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Portland's members-only clubs look for new life

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Portland's members-only clubs look for new life

PORTLAND — One of the city's most exclusive clubs is opening its doors to the public as part of Maine Restaurant Week, underway now through Sunday.

The Cumberland Club, a private social club housed in an 1800 mansion at 116 High St., is offering a prix fixe dinner for $42 per person, prepared by the club's gourmet chef and in-house kitchen.

The club is one of nearly 80 eateries statewide participating in Restaurant Week, an annual culinary celebration that features special pricing and menus, all designed to promote Maine restaurants.

But the club is the first members-only group to be participating, and the only participant whose menus are usually seen only by people willing to shell out thousands of dollars a year for the privilege.

Restaurant Week may be changing that.

"Restaurant Week so far has been a wonderful opportunity for us to showcase what we have, and for the community to see what we're all about," the club's general manager, Steven Hayward, said Monday.

Founded 136 years ago, the club has a membership of about 470, most of whom are people in their 50s or 60s who come to the club for private meals and to hold business meetings, according to Hayward. But now the club is trying to to attract interest from a broader – and younger – crowd.

"We have a lot of room to grow, and we're trying to cultivate the next generation of members," he said.

But misconceptions about such private clubs can make that difficult.

For years, the organizations have been the exclusive territory of the rich, powerful or famous. The Cumberland Club's early members included Maine governors Joshua Chamberlain and Percival Baxter. President Franklin Roosevelt spent time at the Federal-style mansion, which the club bought in 1895. Today, it is filled with historic portraits, dark wood-paneled walls and fireplaces in nearly every of its 10 rooms.

Until the 1960s, women were not admitted to the club, and could only enter the building through a side door, according to Hayward.

"A lot of people have never heard of the Cumberland Club, or think it's someplace they could never join," he said. "But we welcome everyone here, from all walks of life. We're simply looking for men and women of distinction."

The club is also looking for individuals who can afford the $1,650 annual dues, $1,000 admission fee and $60 monthly food costs most members are required to pay.

Two blocks away, another historic social club offers a more modest alternative. The Portland Club was founded in 1886, and today is based at 156 State St., in a mansion nearly as old as its neighbor's.

The club has an in-house catering service for special meals and events, but not the full-time kitchen of the Cumberland Club. Dues are only $275.

Steve Luttrell, president of the Portland Club, said his group is also trying to bring in a greater number of young, diverse members. Like the Cumberland Club, the Portland Club holds discussions of current events with prominent local leaders, and also offers amenities such as flat-screen TVs and Wi-Fi coverage.

"We're trying to redefine and reinvent the club for the 21st century," he said. "The old model was based on English men's clubs ... but now the idea is to make the club more appealing to the Facebook generation."

The Portland Club has a membership of nearly 200, but is trying to increase that to over 300, according to Luttrell.

Because of their age and their historic buildings in Portland's West End, Luttrell said there are some similarities between the two social clubs. But there are differences too.

"We don't distinguish between white collar and blue collar," he said. "And we want to be a team member of the community, by holding events that give something back to Portland."

Another ironic distinction between the clubs lies in their early days. The Portland Club was founded by Fred Dow, a Portland politician whose father, Neal Dow, was also known as "the father of Prohibition" for his attempt to lead a national ban on alcohol consumption.

In the early 20th-century, when such a ban was law, Portland police twice raided a "speak-easy" where alcohol was being illegally served, according to Hayward.

The speak-easy location? The Cumberland Club.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.