The prices on the menu at Casa Cruz are reasonable, if you consider that the restaurant is the hottest new spot in one the most elite neighborhoods in one of the most expensive cities in the world. The grilled wagyu beef picaña with roasted carrots and charcoal-grilled sweet potato runs a mere $82 dollars, and the grilled veal chop with potatoes is only $81 dollars. But your tab quickly skyrockets into the stratosphere if you’re lucky enough – and wealthy enough – to dine in one of the private salons and indulge in one of chef Bill Brasile’s top-end dishes. Casa Cruz, which is part restaurant and part VIP club, currently has 99 members, each of whom pays between $250,000 and $500,000 in annual dues, giving them exclusive access to dine in the establishment’s private rooms, alongside original works by Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Keith Haring and Fernando Botero.
New York’s millionaires have been obsessing over clubs like Casa Cruz for 20 years. Since the Soho House opened in 2003, high-end establishments promising exclusivity and intimacy have proliferated. There is The Core Club and The Aman, in Midtown; Neue House, in Greenwich Village; Zero Bond, in NoHo; Casa Cipriani, in Lower Manhattan; and Fasano, on Fifth Avenue. Most of these clubs charge between $4,000 and $5,000 for an annual membership, but Casa Cruz is different. Technically, it is not a club, but a restaurant that serves South American and Mediterranean cuisine, with a select membership who have paid between a quarter and half a million dollars to feel like lords and masters dining in a century-old, six-story mansion on the Upper East Side. The dining room, bar and private rooms in the club’s VIP section are intoxicatingly glamorous. Some of the lounge rooms are paneled in Brazilian cherry with intricate copper accents; others are upholstered in stunning green velvet. There are fireplaces made of marble, and elegant, chinoiserie-style drapes. Waiters wear uniforms by New Zealand fashion designer Emilia Wickstead, courtier for Kate Middleton, Princess of Wales.
Steve Cuozzo, a columnist for The New York Post, has called private clubs like Casa Cruz a “cancer on the city” where “dining in private places is reserved for the privileged few.” Do New York’s wealthiest aristocrats need yet another exclusive club? According to restauranteur Juan Santa Cruz, Casa Cruz’s 51-year-old Chilean founder, the answer is yes, absolutely. “The pandemic has played a part in this. People have realized that they want to be with others like them,” he said during a recent interview with El PAÍS. “My club is small, it’s only for our 99 members and their families. But they are all very interesting people,” he says, without naming names. (Casa Cruz’s black-tie opening was attended by members of the Guinness, Santo Domingo and Niarchos dynasties, among others). There is no amount of money in the world that can buy a 100th membership. “We aren’t admitting anyone else, our quota is full,” says Cruz, who insists that the main restaurant, which can seat 66 guests, is open to the public (assuming you can get a reservation).
Cruz seems to know exactly what rich people want. Perhaps this is because he grew up among them. His father was a Chilean landowner, his great-grandfather and great-uncle served as ambassadors to the United Kingdom, and his aunt Lucía Santa Cruz was a friend of King Charles III. “I studied finance and economics in Boston,” Cruz says. “In 1995, when I graduated, I moved to New York and worked on Wall Street for five years. Then, in 2000, I moved to Buenos Aires to work for an investment fund.” In 2002, when the economic crisis broke out in Argentina, Cruz took a sabbatical year to think about what he wanted to do next in life. He was 29 years old. “I said to myself, ‘Why don’t I create a job that doesn’t feel like a job?’ I liked nice places, interesting people, delicious food and good wine. A restaurant has all that, so I decided to go into restaurants,” he says.
In 2004, he opened the first Casa Cruz in Buenos Aires. A decade later, in 2015, he opened another in England, in a Victorian building in Notting Hill. Now, Casa Cruz is one of London’s finest restaurants, and a favorite of celebrities like Elton John, Mick Jagger and Prince Harry. What is the secret of his success? “I have no idea,” Cruz says. “I guess people experience the intimacy and they feel at home.” At the height of the pandemic, in November 2020, British singer Rita Ora disobeyed lockdown measures to celebrate her 30th birthday. She chose Cruz’s restaurant for the party.
Cruz first brought his cuisine to New York six years ago, when he started a pop-up restaurant in Tribeca. He only planned to keep the place open for 16 nights, but it was so successful that he decided to serve dinner for three months. “Then everyone told me I had to open a place in Lower Manhattan,” he says. “But I like to be a contrarian, so I started looking in Uptown.” Searching for properties in that area, he stumbled on a mansion on 61st Street, between Park Avenue and Madison – an early 20th century Beaux Arts-style home designed by famed architect C.P.H. Gilbert.
Cruz and his business partner, Charlotte Santo Domingo, daughter of Charles Wellesley, the 9th Duke of Wellington, were in charge of selecting the restaurant’s every detail: the interior design, the lighting, the silverware, the table cloths. “We even chose the music and the scents,” she says. It took them five years to see their dream come true. “We got caught up in the pandemic and the work was delayed. While we were working on the project, I was watching New Yorkers leave the city fleeing Covid. I thought to myself, ‘Nobody’s coming back.’ But the real New Yorkers have come back.” The opening last September was a success, and Vogue named Casa Cruz “the most glamorous new restaurant” in the city.
“New York is in a constant state of change, but it always stays the same. It’s still the most important city in the most important country in the world,” Cruz says. “A very important businessman warned me recently: ‘Never bet against New York, because New York always wins.’”
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