Stripping in New York is no longer only about stuffing G-strings with $1 bills in sleazy clubs but handing over $3,000 tips to women who shed their gleaming evening gowns for a lap dance in lavish cabarets.
A decade after New York began cracking down on seedy strip clubs, the business has flourished and turned upscale. While the city continues its fight against the few remaining sordid joints that once populated Times Square and along Eighth Avenue, fancy establishments catering to executives with large corporate expense accounts have sprung up to the west of the famous landmarks.
On a recent night at Penthouse Executive Club, at 45th Street and 11th Avenue, a manager handed $3,000 in cash to a dancer, a gift from a regular customer who couldn't come and wanted to make sure his favorite entertainer did not go home disappointed.
In the past two years, half a dozen high-end cabarets opened in renovated warehouses amid car repair shops in a long decrepit industrial area on the West Side of Manhattan, from Chelsea to Midtown near the Hudson River. Here they avoid stringent laws regulating adult establishments closer to residential streets and take advantage of cheap real estate.
"The city said 'If you're going to have an adult club in Manhattan, have it on the West Side,"' said Steve Karel, director of marketing at the Hustler club, which opened last year at 51st Street and 12th Avenue.
The new clubs have valet parking and dress codes — sneakers or T-shirts are banned. They charge as much as $25 for admission and $10 for a beer.
Steak and champagneAt the $10.5 million Penthouse, topless dancing takes place everywhere from the Middle Eastern-themed "Harem Rooms" to the second floor Robert's Steakhouse, run by celebrity chef Adam Perry Lang, formerly of upscale New York restaurants Le Cirque and Daniel. A steak can run as much as $105, a bottle of Champagne up to $3,500.
"The best nights for the club are typically work nights, Tuesday through Thursday, when the high rollers come in," said Faye Rogaski, a spokeswoman for Penthouse.
The club has a private elevator with red velvet walls and plush couches for VIP customers who want to come and go discreetly. It can double as a private room for lap dances when the club fills to its 470 capacity.
"Penthouse is the best gentlemen's club that I've been to," said Robert Schneider, a New York theater executive. "The dancers are gorgeous and they never give you the hard sell to buy them a drink or continue a dance in the VIP rooms."
With their upscale look, the cabarets shook off some of the stigma attached to adult entertainment and even attract some female patrons with private striptease lessons.
Women at bachelorette parties or out to surprise their partners in the bedroom fork over $50 for a 30-minute one-on-one lesson with a Penthouse dancer.
"One suburban lady enjoyed it so much that she wanted to start stripping on the club's main stage right away," Rogaski told Reuters.
Community boards have not objected to the new clubs. In the case of Scores WestSide, the local board asked the club to plant street trees and hire from the neighborhood.
No touching please
For the dancers, high-end clubs mean better jobs and more cash. They make an average of $1,000 a night and don't have to worry about cheeky patrons — there is no touching allowed.
Ten years ago, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to herd strip clubs into industrial zones with the so-called 60-40 law, which banned clubs with stripping on more than 40 percent of their floor space from residential neighborhoods.
While a few small businesses closed, other strip joints and video stores managed to survive.
"The problem with the 60-40 law was that it had a loophole you could drive a truck through," said Richard Plansky, deputy criminal justice coordinator for current Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "Clubs just rearranged their furniture."
In 2001, the city changed the law to ban any club that regularly featured adult entertainment from residential areas.
Clubs like Scores on the East Side sued on First Amendment grounds, but a New York appeals court sided with the city. The clubs went to the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, which has yet to hear the case.
"Complying with the law for (strip clubs in residential areas) would mean moving, or they would have to change into non-adult establishments," Plansky said.
Scores hedged its bets, opening another club on the West Side at 28th Street and 11th Avenue, beyond the reach of the 60-40 law.
"The West Side club is 100 percent topless, including the restaurant," said Gus Livaditis, who started as a busboy at the East Side Scores in 1997 and rose through the ranks to become general manager at Scores WestSide when it opened last year.
Of the many private rooms at Scores WestSide, one is reserved for shock jock Howard Stern, a frequent guest who sometimes invites Scores dancers on his radio show. "If he's not here, no one uses it," Livaditis said.
If cabarets in other parts of Manhattan succumb to the new law, the clubs on the West Side say they would welcome them in their area.
"Anything that brings traffic is OK," Karel said. "If some of those clubs moved into our zone, we think that would be better for our business."
Confident that the good times will continue, Hustler plans to double its size and add a roof deck with a heated dome and bar to circumvent New York City's indoor smoking ban.