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No Sparklers, Please: Has Bottle Service Fizzled Out?

In 2006, three celebrities stepped out for a night of clubbing and unknowingly made pop culture history. Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears comprised what the New York Post dubbed “Bimbo Summit” marking a bygone era of glamorous booze-fueled debauchery. At the center of this wave sat the VIP section where celebrities, athletes, and their entourages gathered around luxury tables stocked with ice buckets of seemingly infinite supplies of Champagne and spirits.

Now, after nearly two decades, economic recessions, changes in technology, and a global pandemic, the sparklers have dimmed. By 2024, the bottle service boom has long fizzled and culture has taken a different stance on purchasing bottles at the club, particularly in New York City.

The Rise and Fall

Bottle service is a relatively young concept. Beginning in Tokyo, then Paris, it found its way to New York City in 1993 via Tunnel, a legendary nightclub on Manhattan’s West Side. As its popularity grew, clubs like Chaos and Sky Bar began raising the price tag and requiring bottle service to gain VIP room access. Miami, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles would follow by the early 2000s, making bottle service a revolutionary, and very profitable, staple of nightlife, now crucial to the longevity of a club’s lifespan.

Michael Garten is VP of Nightlife Operations for Tao Group, which runs venues like Tao, Hakkasan, Marquee, and, in New York City, PHD, Electric Room, Loosie’s, and Little Sister. Since he started in 2011, he’s experienced firsthand the bottle service slowdown. “Bottle prices have gone up, but the total spend has gone down,” he says. “Tables spending $10,000, $50,000, $70,000, that was common. Now it’s really few and far between.”

The cultural acclaim of bottle service has died down. Many club goers who might not make it past the door on a regular night use buying bottles as a way to guarantee entry, lessening the automatic VIP status.

Nightlife maintains its crucial role in culture, but the function of nightclubs themselves has changed. Before social media and dating apps, going out was essential. Dates were made on the dance floor and the VIP section identified potential of a certain caliber. A source working bottle service at several of the city’s current hottest clubs confirmed that changes in technology have decentralized major aspects of intention behind buying bottles. They agreed to speak anonymously to protect not only their serving job but the venues where they work. From this point, we’ll call them “Taylor.”

“People used to go to the club to meet people but now we have Instagram and Raya,” Taylor says. “You don’t need to spend $10K on a table to meet a model at the club, you can just go on Raya … and models don’t go to the club anymore. They’re looking for guys on Raya.”

Having a personal bottle and seating is lavish, but if there’s no one to impress, is it worth the price tag?

Money Talks, Wealth Whispers

With looming warnings of a recession, many club-goers are finding the budget too tight for bottle service. “They’re not looking to spend money,” Taylor says of the Murray Hill crowd drawn to certain clubs, “They’re sneaking in Fireball shooters.”

Graten says corporate card use is down significantly and companies aren’t going out as much outside of the holiday season. This counts for a large part of venue income and makes the ebbs and flows trackable with trends in the tech and finance industries. “We’ll see an uptick in sales during a crypto boom,” he notes. “There was a moment with NFTs but that was a short phase.”

“It’s tequila, vodka, Champagne, in that order. We only do sparklers for Champagne and always ask if they want them because a lot of times they don’t.”

At mega clubs, tables often look straight out of an episode of “Succession,” but while the prime real estate is fun and exciting for some VIPs, it’s a necessity for others.

In the past, the VIP section served as a veil of privacy for the A list. The paparazzi were kept outside and the masses inside had to be invited to the table, allowing celebrities some level of secretiveness around their behavior. That was before everyone had a camera on their phone. “Social media killed bottle service,” Gaten says. “Everyone is scared that they’ll get caught on camera and get into some trouble.”

He recalls the days when athletes would be out into the early hours with a game to play that same day and celebrities felt free to partake in behavior that could now be career-ruining if captured by a bystander and posted online. While society in the past still took pleasure in the take-down of a star, today’s landscape brings threats of cancel culture and consequences beyond jokes in headlines. Taylor notes most of their celebrity clients only really party at The Box, a downtown institution with private seating upstairs and rules against phone use.

Last year marked an era of discretion in displaying affluence. Stealth wealth and quiet luxury dominated fashion, and while we may be transitioning out of such trends, New York City clientele still prefer to stay under the radar.

“They’re there looking fierce in designer they got at a sample sale, bringing the ambiance and the scene and the club benefits from that — because of the people who are there who wouldn’t be if they were buying $30 Vodka Sodas.”

While the menu hasn’t changed in clubs, the presentation has. “It’s tequila, vodka, Champagne, in that order,” Taylor says of VIPs’ most popular orders, “We only do sparklers for Champagne and always ask if they want them because a lot of times they don’t.” Compared to a city like Miami or Las Vegas where loud celebration is always in style, parading bottle service has become a faux pas in many New York venues. “People want to be low key,” says my source. “Everyone is so concerned with what’s cool.”

Paradoxically, offering bottle service to the right people is the best way for clubs to draw an actual cool, avant-garde crowd — an obvious, and crucial, element for a venue to remain hot. One of the most common uses of bottles and tables, particularly at smaller clubs or specific parties, is incentivizing promoters and hosts. Providing bottle service to this demographic establishes not only a natural hierarchy but also a sense of community, both of which are necessary to create nightlife culture.

Blaire Spicer hosts parties thrown by iconic nightlife producers like Ladyfag and Suzanne Bartsch and is always seated at a table. “Bottle service has been the reason that cool people emerging in nightlife — the artists and the future of the fashion industry — are able to go to the club before they have money,” she says, “They’re there looking fierce in designer they got at a sample sale, bringing the ambiance and the scene and the club benefits from that — because of the people who are there who wouldn’t be if they were buying $30 Vodka Sodas.”

Bottle service may not be bringing nearly the sales it once did, but its function as a promotional means to build culture remains invaluable. The bottle-service purchase being deemed cool or uncool is due mainly to a generational change; a younger, socially conscious age group that functions more online and is less impressed by showy opulence. And yet, they’d likely sit at a table if offered, sparklers or not. Even if it never reclaims the throne it once had in nightlife, bottle service will remain an irreplaceable part of the club experience — a celebration even without an occasion and, without a doubt, a really good time.

The article No Sparklers, Please: Has Bottle Service Fizzled Out? appeared first on VinePair.

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