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Matt Ipcar

Upper Crust: At the weekly party Indulgence, a largely society and international crowd with big bucks comes to party in Harry Denton's Starlight Room.

Spying on San Francisco's high society

By Michelle Goldberg

San Francisco, it seems, is going through its version of New York in the mid-to-late-'80s. Like last decade's Masters of the Universe, young people with bloated stock options have grown flush and enamored of conspicuous consumption. Even the growing tide of anti-yuppie propaganda, which has devolved from the witty, thought-provoking Seismic Solution to the nativist rantings of the Mission Yuppie Project (with its calls for all right-thinking urbanites to deface upscale vehicles), recalls New York's old Die Yuppie Scum graffiti.

Several recent and upcoming films celebrate the plush days of '70s and '80s East Coast nightlife, when hot nightclubs still resembled debutante balls as much as they did freak shows. Here in San Francisco, though, you don't have to sit in a dark theater to relive the last days of disco, because it's happening all over again every Wednesday at the Starlight Room.

Indulgence, a weekly Wednesday party in Harry Denton's lush, ornate club on the 21st floor of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, is like nothing else in San Francisco. Here, a largely society and international crowd oozing with dough comes to party in perhaps the most gorgeous space in the city, a decadent room with a 260-degree view done up in deep burgundy velvet and burnished gold and filled with roomy banquets and crystal chandeliers.

On a recent night, a gaggle of strippers celebrate a birthday party next to a table full of several older Middle-Eastern men in turbans. Nearby sits a table of impeccably dressed Tokyo tourists, a young couple speaking in French and a trio of expensively dressed men conversing in German.

Deep house and disco pump from the sound system. Amazingly gorgeous women in designer cocktail dresses or painted-on hoochie-wear dangle on the arms of significantly less attractive men in suits or blazers with silk shirts open several buttons at the neck. Some of the men are old, far older than any of the men who frequent the SOMA clubs. Others are beefy and thick-necked, with hair gelled into spikes hard enough to impale a small animal. Still others have long hair dangling Fabio-style over pale sport coats.

Hovering around somewhat tensely are women of a certain age with tight faces and bright makeup and an odd fondness for leopard-skin prints. Champagne chills on every other table, waitresses in the Starlight Room's trademark slinky black gowns glide through the crowd bearing top-shelf cocktails, and throngs of the young and privileged move on the dance floor, looking out at the sparkling city from high above it all.

"It's location, location, location," says Harry Denton, the legendary raspy-voiced libertine who runs the Starlight Room. (The walls abound with pictures of Denton, 100 pounds heavier, with girls hanging off each arm.) He credits promoter Sebastien (who runs the party with Nicole Hill) for bringing in the lovely, rich crowd. "Sebastien goes out six nights a week. I go out six nights a week. We're always passing passes out. We get mentions in the social columns. Still," he says, "nothing is better than word-of-mouth."

He continues, "Younger people are making a lot more money, but a lot of people here look like they have more money than they do. They'll come here and drink instead of having dinner. People get dressed up to come here! They dress hot on Wednesday night! I just love the women here--they're in all kinds of outfits, from Versace to a $50 rubber dress that looks great on the right lady."

According to Franc Harris, who does publicity for Indulgence, "This is a high-rolling crowd. The week before, I met a woman who said she looks for investments that start at $50 million dollars. She was a nice lady, very well dressed. It's not uncommon for a big spender to come in and spend three thousand bucks at the bar. I met a guy here who's 23 years old and claims to be worth $870 million."

Denton's calculation would lead one to believe that some of the girls he is so enamored of are, in fact, ladies of the night. So do hookers flock to Indulgence? "I've never been approached," Harris says. "But I've seen a few. I hear rumors here and there. I would think that hookers would come, because the people with the money go there." After all, if you must sell yourself, there's no more comfortable, classy place to do it.

Indulgence happens every Wednesday at 10pm; Starlight Room, 450 Powell St. (atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel); $5; 415/979-3031.

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From the September 7-20, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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