Step inside Stage + Table, the Westside’s hungriest private social club

Story By Audrey Cleo Yap | Photos by Jake Ahles

Tucked next to a gourmet doughnut store and an Australian coffee shop on Wilshire Boulevard, through a door that requires a key code that leads you down a short hallway that empties out at another door (also needs a key code), you’ll find, well, a parking lot. Exit and lean left, and you’ll see a staircase that leads to an elevator that leads to, after some more mildly labyrinthian navigating, a tri-level live-work space with an outdoor rooftop deck that overlooks downtown Santa Monica to the right and the new Proper Hotel across the street. There’s a fire pit in the center, primed for whittling away summer evenings over bottles of rosé. A chef’s kitchen on the main level. Various nooks and crannies are meticulously decorated with on-trend geometric print throw pillows, and a wall of hanging plants adds to an air of general chill. Welcome to Stage + Table.

Haven’t heard of it? That’s not surprising, given the generally opaque ways private invite-only social clubs operate, where knowing about one, even in passing, is just the beginning of becoming a full-fledged member.

The application process to one can be involved, to say the least. Soho House,
the international members-only club with local outposts in West Hollywood and Malibu, requires names and contact information of two current members (“proposers”). A former membership director once said the club has rejected every Real Housewife who has applied.

For Spring Club in Beverly Hills, applicants must upload a headshot and their social media handles, ostensibly to vet your following and “brand.” A membership at NeueHouse, a hybrid co-working and private club space in Hollywood, includes access to Linus Bikes, a screening room and artisan-roasted coffee; members are restricted to bringing three guests every two hours.

This is not the case at Stage + Table. First of all, unlike other social clubs that center on recruiting “creatives” (whatever, in a town full of them, that means), S+T focuses on things most people can get excited about: food and drinks.

“You get the right people coming, and you build a really wonderful community who have the same mindset around socializing and food,” said founder Graham McAden, a Santa Monica resident. “They’ll put their hand up and say, ‘I’d love to cook dinner for 20 people.’ ‘Sure, I’ll make drinks for a night.’ ‘Hey, I was in Japan going through duty-free and saw this great bottle of whiskey. I brought it in for everybody.’”

McAden started S+T three years ago, inspired by the monthly bar gatherings he and his friends from recreational volleyball would organize at El Cholo. The idea, he said, was to have everyone bring a friend, who would then bring their friends, thus growing their social circle over bites and beers. The snag, though, was that a bar gathering is still, well, at a bar.

He launched Stage + Table as an alternative, where friends — and friends of friends — could gather for cuisine, cocktails and conversation. Part social club, part eating club, S+T links up with local chefs, caterers and beverage companies to host tastings and dinners. Members and their guests can attend “showcase” events, such as a recent lamb feast sponsored by an up-and-coming whiskey company or a test kitchen night with a former “MasterChef” contestant, for a per-event fee. Other gatherings include blind wine tasting competitions, monthly meal prep swaps and veggie potlucks. In total, S+T programs a calendar of 12 to 16 events each month.

Since launching, the club’s membership has grown to around 300 people, with most members between ages 28 to 42. Many live and work on the Westside, although some come from as far away as the San Gabriel Valley. One even lives in Las Vegas. The club hopes to grow its membership to 500 by the end of the year.

And getting in is more about vibing with everyone else than it is about your Instagram following or occupation.

“In new members, I look for people who are socially engaging and interesting,” said Kendra Roulette, head of membership and community development.

Would-be members must first attend an event or two, either as a guest of a current member or by requesting an invite online. They then must secure two verbal nominations from current members. Then comes a phone interview and potential offer of membership, which requires a $500 initiation fee, monthly membership dues and a commitment to contribute to the S+T community, which can range from offering to make a signature drink for a night or cooking dinner. Those who want to join but can’t commit to a contribution pay an $875 initiation fee.

“Our members decide,” said McAden, on who gets in and who doesn’t. “If someone can’t make two nominations, it means they’re not a fit.”

He knows something about getting the right people together. As a former national sales director for Caesars Entertainment, McAden was responsible for organizing destination events for the company’s noteworthy clients and gamblers — everything from trips to Mardi Gras to birthday parties in Tahoe. A hospitality industry vet, he first got his start running an activities service in New York.

“It was a thinly veiled way of saying ‘dating service,’ but you couldn’t really say that in the early 2000s,” he recalled.

And a dating club Stage + Table is not. While McAden said some members have found their significant others through S+T, that isn’t really the point — something that attracted Lori Magnier, 36. A South Bay native, Magnier joined over a year ago, after returning to Venice following a six-month stint in New York City. She had followed a boyfriend there; he broke up with her a week after they moved back to California.

Magnier said she struggled with making new and meaningful connections in the crowded, cliquey bar scene. She heard about S+T through a neighbor and joined shortly thereafter.

“I didn’t go in thinking I would meet someone there, which is why it was kind of a safe place,” said Magnier, who works for a music management company. “It felt really nice to be in a place where I felt like I could have an identity and actually cultivate relationships with other members. That really was the selling point for me at that time.”

Michael Abraham, 42, has been a member for two years and appreciates the variety of events on the calendar.

“Some nights, I try to coordinate with friends from S+T; other nights I just show up and have a good time,” said Abraham, a creative director and co-founder of a sports marketing agency.

McAden said about 150 potential members attend S+T events per month; from those, between 15 and 25 new members are accepted. And most people who are offered a membership do end up joining, said Roulette.

But social clubs, by design, thrive on exclusivity. And that means occasionally kicking out people who don’t fit the club’s philosophy anymore. Soho House famously purged some 400 members from its Manhattan branch before opening up in West Hollywood in 2010, an effort to revamp its image of being a buttoned-up hub for Wall Street types to a more laidback haven for creatives.

It’s a similar philosophy for S+T. Overly aggressive networking likely won’t earn you a nod and could mean being asked to leave if you’re already in. It’s happened before, said McAden. Luckily, most tend to weed themselves out in the vetting process.

“Like, ‘I just want to network for work. I’m a personal attorney, and I’m dying to get new clients,’” said McAden, describing what would be considered red flags. “If someone is hounding you about connecting on LinkedIn, and you start to avoid that person at events, that’s not what this is about.”

In the next three years, McAden hopes to open up Stage + Table branches in 10 cities across the country, and add more locations in the Los Angeles area.

“We feel like there’s a, pardon the pun, hunger for something outside of bars that’s really engaging,” McAden said.

S+T frequenters like Magnier say that there are few reasons why she would discontinue her membership. Distance, if she were to move out of the Westside, could be one.

And just like the right mix of ingredients can lead to a great drink, so can the right social alchemy make a private club on busy Wilshire Boulevard feel like a homey hang out with close friends.

“No one really talks about the fact that it’s a members-only club when you’re there,” said Magnier.

Find club contact information at Follow @audreycleo on Twitter to see more of this writer’s work.