart, Blue Coyote is a place where everyone knows your name, and there’s a small pool of dues-paying members vying for a seat at the tables in season.
All private clubs, whether they’re in the business of feeding people or providing tennis facilities, aim for the same. They foster a sense of community that stems from the members’ shared passions—in this case, sensational wining and dining. They’ll become friends soon enough—with some pretty stellar benefits.