From the days when my sister would tape a “NO PATRICKS ALLOWED” sign on her door until the day I got my fake ID, there were always places I was dying to get into simply because I was barred from them—doors behind which I could only imagine what was going on. I guess there are still a few clubs—excuse me, ultra lounges—here that would be happy to exclude me, but that’s nothing a trip to Armani Exchange and a carafe of Aqua di Gio couldn’t handle. San Francisco just isn't a red rope kind of city.
And just to be clear, I’m not some Bobby Bottleservice who gets off on exclusivity—I don't want to hang out in a club that won't let you in, I want to weasel into a club that won't let me in. That Groucho Marxian thought train got me interested in San Francisco’s private clubs; these institutions wanted nothing to do with me and I needed to know why. Would I find local tycoons conspiring in the steam room, trading insider secrets over martinis, and betting the livelihoods of the local proletariat on a game of squash? My hopes were high.
I began with the Bay View Boat Club, lodged in a salt-spackled boathouse just south of the Ballpark. All clubs are discriminating, but this one is truly demanding: prospective members must own a seagoing vessel—anything from a yacht to a dinghy—and be sponsored by two other members. Because really, who not only owns a boat, but has two friends who also own boats?
Boat people, that's who, and I happen to know one, although my inability to secure his Whaler to the pier made for a bad start. “Whassamatter, you don’t know how to tie up a boat?” yelled an ornery octogenarian standing sentry on the dock. I might as well have not known how to tie my shoes, which, he failed to notice, were topsiders I’d worn to appear nautical. Luckily, my friend’s boat is a beaut, and it fascinated this ancient mariner long enough for me to duck inside the clubhouse in what I hoped was an un-landlubber-like fashion.
When I took in the room, festooned with hundreds of burgees and other maritime regalia, smelling of beer and lacking any reminder that the last 40 years have passed, I immediately wished I owned some sort of skiff, as the benefits of membership appeared to be many. There was a long bar where Jamesons are two-fifty and Anchor Steams three, poured by the club’s commodore himself, who like everyone else here is a friendly, foul-mouthed, old-line San Franciscan. There was the prime spot on the waterfront, completely secluded from the city and seemingly exempt from its rules. But mostly it was the camaraderie, and a strictly enforced anti-pretentiousness that ensured this was one place where you will never detect a whiff of bad cologne.
Next on my list was the University Club, an association made up of the graduates of elite colleges. I know you’re thinking, “The University Club? Break out the sweater vest.” Well, I’m here to tell you: break out the sweater vest. But then again the sweater vest is exactly the sort of preppy façade a depraved, Skulls-and-Bones-like fraternal order might disguise itself in. Once inside, wouldn’t they trade that cable-knit getup for orgy masks and hooded cloaks, with the only trace of their outward squareness being the perfectly pressed chinos sticking out of the bottom?
It was disappointingly easy to book a tour of the premises, a historic brick building atop Nob Hill fluttering with collegiate flags, but I was cheered by what I found. The University Club is thoroughly bedecked in wood paneling, the building material favored by WASPy secret societies everywhere. Every surface was covered in wood, except the ceiling, which was made of normal ceiling material, and the floor, which was carpeted. So I guess it was just the walls. But there were also brass plaques engraved with Latin inscriptions mounted on various doors, which could’ve said something awesome like “Beezlebub’s Love Chamber,” but I didn’t ask, because I was afraid what they really said was “Ladies Bathroom,” or something.
I was shown the two bars, the game room, and the library—if there’s a design motif at work here, it’s “old man’s study”—the squash courts, and men’s locker room, which had the same eggy odor all locker rooms do. By this point, I was positive this wasn’t the secret sanctum of the illuminati; if it is, their feet stink. After the tour, my guide sat me down and explained the monthly dues, and gave me the same sort of pitch anyone who’s ever accidentally made eye contact with the sales guy at 24 Hour Fitness has experienced. Nice as the club was, this broke the cardinal rule of clubs and maybe of life: if you want me, I’m not interested, especially if you’re going to charge me to hang out.
