One night recently, I attended Marie Antoinette’s 261st birthday party. It was in a domed hall in a Manhattan hotel with a sweeping marble staircase and exuberant frescoes of Adam and Eve.
Seventy-five guests, wearing Louis XVI wigs, masks and flowing silk gowns, were playing parlor games, sipping goblets of champagne, and nibbling on ripe brie and figs. A gorgeous feather-coiffed chanteuse, accompanied by a live harpist, was singing an aria by Bach.
Not a cellphone in sight. Was this dream or reality? Versailles 1776 or Manhattan 2016?
This puzzle arose last week at an event organized by The Supper Club which is at the vanguard of the boom in dining societies that give millennials a screen-free place to eat, drink, and be merry. Demand seems likely to grow as people seek a refuge from the anxieties of the election.
I conducted an unscientific market-survey of supper clubs in New York City. It revealed a wide range of styles. If you’re after dinner and a show, the Casa Duse Supper Club stages Shakespeare plays accompanied by an Elizabethan feast.
The Spring Street Social Society holds events in unexpected spaces, like an immersive murder-mystery dinner-party in a post office. For the more collaborative supper clubber, Holstee holds a monthly potluck dinner in a Gowanus design studio, inviting guests to bring one dish to feed a dozen fellow diners. Ginny’s Supper Club offers soul food and live music in Harlem.
There’s also an app, Feastly, which connects chefs and diners in New York, San Francisco, Washington DC, and Chicago.
But my favorite classy, one-stop dining club is The Supper Club. Its founder is Tamsin Lonsdale, who, for the last 11 years, has been delighting hard-working hedonists. Like other dinner party organizers, she confirmed a rise in the number of millennials seeking out her company.
“We are old school,” Lonsdale explains. “We hold intimate, elegant and exclusive dinner and cocktail parties, where no one needs a smart-phone. The world stops at our events.”
Lonsdale hails from Jane Austen-land: Hampshire, England. She is the daughter of Tony Lonsdale, who founded the British denim company which earned him the moniker “The Blue Jean King of London”. Her mother, Chekkie Maskell, was a London model and party queen. It was she who gave Lonsdale the green-light to throw her first dinner party, aged 16, at a cottage on the family estate.
At Edinburgh University, Lonsdale developed her hosting skills, hiring out mansions in the Scottish countryside for her first themed events: Cowboys and Indians for her 21st birthday, and then, for her 22nd, a Lord of the Rings bash at a loch-side fort.
After graduating, she moved to London, where her father lent her his South Kensington apartment and the origins of the Supper Club were born as a traveling dinner party enterprise: “I realized that there was a huge gap in the market for what I was doing and that no one else was providing the same service.”
That was 2005, which is when I met her, at the inaugural Supper Club event, in a candle-lit private dining room at Portobello Road’s First Floor restaurant.
Azure-eyed, and with her blonde hair in dreadlocks, Lonsdale sashayed through our eclectic group, introducing guests over pre- dinner champagne, presenting us our hand-painted nametags, and moving the men four places clockwise after each course. I ended up dating my dessert-stage neighbor, an aspiring actress who would play a moving painting in the first Harry Potter film.
The Supper Club’s Revolutionary Hostess Tamsin Lonsdale. Photo credit: Jakub Studios Photographers
The Supper Club was a big success in London, allowing Lonsdale to leave her day job as a fashion stylist at Italian Vogue. In 2007, she expanded her operations to New York, where she ditched the dreadlocks, built up a wardrobe of cocktail dresses, and befriended the Park Avenue jet-set.
In 2009, with New York business thriving, Lonsdale opened a new outpost in West Hollywood. She now has a permanent membership in Miami, and arranges pop-up parties in cities like Chicago, Boston, Toronto, Denver, Charleston, Houston and Indianapolis.
The secret of her success is her talent for creating a ever-expanding galaxy of dream-like worlds for her guests to explore. “I see my work as that of an artist,” she explains. “The venue is the canvas. The paint is the food, the cocktails, the guests and table-settings. Together, they make up a wonderful piece of art.”
Most of Lonsdale’s events have a theme. “This is one of the favorite parts of my job,” she says. “I get so many ideas, from books, advertising, vintage fashion illustrations, and old movie posters. I usually build a whole concept based on just one image.”
The ‘Antoinette Fête’, which I attended last week, was inspired by its location, The Pierre hotel in New York. Boasting Central Park as its front lawn, the hotel, built in 1907, has been home for illustrious guests including Salvador Dali, Cary Grant, Yves Saint Laurent, and Richard Nixon. More recently one of its suites acted as Donald Draper’s temporary office in Mad Men.
The party took place in the Rotunda room, which recently re-opened after extensive renovation. Guests drank a never-ending stream of Nicolas Feuillatte champagne while in a re-enactment of the Queen’s favorite parlor game, each guest was given a playing-card, on which was written the name of a character from Louis XVI’s court, and then challenged to find our match somewhere in the room.
One successful pairing led to Monsieur de Sombreuil flirtatiously feeding his newly discovered Mademoiselle de Sombreuil a saucisson-en- croûte from a silver tea-spoon.
Tamsin and guests at a Patron Secret Dining Society event in Houston. Photo Credit: Jakub Studios Photographers
Traveling to different worlds, diving into a progressive nostalgia, are the big draws of The Supper Club. This past summer, Lonsdale transported her members to a modern-day fantasy of the 1920s. The setting was a private Hamptons estate, in Wainscott, where she hosted an al fresco lunch party on a manicured back-lawn, stretching down to an estuary as brilliantly blue as the July sky. It could have been a set for the Great Gatsby.
