Bottle Service: fit for a king or just his ransom?

My 21st Birthday, complete with bottle service and my dancing on tables. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Fernie, Lyme Productions.If your player skills can’t get you Keys to the VIP, a few hundred dollars certainly can. Every nightclub in Toronto offers the full VIP treatment for a price tag you could find strapped to a designer handbag.

The ongoing debate among club-goers though is whether the service and convenience merit the price.

The terms “bottle service”, “table service” or “booth reservations” all mean the same thing, but is commonly referred to as “getting a booth.” As the name suggests, a table and reserved seating area will await your arrival to the club. You will be spared the sometimes long and winding lineup to get in. On a snowy winter night, that means you’re not slipping the bouncer $10 per person to cut in front. You also get royalty treatment, being escorted through the club by a VIP host to your group’s roped-off area.

“It’s extremely popular for birthdays, getting the whole limo and booth package,” said Matt Maunder, a promoter and senior host for Lyme Productions. “People want to make it a night to remember, and this is one of the best ways to avoid a hassle when you get to the club.”

Most clubs will let four people in free for every bottle you order. This saves each person an average of $15, with some clubs charging $10 and “higher end” clubs charging $20. Additional people will be charged a cover fee at the door. The number of free passes usually goes up if you know a promoter or a manager at the club.

“I always ask for more comps,” said Natasha Horodelski, a student at Humber College. “Sometimes they say yes, sometimes they don’t. You never know unless you ask.”

Instead of paying to check your coat, you can leave it in your booth. This spares you from scrambling to find your claim ticket after having too many drinks at the bar. Often, waiting at your table, is a place card with your name on it. Not a corny plastic sign that you’d find at a Chinese restaurant, but a card reading “reserved for [insert your name here] courtesy of management.” While your friends “ooh” and “ahh” over how special you are, a cocktail waitress appears to take your order.

A 750 mL bottle starts around $175 and can reach $400 or more, depending on the brand. Standards such as Polar Ice, Smirnoff or Bacardi are on the lower end of the spectrum, while premium brands such as Belvedere, Grey Goose or Cristal cost more. With the markup of a bottle hovering above eight times retail value, some people just don’t see the point.

“I think it is ridiculous,” said Michael Halberstadt, a 21-year-old student who works part-time at the Beer Store. “I don’t understand why people are willing to pay that. An average night at the bar costs about $35 max, sometimes that actually includes cover.”

If it’s any consolation, the two bottles of alcohol are accompanied by unlimited mixers such as orange and cranberry juice, but an additional 15 to 18 percent is then added to your bill as a mandatory gratuity for your wait staff. Customarily, a server runs the show. Her responsibilities include serving your group’s first round of drinks, maintaining your booth’s supply of clean glassware, and replenishing mixers and ice.

Usually, clubs will enforce a two-bottle minimum. Again, this can change depending on the estimated number of people who will be in the booth. Some clubs have booths that hold parties of eight to 10, so you may have to get two booths side by side to accommodate everyone. Larger venues have booths that can comfortably seat 20 people, but you are generally required to get four to five bottles for a group that size.

“I would get it if it was a special occasion, such as the birthday of a close friend, but otherwise, it’s uncalled for,” said Laura Chelaru, a third-year student at the University of Waterloo. “It is expensive and I know I wouldn’t drink that much if I didn’t have two bottles sitting in front of me. It also takes way too much planning.”

How many people are going to split the cost? How many of those people will the promoter or club let in for free? Will everyone pay when the night comes? And whose credit card will be used to hold the reservation? These are just some of the things people need to take into consideration when deciding to go all out.

Unlike with restaurant reservations, you can’t cancel last minute if the weather is bad, or you got in a fight with your friends. When making your booth reservation a credit card number is taken down as insurance. If you don’t give a few days notice you will no longer be coming, the full amount will be charged to your card. This saves each person an average of $15, with some clubs charging $10 and “higher end” clubs charging $20.

With all these variables and $500 on the line, not everyone wants the pressure of committing their time or money.

“People like to go to clubs to have fun, but on the night of [the event] sometimes you’re just not up for it and the last thing you want to do is drink heavily and dance like crazy when you’re not in the mood,” said Michael Seetner, a co-op student at life insurance company AIG.

When the dance floor starts to brim with bodies, or those new dress shoes begin to pinch your baby toe, you will have nowhere to retreat or sit unless you have a booth. This was probably a deliberate move on the behalf of club owners, whose booths sell out almost every weekend, especially for special events, celebrity appearances or guest DJ performances.

“You should book the booth as soon as possible to avoid disappointment,” Maunder said. “Booths are extremely popular, if you notice at almost any club you go to, unless you have a booth there’s no seating areas.”

For larger parties who decide not to get a booth, the alternative is to meet by the washrooms or another designated spot at the end of the night. It is a much cheaper alternative, but unlike a bar, you will have a hard time finding anywhere to sit and rest your feet.

Bottle service at Century Room. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Fernie, Lyme Productions.“I like getting bottle service because a booth always comes with it,” Horodelski said. “When I have a booth I feel like a baller, you know, someone who has a lot of money and likes to spend it, someone who doesn’t wait in line for drinks — someone who gets what they want.”

Some people swear by bottle service, others swear at the markup. Do some quick math and see if the $40 per person to split a booth makes sense. Based on the number of people going, how organized your friends are and what your credit card limit is, you could save yourself a headache by planning ahead. If the purpose of a night out is to have fun, then good company and great music should be enough.

But going to a club costs money and you will be painfully reminded of it when you reach into your pocket the next morning and only manage to pull out a penny and some lint.