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It’s all so cloak and dagger, still. While representatives of Richmond’s private clubs were extremely polite when asked about their organizations’ elaborate dining programs, they still wanted to keep an air of secrecy — a novelty in today’s share-all age.
It’s been said Richmond’s clubs began during Prohibition as a means for high society to privately imbibe, but some of these clubs are even older. Today, they’re holdovers of high-class dining, where the food is of excellent quality and the level of care taken is worth the membership fees alone. Of course, to enjoy a meal here, you’ll have to apply.
The Woman’s Club, a nonprofit, women-only consortium, began in 1894. Now, it boasts more than 1,500 members. To become one, you must be recommended by another member, or apply for consideration, but once in, you’ll be allowed lunch privileges at the all-male Commonwealth Club on Mondays.
The 1890-founded Commonwealth Club offers more than 80,000 square feet housing a basement pool, a wine shop, multiple bars and restaurants, and an athletic facility, with a membership currently hovering around 900. Included in admittance is the ability to dine at the Men’s Grill (complete with lunch buffet), the coat-and-tie-required Dining Room, and the Blue Bar, which serves a limited menu. Its chef, Kaui Stryn, formerly of Baltimore Country Club and The Greenbrier, cooks up “Sport Coat Dinners,” which typically follow a theme such as Hawaiian, featuring kalua pig and malasadas.
What began as a golf course morphed into The Westwood Supper Club in 1939, then transformed yet again to include more dining and award-winning tennis. Now, the men and women of the West End’s Westwood Club enjoy organic meals from chef Chris Stemmle that utilize herbs grown on-site. Stemmle did stints at The Country Club of Virginia and downtown’s now-shuttered Sensi before bringing his talents to the Westwood Club’s restaurant — where he serves lunch, dinner and upscale carryout items such as leg of lamb — and the more casual courtside café serving salads, duck confit tacos and crab cake sandwiches.
Chef Norman Jordan filled Twenty-Three Hundred Club’s four Church Hill dining rooms and its patio with Southern fare, but no longer; even elite dining cannot keep some of these stalwarts afloat. Due to waning membership, the organization recently suspended its operations. In spring of 2015, Richmond’s Bull & Bear Club shuttered after nearly 50 years in business. In a recent conversation, Twenty-Three Hundred Club owner David Branch questioned his organization’s sustainability; its future is cloudy, even to its owner.