F. Scott Fitzgerald has been a regular inspiration for Lonsdale. She threw a Beautiful and the Damned birthday party in London, and a jazz-age picnic in the garden of a historic Harlem mansion.
Los Angeles has given Lonsdale an even more fantastical arena to play in. She hosted a party for 100 people at the actor Michael C. Hall’s home, mischievously named “Dinner at Dexter’s”.
At a “Summer Solstice” party in the Hollywood Hills, she hired a mermaid to swim around an infinity pool all night while at a ‘Black Dahlia Birthday party’, she hired out Frank Lloyd Wright’s Sowden House, where the beautiful waitress Elizabeth Short’s gruesomely mutilated body was discovered in 1947.
Lonsdale pays as much attention to her sets as she does to her casting. She interviews every membership applicant. “I’m looking for people with a glint in their eye,” she explains. “The person that everyone wants to sit next to, someone interesting and interested in meeting others — passionate, smart, talented, international, stylish, and fun.”
Over the past 11 years, I’ve sat next to a rich cast of characters and made some great friends. Edward Wyckoff Williams, who hosts shows on MSNBC and Vice, is one of my favorite dining companions. I’ve had fascinating conversations with an Italian architect; an Iranian-American hedge-fund manager; a buyer from Macy’s; a New York district attorney; a Brazilian painter; an Egyptian financier-turned- journalist; and a fascinating playboy-attorney whom I ended up visiting in prison after he was locked up for four years for a DUI.
At the Antoinette Fête, I clinked glasses with Marcello Tallarigo, an Italian knight whose day-job is as an intellectual-property attorney; with Malte Barkenow, a virtuoso mixologist and CEO of The 86 Company, which creates craft spirits with international distilleries; and with Bina Bianca, a fashion designer who created the ‘Bina’, a multipurpose wrap that can be worn as a scarf, cardigan, tunic, or turtleneck.
Lonsdale introduced me to the television director Jesse Peyronel, who had just been filming Alec Baldwin for a last-minute promotional clip for Hillary Clinton’s doomed campaign. With Emily Holmes Hahn, the charismatic founder of the bespoke match-making agency LastFirst, I chatted about the mysteries of love.
Emily Holmes Hahn, Founder of LastFirst, with Ross Lipson. Photo Credit: Jakub Studios Photographers
I fondly remember one evening next to a beautiful 22-year old country singer, who compared her voice to Josh Groban’s, even thought she’d just been voted off American Idol, and was living out of a suitcase.
A couple of cocktails down, she confided in me that she had serious doubts that she could hold to her evangelical Christian pledge to remain a virgin until marriage. I’d had three cocktails myself by then, so was ready to join her on her journey of discovery.
Lonsdale has a skill for matching members through her seating charts: “Get the seating chart right, and the evening will always be a hit.” All kinds of alliances ensue. “We’ve had fourteen marriages,” Lonsdale beams. “We’ve even had Supper Club babies! There’s lots of dating amongst our members. I met my boyfriend here!”
A stream of celebrities – Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Lynn Collins, Edi Gathegi, Minnie Driver – have attended Supper Club events. Elijah Wood deejayed at one cocktail party. Kevin Spacey attended a screening and after-party for a short film in which he starred.
According to Lonsdale, there are over 750 Supper Club members, half male and half female. Entry-level membership costs $1,000 a year, which gives access to at least six parties a year, and includes all food, drinks and entertainment costs.
A major attraction of the Supper Club is the food. Its closest rival, Chef’s Dinner Series, boasts two eminent chefs, David Bouley and Ted Allen but the Supper Club has attracted more award-winning chefs and cooking-show stars.
Our reporter in the line of duty. Photo credit: Jakub Studios Photographers
One serious problem with The Supper Club is that’s impossible to control your calories. The deserts are sumptuous- at the Antoinette Fête, Lonsdale set up a ‘Let them Eat Cake’ table, populated by raspberry mille-feuilles, pear frangipane crisps and citron meringue tart.
That’s also true when it comes to booze. “Alcohol oils the wheels of conversation,” Lonsdale explains. “I make sure everyone’s kept well hydrated.”
Wine is a cornerstone of every Supper Club event. “We always work with the finest wine-makers to create beautifully paired meals,” Lonsdale says. The next Supper Club event, to be held in the private wine room at The Standard Grill in Manhattan, will feature a guided tasting of wines from the Huneeus family, which has vineyards in the Napa and Sonoma valleys.
The girl on the left has seemingly just made a very perceptive statement. Photo Credit: Jakub Studios Photographers
It’s not just New York and LA. Lonsdale runs an international traveling program called ‘The Passport Series’ and has led trips to Ibiza and South Africa. Adventures to Cuba, Uruguay, Argentina, Mexico and Spain are calendared for 2017.
With plans to start regular events in San Francisco and Chicago, there appears to be no horizon to the ambitions of Lonsdale- and other dining club supremos- to create playgrounds where millennial epicureans can forget their worries and the woes of their world.
For more information on how to join The Supper Club go to www.thesupperclubinc.com
As a special offer, the first 20 Heat Street readers to RSVP here are invited to attend one Supper Club event, in LA, Miami or New York, free of charge.