The Montauk Club is one of the most breathtaking brick piles in Brooklyn—a genuine Venetian Gothic palazzo on Grand Army Plaza, built in 1891. But the go-go Gilded Age elites who hosted President Cleveland there were long since replaced by a stodgier community of Park Slope lifers with their Victorian teas and sing-alongs of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. Membership hovers around 120, despite a low-three-figures yearly fee and an application protocol loosened to DeVry levels. All of which gave Miles Rohan (president of something called the Corduroy Appreciation Club) and his retro-groovy thirtysomething friends an idea: Why not commandeer it?
It all started when Rohan was looking for a space for a Corduroy party. The Montauk elders weren’t sold on the event, but Rohan and his friend Aaron Hermann ended up joining. Within months, Hermann maneuvered himself into a seat on the club’s board. Once he witnessed that body’s apathetic workings, the idea was born. Enter Joel Tompkins, co-proprietor with Mitch Goldman of Coach Peaches—a “nomadic restaurant” that serves food out of friends’ lofts. Tompkins promptly fell in love with the space. “They were forced to have Gymboree and Weight Watchers meetings in order to survive,” he says with a pained grimace. “It was tragic.” The group now had a man on the inside as well as a man with a rich experience of guerrilla bartending. A plan was taking shape. Jordan Silbert, who runs a gourmet tonic company, rounded out the gang; Hermann was made chairman of the “house subcommittee for under-35s,” soon renamed the Stephen Talkhouse Fellows (after a prominent Montauk tribesman).
Every other Thursday, the Fellows take over the club’s spectacular second floor. Tompkins e-mails invitations to a “curated list” the way he has for Coach Peaches. (Ultimately, he says, “the goal is to get people to join.”) The crew personally unscrewed half the bulbs in the bar area (it used to be lit like a high-school gym), wheedled the club into replacing the ancient eggplant-colored tablecloths with crisp white linens, and expanded the cocktail menu. Staff complaints about the Talkhouse crew, which came bearing well-forgotten cocktail recipes and ostentatiously exacting standards, waned with the arrival of a demographic long unseen at the bar: young women.
“I don’t want this to be about young people dressing up in three-piece suits,” Tompkins says. He wants lectures and readings and civic events, too. But on the inaugural Thursday, after seeing the retro-hip youngsters in sharp suits and cocktail dresses, one longtime member asked Tompkins to promise that he wouldn’t turn the club into a “snobby place.”