Money & Power

The Fascinating History of Food at Private Clubs

Open only to members and invited guests, many of the top private clubs serve obscure specialty items that can't be found anywhere else in the world.

The world of private clubs has long been associated with drinks and food, even though, historically speaking, the dining aspect of membership has never been at the forefront.

In the United States, the earliest city clubs providing members year-round drinking, dining, and recreation facilities were the Philadelphia Club and New York's Union Club, both dating from the 1830s. They took inspiration from London, where clubs originated as 17th-century coffee houses for men to dine, exchange news, and converse.

The Silversmith Rum Cocktail, a specialty of the Century Association in New York

The Brits began serving up “signature dishes” in the mid-19th century, such as "Mutton Cutlets à la Reform," or "Boodle's Cake,” a kind of orange-flavored trifle; the Oriental Club and the East India Club were famed for their curries.

The world of private clubs has long been associated with drinks and food, even though, historically speaking, the dining aspect has never been at the forefront.

Club specialties can be found stateside, too: the delicious almond macaroons at New York's Cosmopolitan Club, for example, or chicken pot pie at the venerable California Club in Los Angeles. These dishes are often archaic—something preserved by the innate conservatism and resistance to change cultivated by many of the most exclusive associations.

The Philadelphia Club features Veal and Ham Pie whose ancestor may be the "Travellers Pie," once a famous dish at London's Travellers Club that features bacon and pork as well as veal and ham.

These beloved dishes are rather plain and not devised to show off wealth or elite taste. And while many places do serve more ostentatious menu items, such as terrapin or game in the past, steak or lobster in the present, the specialties are timeless and comfortingly predictable.


Terrapin Stew was served at the Union Club in New York.

Women's clubs, like the Colony or Cosmopolitan in New York or the Centennial Club in Nashville, cherish their own specialties as well and, despite enduring stereotypes about what men and women like to eat, these are not so different from the favorites at male or mixed clubs.


Ultimately, club food is intended to be consistent and reassuring (like having a regular table or a waiter who knows your habitual cocktail) and these signature dishes manage to do just that.

Paul Freedman is a Yale professor who specializes in the history of cuisine. His latest book examines ten restaurants that have defined our country's appetite.

The State in Schuylkill, Andalusia, PA
Fish House Punch

The members of the Company (as it is commonly known) cook and eat dinner together in the fishing season, although for over a century the fish haven't come from local waters. This is where the celebrated Fish House Punch was first elaborated, and to this day, on the banks of the Delaware rather than the Schuylkill, the cocktail—made with sugar, black tea, lemons, rum, cognac, and brandy—is mixed in a nine-gallon Chinese export bowl that was presented by a sea captain on May 1, 1812.


A club member mixes a bowl of Philadelphia Fish Bowl punch.

Casino Club, Chicago
Candied Bacon Hors d’Oeuvres

Harvard Club of New York

Centennial Club, Nashville
Fried Asparagus Roll-Ups

Asparagus roll-ups at the Centennial Club

The “rolled asparagus sandwich” was created by Sadie LeSueur, the hostess and executive secretary of the Centennial Club. It calls for white asparagus tips (which presumably came from a can, since fresh white asparagus is a relatively recent introduction in the US) served on toasted bread.

Wilmington Club
Fried Oysters

Philadelphia Club
Veal and Ham Pie

V&H Pie at the Philadelphia Club

Veal and Ham Pie (served hot or cold) is still a common dish in Britain, and there are many online recipes for it from chefs like Jamie Oliver. It was served at the Astor Hotel in 1917 and the Pierre in 1933. The Philadelphia Club tradition is an example of both Anglophilia and historic preservation.

Pacific Union Club, San Francisco
Crab Legs à la PUC

The crab cocktail seems ordinary, if delightful, but it is made using whole crab thighs, a special “cut” as it were not generally available.

Mory’s, New Haven
Baker Soup; Welsh Rarebit

Mory’s began in the mid-nineteenth century as a Yale student singing and drinking club. The rarebits (or rabbit) were an appropriately Anglophile snack to accompany beer and punch. Baker Soup has a tomato base and a curry flavor related to Anglo-Indian Mulligatawny soup.

Century Association, New York
Silversmith Cocktail; Macaroons

Macaroons, like these at the Century Club Association in New York, are a staple.

The Silversmith is a rum cocktail served with crushed ice in a silver julep cup that has the name of a deceased member inscribed on it; a slightly disconcerting way to recall absent friends. The macaroons are made especially for the Association and are soft and flavorful. Here they are served with candy-corn in honor of Halloween.

Cosmopolitan Club, New York
Macaroons; Dessert Soufflés

A women’s club whose house-made macaroons are a bit chewier than those made for the Century Association.

Knickerbocker Club, New York
Sole Knickerbocker; Knick Glory (a layered sundae with ice cream, whipped cream, and raspberries)

Beach Club, Narragansett
Lobster Roll

Belle Meade Country Club, Nashville
Faucon Salad; Frozen Tomato Salad; Door Knob Filet

The Belle Meade's Club Frozen Tomato Salad

Chilled tomato dishes go back at least to the late-19th century when “tomatoes à la Jules César” appeared on the menu at Antoine’s in New Orleans (named after Jules Alciatore, the son of the restaurant's founder). At Antoine’s, the tomatoes were chilled, scooped out, stuffed with crabmeat ravigote, and served in a vinaigrette. The Belle Meade’s preparation is closer to a combination of aspic and granita. The club also serves it’s signature Faucon Salad (iceberg lettuce, bacon, hard-boiled egg, and blue cheese dressing) and a Door Knob Filet (filet mignon the size of a door knob).

Lotos Club, New York
Corned Beef Hash

New York's Lotos Club offers this corned beef and hash.

This is an example (along with Calf’s Liver, also featured at the Lotos) of a once-common entrée now hard to find, which flourishes in an appropriately timeless environment. Here the hash is served on an English muffin, topped with poached eggs.

Union Club, New York
Rice Pudding

The Union Club serves this classic rice pudding.

In the late-19th century, the Union Club offered a number of specialties like Terrapin à la Union Club, served at dinners and banquets. According to a centennial history of the Union Club published in 1936, “Terrapin à la Union Club became a household word.” This hasn’t been the case for a long time, but the magnificent dining room boasts an excellent rice pudding distinguished by its anise flavor.

Maidstone Club, East Hampton
Fish Chowder

Bath and Tennis Club, Palm Beach
Southside cocktail; Gold Plate Special

The cocktail is made with vodka or rum, sour mix, mint and a spritz of club soda, served on crushed ice; the Special involves the choice of three items from a cold buffet that usually includes: shrimp, crab, or lobster salad; avocado stuffed with crab; celery remoulade; chilled asparagus; and tomato aspic with mustard.

Palm Beach Country Club
Chinese Stir-Fry Buffet (Sundays); Chocolate Babka

University Club, Milwaukee
Friday Fish Fry


Pebble Beach Resorts, Pebble Beach, California
Del Monte Artichoke Soup

This artichoke, cream and potato soup pays homage to the pre-eminence of Monterey County for US artichoke production. Dates from the 1940s and perhaps decades earlier.

Onwentsia Club, Lake Forest, Illinois
Onwentsia Cornflake Ring

Dating from the early 1950s and taken from the back of a Corn Flakes box, the cereal is mixed with pecans, brown sugar and butter and then put in a Bundt mold to make it a circle. Whipped cream is put in the center.

*This story originally appeared on
* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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