THE BLOG
01/22/2009 09:43 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Banish the Velvet Ropes: From London to L.A. Exclusivity is Out and Community is the New Cool

How quickly the tide turns. Only last spring, L.A. was atwitter with rumors that Soho House, the British-based member's club, would be opening on Sunset Boulevard. During Oscar week, stars and their watchers partied at the club's temporary digs in the penthouse of Luckman Plaza. No doubt the only problem the backers foresaw was reining in the member numbers, not the member fees. That was then. Today, the project is purportedly on hold, and the buzziest places in L.A., New York and London are trading on egalitarianism rather than exclusivity.

Restaurant visionary Sir Terence Conran has just opened his latest venture, the Boundary, in London. Right across the road from the Shoreditch Club, the East London sister of Soho House, the Boundary will eventually contain all the trappings of a club, i.e. guest rooms, multiple restaurants and a community of regulars, only without member restrictions. Two weeks ago, it opened to all, welcoming the public to the Albion Café - -already nicknamed "the Caf" by insiders -- and the sexy subterranean Boundary restaurant. Already artists and celebrities not afraid to share a table with strangers already are. This past Saturday a line snaked around the block with people waiting to dine on hearty food like shepherd's pie at communal tables or a counter. (The stools have tractor seats, so you can feel as earthy as a rural farmer -- at least in your rump.) The neighborhood teems with artists, advertising and design folk, many of whom dress as they did in university days so there's a rumpled, intellectual charm to the crowd. Of course, Keira Knightly added glamour when she pulled up a chair, even if she was suitably dressed down. The underground Boundary restaurant, which is decidedly plushier, will lure a more uptown crowd, but the Conrans aim for this to be a hive for the neighborhood's creative class. There's even an artist in residence, whose Chagallesque mural will keep the building's seven-storey stairwell eternally swarming with colorful characters.

A week ago, the New York Times "Sunday Styles" section profiled Palihouse, a similar "in" hangout for locals in West Hollywood. The brainchild of developer Avi Brosh, Palihouse opened last year, and as the Times put it managed "to stay under the radar long enough to establish itself as a chic hangout for the 30-and-up-set." Agents, writers and low-key actors like Matthew Perry and Jimmy Kimmel drop by the living room-like lounge areas. Management encourages guests to linger with Wifi and leather club chairs, room rates that go down the longer you stay, even a cocktail called the Writer's Block. "People camp out for the afternoon with their laptops," explains Brosh. "They're encouraged to feel at home." So at home that after breakfast, you may see them bringing their plates into the kitchen. Each of the guest rooms has been outfitted with quirky residential touches that you'd find in the ultimate crash pad, like a record player with a stack of hit albums from the '70s and a bicycle for cruising the neighborhood.

In New York, one of these non-club clubs would flourish on Manhattan's Lower East Side or in Brooklyn's Dumbo, and maybe soon they will. For now, though, the Meatpacking District has one with owners who talk the talk, even if they don't walk the walk. The backers of 1 Oak have declared that they wanted to create a lounge where money didn't guarantee access, but personality assured entrance. They have complained that in recent years paying for bottle service meant a crowd of wallets. "What [the owners] all agree on is a policy of velvet egalitarianism at the door," explained New York magazine in a pre-opening story. "People will have to earn their way past the ropes with an appealing personal style or disposition, not a promise to pay for bottle service." Now that it's open, with gold faucets in the bathrooms and doorman -- albeit friendly ones -- giving the nod or nay, egalitarianism feels more like marketing speak. But then money has always played a bigger role in New York than it has in London or L.A.

Maybe it's just the aura of inclusiveness and maybe it won't last, but it does seem that even the coolest kids on the block are gravitating to a new kind of populism, or at least the pretense of it. Whether this has come about because of an Open Source culture, the Obama era, the credit crunch, exclusivity fatigue, or all of these factors, keeping people out suddenly feels, as the cool kids would say, soooo last year.

Read more about the Boundary in London.

Read more about Palihouse in West Hollywood.