Starry, Starry Nights

Call it an extraordinary coincidence.

We dropped by our editor's office to let him know about the subject of this week's investigation, and a set of Rangers tickets with VIP parking and club access mysteriously disappears from his desk.

This, um, chance occurrence illustrates a peculiar outgrowth of conspicuous consumption. In an era of relative prosperity the space occupied by the "haves" becomes fairly crowded. The basic American desire to stand apart from the masses becomes difficult when even cubicle-bound drones wield hefty credit lines, so inventive new ways to attach status to consumer items must be found. To draw envious glances from all the other commoners driving Lexuses...Lexi...foreign luxury cars, one now shells out a little more for assigned parking at Ameriquest or slips the valet something extra for a premier spot by the door.


VIP status

Closed Location

The same separation of fictive classes takes place inside Dallas nightclubs.

An impenetrable velvet rope or sheer curtain marks exclusive areas at many upscale establishments. If only Homeland Security would string purple fabric from Brownsville to the Pacific Coast--but that's an aside. Denizens of these accommodations lounge in full view of less fortunate inebriates and often must stroll through the mob to reach their space.

"It's about ego," says Adam Salazar, bartender at Nikita, Fuse and other venues. "It feels better to walk through the masses."

So who are these haughty types? To find out, the Burning Question crew visited Obar, Medici, Candle Room, Nikita and the Crown Royal, strike that last one. Never even heard of the place. We also made a few side trips to favorite hangouts just to lube up for the evenings.

Not that we managed to score VIP seating, mind you, for exclusivity in Dallas comes with a price tag. Patrons of roped-off comfort must purchase a bottle or two of liquor at ridiculous mark-ups--$275 for Absolut, for example, or a $325 sample of Grey Goose--for the privilege. "You're breathing the same air and drinking the same drinks," observes Ben Caudle, bartender at Hibiscus. "You're a VIP in Dallas when you're being charged higher prices." From a purely economic point of view, the folly of bottle service is clear. Twenty or so martinis at the bar might set a person back $160 to $200, not including legal fees and the costs of long-term health care, of course. But, as Eddie Germann of The Men's Club and Fuse explains, VIP status "has nothing to do with importance anymore."

Instead, it's about real estate. "It's the only thing that has value in here," says Alex Caine, casually sipping drinks at Sense. "Some places it takes time to get a drink, and you don't have a place to sit. You're paying not to have to deal with the hassle." Damn common folk, always in the way. Clubs dedicate waitstaff to handle VIP areas, and many set aside all of their seating for those willing to reserve a measure of alcohol, making $300 the going rate for stardom.

"If you can afford to pay for the bottle, that elevates you to VIP," says Phil Natale of Sense, putting the equation in plain terms.

Truly important people, however, rarely plop down a Visa card for perks and special treatment. Many years ago we were hiding out...uh, visiting Atlanta's paean to Civil War slaughter, the Cyclorama. As we watched a line of grade-school kids pay the entrance fee, a staff member told us that Ted Turner and Jane Fonda had toured the site just a week before. "Of course, they didn't have to pay," he added. In Dallas, you're more likely to find local celebs like Mike Modano or Dirk Nowitzki hanging out at comfortable, non-VIP establishments. Superstars stopping through the city, well, they're generally slumped poolside at Dragonfly or buried in anonymity amid the throng at Primo's.

In Dallas, says Nadia Lau, bartender at Medici, "you have your $40,000 or $50,000 millionaires who want to impress people. Then you have a crowd of people at the bar who really don't give a shit."

Perhaps conspicuous consumption has become tired, devoid of meaning. After all, anyone can lease a couple tons of fine German engineering to drive around. Cool cell phones are readily available. TJ Maxx and DSW sell designer items at Oklahoma City prices. And just about anyone can wrangle a seat in some nightclub VIP area. One member of the Burning Question crew jumped the rope at Medici and joined a party of twenty-something somebodies. Instead of basking in the excitement of exclusivity, he returned with this sobering report: "The ennui was suffocating."

Which pretty much settles things for this week. Passing for important in a homogenous nightclub scene requires little more than a willingness to rack up some additional debt. Bottle service is worth it to those who hate to wait for their next shot or risk being sloshed by unsteady drinkers crushed up against the bar. As an ego trip...well, it's time for the seventh-inning stretch, so we'll just let Gene Martinez, who bartended at the former Club Life, conclude.

"Dallas is such a clown show," he says. "People want to say, 'I was in the VIP area.' It doesn't mean anything."

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