It can be impossible to get into some of Brooklyn’s most exclusive bars. But you won’t find velvet ropes or bouncers at these establishments, and sometimes you won’t even see a sign. They’re holdouts from another era: the borough’s few remaining members-only social clubs.
In the late 19th century, Kings County citizens made an effort to keep up with Manhattan’s social elite by founding extravagant private clubs that offered various forms of entertainment to men of the upper class. A few boasted billiards, swimming pools and even rifle ranges—but drinking was an important part of the appeal. Some clubs, like the Carlton in Park Slope, were originally “dry,” but by 1889 its members voted to serve beer and wine, a move that vaulted the club to the front rank of the borough’s social scene. In Brooklyn Heights, a club called the Crescent featured a 3,000-square-foot wine cellar.
By the mid 20th century, members-only clubs were no longer the exclusive domain of the leisure class. As immigrants put down roots in Brooklyn, they formed communities with fellow expats and, across the borough, clubs formed around ethnic identities. Most common were the Italian men-only clubs established on practically every block in paesano-packed neighborhoods like Red Hook, Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge. As their name implies, the clubs were chartered for social purposes, such as organizing dinners, dances and other recreational pursuits. But that official purpose skirted the need for a liquor license, and many did double duty as drinking dens. The members-only setting was ideal for clandestine conversations in the mother tongue, and a handful of Brooklyn’s social clubs were made infamous for their connections to organized crime.
Though their numbers have diminished over the decades, some social clubs can still be found in historically Italian neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens and Williamsburg. Tucked away in unmarked brownstones or sandwiched between hip boutiques, you might catch a glimpse of men playing cards and smoking cigars over glasses of grappa. Good luck getting past the “Members only” sign.
But at least one such sign now reads “Non-Members Welcome,” thanks to a modern makeover: In the Smith Street space where Sicilian club Societa Riposto long stood, the bar called Brooklyn Social offers opera on the jukebox and old Riposto photos on the walls. They even offer limoncello cocktails—at prices that keep out the riffraff.