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Remember the '90s? Most of the world loved us, everybody had money to spend, we could kick back at Dallas restaurants and whip out a cigar...which reminds us: good thing we put an end to all that hanky-panky in the White House.

Feel a lot better off now, we do.

The way we figure it, Americans prefer clear-cut boundaries. Even--nay, especially--artificial boundaries meet our approval. It just saves us time and brainpower if we don't have to tack on a "yes, but" to every sentence. Gotta save the gray matter for more serious stuff: which vodka to order, whose turn to pick up the tab, that sort of thing. That's why unsophisticated statements such as "you're either with us or agin' us"--just trying to use the proper vernacular--resonate with the public.

And thus it is with nightclubs.

Dallas-area residents flock to "members-only" clubs--Sense, Candle Room and to some extent Medici--for that "you're either in or out" distinction. "People really enjoy going to a place that's swankier and other people can't get in," says Bonnie Basham of D magazine's 2 A.M. Girls. "It's dressy, and Dallas is a dressy place."

The curious thing is this: We all follow rules of membership, whether or not we recognize it. Bounce around the different hot spots, from Dragonfly to Duke's, and you'll understand this trait. In Uptown establishments, men untuck their shirts and sweep up their hair with a modest amount of product. In Addison, the uniform is decidedly downscale, with T-shirts and jeans de rigueur. That's French for "welcome conquerors," by the way.

At members-only clubs, however, it's a list rather than a loose set of expectations that distinguishes the in-crowd.

Now, the Burning Question crew enjoys the occasional night at Sense, which would mean we're part of the in-crowd if we ever remembered being there. Aside from our first visit, our only evidence of membership is whopping bar receipts, strange calls from people we apparently met there demanding the return of personal items and an unfair scolding from our editor over a minor alleged incident (it wasn't our fault, we tripped; we grabbed them only for support) in which he mentioned the establishment several times.

Sorta wish our permanent record could be destroyed. Maybe we should join the National Guard.

Anyway, on our first visit, manager Greg Kalina said something that stuck with us: "Why not become a member, make it your own?"

People do that instinctively with their favorite hangouts--assuming a kind of ownership through growing familiarity. But these guys set out specifically to create a sense of community by defining their regulars. Candle Room and Medici attempt the same thing. "We're attracting people who want to have fun, meet people and not have issues of safety and security," says Joe Palladino, an owner of Medici.

Which makes it like any other bar--except for the guy out front with a clipboard list of names, and the outsiders, even the ones so skeptical of private clubs, who want a peek inside.

"We encourage newcomers who enjoy the experience to become a candidate for membership," Sense's Kalina explains. "They know quickly if there's some enthusiasm for the room."

But how does one get in?

Well, try Medici first. Few people bother anymore, and management recently relaxed many of its rules and resorted to gimmick nights and drink giveaways. Even Palladino admits their initial adherence to a strict appearance code went too far. Neither the pretty people nor the pretenders want to work that hard.

Remember, it's the illusion of exclusivity that matters here.

Sense and Candle Room remain places of urgency. So let's concentrate on those spots.

According to word on the street, Candle Room is an easier mark. It's younger, and management accepts a bit more elbow-banging than at Sense, which prefers to maintain some open floor space.

"I really just think that if you look cool, you can get into Candle Room," Basham says. "Girls just have a breeze of a time."

It's one of those things that successful bar managers understand. Sense and Candle Room attract female patrons, while Medici quickly became a male-dominated enclave. On two visits to the latter, we figured a ratio of three men to one woman. And, as Matthew, poet laureate of Dallas nightlife and doorman at Lush, points out, "the key to sustained exclusivity is women."

We asked a number of people at various bars if they patronized the private clubs and how they cracked the hard door. Some were too afraid of rejection to ever attempt entry. Several we spoke with have been turned away at the door. To Basham, gaining entry is a simple matter. "It just seems obvious," she says. "Look the part and play the part. Walk up, look like you know what you're doing and then do it." No need to don the Uptown look; just ditch the Wal-Mart crap you wear to happy hour in Addison. "People who can't get in are amateurs."

"We look for well-dressed people that look right," Palladino agrees. "The door is friendlier than people perceive it to be."

Medici kicked Basham out that friendly door on one occasion, but that's another story. It's what we admire about her, though.

Most door-crashing patrons suggest arriving on the scene early. Crowds vary from day to day, but few people show up before 11 p.m. Of course, the extra drinking time means you may be utterly sloshed by the time others strut in, but what the hell. We don't mind it. A more certain tactic requires the investment of some time and money. Drop by the restaurants associated with membership clubs--Cuba Libre or Fireside for Sense and Candle Room, Nick & Sam's or Il Mulino for Medici--spend a wad of cash on drinks, chat up the bartender, tip well and then inquire casually about a private club you happened to hear about. A couple of people we spoke with used this method successfully.

Ultimately, with a little effort, most people can get in at least once.

Once inside...well, just keep telling yourself it's exclusive and you're more important than that unwashed mob outside.

And step over us on your way to the bar.


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