An almost pastoral scene waited at the third place I visited: rowers skimming the surface of a glassy blue Lake Merced, a stand of Eucalyptus trees swaying in the morning breeze, the deafening staccato of large bore firearms. The clubhouse of the Pacific Rod and Gun Club, a glorious shrine to Americana, is filled with Cabela’s catalogs, the smell of instant coffee and fresh doughnuts, and retired old men who look like they ought to be auditioning for a Werther's Original’s commercial. Born in San Francisco to ultra-liberal parents, I’m open-minded enough to know that anyone who owns a gun is a right-wing psycho. Who were these cuddly grandfathers and why weren’t they staked out in front of an abortion clinic?
My friend and I bought some shells for the shotgun we’d borrowed (a right-wing psycho he knows was nice enough to lend it to us) and headed down to the skeet shooting range, where I grew even more confused. Every person I passed said hello, and all the guys on the range came up and introduced themselves. I’ve since learned that it’s common etiquette to introduce yourself to everyone on a firing range—when everyone’s holding a deadly weapon, it’s important to feel like you know each other—but still, strangers haven’t been this nice to me since my last trip to Café Gratitude.
I won’t be joining the NRA anytime soon, and I would never own a gun, for sport or self defense—the disappointment that awaits any burglar who enters my apartment is punishment enough—but hot damn, not only is skeet shooting fun, but a trip to Pacific Rod and Gun Club was a transformative cultural experience, and it made me miss my grandpa.
I was excited about my last stop, Villa Taverna, a private club founded in 1960 for Italian Americans, and located in a medieval looking building on an alley in the shadow of the Transamerica building. In my ignorance I thought it was still an Italian club, and even more ignorantly prayed it would be some sort of Mafioso hangout, not because that was at all likely, but because that’s the kind of place that big Scandinavian oafs like me are the most not-allowed of all. (By the way, there is a Scandinavian Club in San Francisco, which has a nice cabin in Tahoe for its members and that I’m sure would’ve been happy to have me join. As if, you moonfaced dogsledders.)
Despite the lack of an organized crime element, Villa Taverna is a club I would definitely love to be a part of because they’d probably rather disband entirely than allow me in for a drink. This is where high-society sups, where politicians like Feinstein mingle with local gentry like the Gettys, and thanks to a friend from another of SF’s prominent families, I was able to get in for a peek-a-boo, and let me tell you, it’s gorgeous. Powder-white brick walls vaulted up toward the ceiling, abundant red velvet and harlequin tile floors framed a glittery high society crowd being waited on by men in all white with fine linen towels draped over their arms. And I don’t know what they seasoned that unicorn with, but it smelled delicious.
I’m kidding about the unicorn. Villa Taverna and Bay View Boat Club are obviously clubs I’m dying to be a member of, even after seeing what’s behind their doors, and I thank them ahead of time for not ever letting that happen. And what of the San Francisco’s real secret society, the Bohemian Club, which counts George W. Bush, Henry Kissinger and other such world-controllers among it ranks, and holds its famous July retreats on the Russian River opposite Monte Rio? I already know what goes on up there—if I really wanted to watch a bunch of old men dress up in drag and piss all over redwood trees, well, let’s just say I’d skip the Bohemian Grove and head straight up to Guerneville.
The best way to visit the Bay View Boat Club is to rent it out for a private party ($500). If you're lucky, the members will crash your party and drink your booze. Prospective members can tour the University Club in the afternoons. The Pacific Rod and Gun Club is actually a public parks & rec facility, and they welcome all visitors, but you'll need to borrow/bring a shotgun to use the gun ranges—good luck with that one. The Villa Taverna is a fully private and extremely exclusive social club, but if you've got the dough you can book it for an event or private dinner at (415) 981-2333.