You'll see them file into the club sometime between 11 p.m. and midnight, looking as if they take the reality show title Keeping Up With the Kardashians all too literally. They cram into booths — guys dressed in Scott Disick–style party-boy casual and girls looking as though their first name should start with a K — as wait staffs greet them with overpriced bottles of booze.
As the night unfolds, the empty glasses pile up on their tables. Liquor comes and goes as these private parties within the party get started. They cheer and scream and dance against the edges of their booth. Anyone who walks past them can see that they're having a good time. Anyone who notices them will presume that they have money. They could just be posing hard-core, but that doesn't matter. In today's mega-club world, acting rich is more important than acting cool.
More than millionaire DJs, $20 parking spots and $40 covers, bottle service has come to define Los Angeles' mega-club era as a playland for the rich. That's particularly true in Hollywood, where clubs offering world-class DJs and bottles of Dom Perignon are plentiful. At Create, on Hollywood Boulevard, you can throw down a grand for 1.75 liters of Belvedere. Never mind that you can get that bottle through BevMo for around $50. It's time to live a little, right? (It's also pretty much the only way you can actually, you know, sit down occasionally.)
That's not even the high end. At Sound on Las Palmas, ballers can order a Methuselah (that's a six-liter bottle for all you common folk) of Dom Perignon 1996 Rosé Gold for $110,000. You could buy a Porsche for less.
It wasn't always like this. Years ago, when Hollywood was still sketchy, clubs were made for Angelenos with more style than money. Covers were low, street parking was much easier to score and, if bottle service existed, it was confined to secluded VIP rooms that the riff-raff never saw. In the 1990s and early 2000s, young people with mall-job incomes became scene stars in over-the-top outfits cobbled together from Jet Rag $1 sale finds. The best dancers could command their own corners of the floor, as people would look on in awe at their moves. These qualities could land you on guest lists; they might even earn you a drink ticket or two. Money didn't make you cool, but talent did.
Every once in a while, a famous musician or super-hip actor turned up at the parties. If they got special treatment, we didn't notice. We were spending too much time trying not to gawk as they danced in the same crowd as us.
All this changed as celebrity clubs and paparazzi culture grew. The former cool kids of Hollywood moved on to less expensive, and more underground, spots across the city, as Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and their entourages took over the mega-clubs.
Of course, that scene wasn't meant to last, either; it just paved the way for the ultimate in poseur chic. Now, with bottle service, people can pay to look important, to act like they're famous.
In truth, bottle service culture is an all-too-appropriate metaphor for Los Angeles today. This crowd exists as a distinct population inside the nightclubs they frequent. They never have to leave the comfort of the booth to get a drink. They can dance without bumping into the plebs on the floor. They won't be forced to socialize with people outside their caste or clique. They can party the way that Angelenos in gated communities and luxury complexes live, disconnected from the people that surround them.
Outside of the club, Angelenos struggle as rents increase faster than wages do. Formerly inexpensive neighborhoods continue to gentrify, pushing out longtime residents in favor of those willing to pay more than they should for rent. Neighborhood establishments close to make way for the latest in trend-setting food joints.
Inside the clubs, though, gentrification happened long ago. Bottle service is the constant reminder that, even in the party scene, the gap between rich and poor is now too wide to close.