If the University Club walls could talk, they’d have 100 years of juicy stories to tell. Like during prohibition, when alcohol was only legal by prescription, how bottles still found their way inside. “I am sure that many acute illnesses occurred here at the University Club necessitating urgent care,” member Lloyd Monk wrote with a wink in an old newsletter. Or when past president Charles Pruess helped the club survive the lean years of the Depression by installing a slot machine in the lobby, until he was told by members, who also happened to be judges, to remove it.
But more likely, the walls would talk about the century’s worth of camaraderie and community they’ve incubated. As one of Santa Barbara’s oldest institutions, the club has gathered people across social, professional, and political spectrums under one roof, during the good times and the bad. Members helped one another through WWII. They did so again during the Thomas Fire and debris flow.
On calmer days, the cream-colored mansion next to Alameda Park serves as a comfortably plush meeting space for friends and business associates. They rub elbows in the living room or speak privately upstairs. “This is a place where different people of different talents come together,” said current president Leonard Himelsein, who’s helping organize the club’s big Centennial Celebration on June 8. “It’s such a milestone, not just for us, but for Santa Barbara.”
Himelsein, a member since the 1980s, appreciates the club’s history as much as anyone, but he’s also looking to the future. He’s worked hard to modernize amenities and attract younger members, even cutting fees for people under 40 in half. “They’re the ones who will see us through the next 100 years,” he said animatedly in a thick South African accent. “We just upgraded the WiFi.” They also ripped up the old carpet, spruced up the patio, and will soon introduce a happy hour.
Himelsein, an entrepreneur, diamond dealer, and director of American Riviera Bank, insisted I join him over a lunch of scallops, mussels, and ravioli prepared by their new star chef, David Rosner. The food was light and tasty, a far cry from the standard club fare of overdone hamburgers and overdressed Caesar salads. Rosner, who Santa Barbarans will recognize from stints at Wine Cask, Café Luck, and The Monarch, redid 90 percent of the menu. He still serves a burger, albeit a much more elevated version, and has offered prawns from Mozambique, sole from Dover, and Wagyu beef from Idaho. The menu changes every Friday.
This is Rosner’s first job in a private club, and he relishes the opportunity. “What drew me to working in a club was being more of an innkeeper rather than running a commercial kitchen,” he explained. “I really enjoy the hospitality-focused home environment. It’s the best of both worlds.” Rosner is also about to roll out a new breakfast menu.
The menu for the Centennial Celebration, however, is a surprise, said manager Sarah Rudd. Rosner and Rudd worked together at Wine Cask and were hand-selected by Himelsein to lead the club through its renaissance. “We’re puttin’ the band back together,” Rudd said with a smile. The Roaring Twenties-themed party ― one of the only times in recent memory the club is opened to the public ― will feature a live band, gaming in the billiards room, silent movies out on the patio, and a raffle with big-ticket items. “It’ll be a blast,” she said.
For tickets, and to learn more about the University Club memberships, visit uclubsb.org.