It’s rising 1am on a Saturday morning. Out there, a hyped-up queue of would-be patrons stretches around the corner and out of sight.
They’re all intent on getting in here, where most will jostle for a drink before staking out a small patch of floorspace where they’ll be jostled some more as the teeming morass of bodies around them swells in size and alcohol-fuelled enthusiasm.
I think that men today are a lot more refined in their going-away choices.
It’s warm, loud and sticky; a typical scene for any of hundreds of nightclubs in Australia on any given Friday night.
But here in the VIP room, it’s different.
Behind the curtain
If rappers and movies are to be believed – highly credible sources of consumer information that they are – life is always better “in the VIP”.
On this particular night we’ve been introduced to what is touted as Australia’s first genuine VIP nightclub experience.
It’s the opening gambit in a weekend-long package of bloke-focused fun at The Star, Sydney’s only casino (for now) and entertainment complex.
Optimistically titled “Secret Men’s Business”, it promises an eye-watering array of special opportunities, most of which any guest of the complex’s signature luxury hotel, The Darling, can build into their stay.
Says a Star spokesperson: "I think that men today are a lot more refined in their going-away choices. There’s always the don’t-ask-don’t-tell weekend, but there’s much more to it these days. The experiential thing really flows into that, and that’s something the Star can offer on a very different level."
As the music pumps at The Star’s premier nightclub, Marquee, the drinks flow and the room is becoming jam-packed.
Tonight, though, the masses aren’t for us. We’re guided to a separate room next to the heaving nightclub proper, which is neither as packed nor as heaving and seems to have a proportionally higher ratio of female patrons. So far, so good.
It’s true that anyone can get into this VIP room with enough patience and palm greasing, but it takes something else again – a great many more somethings that are made of folding plastic – to enjoy true VIP treatment.
That means your own corner of the room for the entire evening that contains seating for up to 10 and a table stocked with drink service equipment, along with an attractive woman in a low-cut dress at your exclusive service. Her job is to keep glasses charged via what is touted as Australia’s only fully trained nightclub “bottle service” - just like the high rollers in New York, London, Shanghai and Moscow are served.
We also have at our sole disposal a hefty crowd controller. Although our little oasis of serenity is not roped off from the rest of the room, a force field of some description does evidently surround us. Our beefy mate sees to it that no-one crosses the no man’s land that separates us from the rest of the room without a nod from one of us first.
We learn this when a female patron in apparent high spirits spies our half-empty couch and veers blithely towards the vacant seat - until our smiling security detail gently assures her she’d be better off anywhere else.
As we watch the retreating figure weave towards the bar, it’s hard not to pick up on the attention we’re receiving from the room at large. Is my fly undone? A surrepititious check confirms not.
It’s only later when we learn how much our little corner costs that the penny drops. When the patrons who typically inhabit our corner for an evening are dropping close to six grand for the privilege – and that’s before a single drink is served from an eye-wateringly pricey menu – it seems that the world wants to know your name. And, judging by the long looks we’re getting, possibly also your number.
For a brief moment it’s easy to delude yourself that you’re as powerful and successful as these gorgeously misguided people have erroneously concluded.
The attention, combined with the ministrations of our small team of staff, makes for a weird euphoria. So this is why A-listers, high-powered executives and Russian oligarchs are willing to part with plenty for this type of genuine, high-end VIP treatment.
The giddiness of the moment is tempered by the certain knowledge that the second I walk out the front door, I’ll be another back-of-the-queue punter again. Still, even now I have a quiet smile to myself every time I contemplate that fabulous feeling of being feted and fussed over, even if it was for just one night.
A triathlon of testosterone
Our initiation complete, we roll up the next morning for a triathlon of testosterone, kicking off (literally) with Australia’s first World Cup match at the Star’s conference venue, which has been renamed the Hyundai Fan Park for the duration of Australia’s (short) participation in the world’s biggest soccer tournament.
As expected, Australia doesn’t win; unexpectedly, it doesn’t disgrace itself, either. Unlike me, who slept through the alarm and the game’s first half. No matter, because today will be not so much a sprint as a marathon of fun.
Mid-morning sees us shuffling into Black, one of the Star’s star restaurants, where we’ll spend an hour with head chef Jed Gerrard learning how to cook the perfect wagyu steak and asking the sort of detailed, annoying questions that only a team of hacks with sore heads can muster. The secret, apparently, is the sous vide, which is a sort of super-slow heating that warms the meat through, ready for the surprisingly swift flame-grilling that will impart both colour and flavour.
Next it’s off to another of the Star’s prize destinations, Momofuku Seiobo, for a three-hour, 12-course degustation lunch. The darling of foodies everywhere, its menu contains a highly eclectic and occasionally challenging mix of taste and texture, prepared in front of us with the most ruthlessly, silently efficient teamwork I’ve ever witnessed.
It's terrifyingly impressive but were I pressed to choose, I’d call that the experience was shaded by the previous night’s dinner at the highly-rated Sokyo – also a multi-course tasting plate affair, most in our group thought its Japanese-inspired flavours more consistently achieved excellence.
Rolling the dice
Thus far it has been relatively easy to forget that the main bread and butter of this sprawling megalopolis is about wagering on games of chance, so it’s time for a lesson in how to be a true high roller. Time, in other words, to learn how to play baccarat.
Unlike blackjack or poker, where players can exhibit an element of skill and experience to influence the outcome of the game and the fate of their stake, baccarat is a pure game of chance, albeit with the odds weighted slightly in favour of the house (of course).
This doesn’t stop the vaguely ridiculous charade of its well-heeled players – predominantly Asian businessmen, our dealer tells us – attempting to impart luck on the cards before revealing them. It’s a highly theatrical ritual but also completely pointless. The dealer assures us they’re standard-issue, and therefore unlikely to change their spots no matter how much winnowing or cajoling takes place.
The clientele usually admitted to the high roller suite we’re in – it typically requires a $100,000 stake just to walk through the door – are a ridiculously rich few. Their every pecadillo is indulged in a game in which millions of dollars can change hands. For that very reason, and the lack of skill involved, it’s not what I would choose to play.
And so we move on to another of the establishment’s core attractions – alcohol. To wit, a tasting of four different whiskies, for which purpose we are guided to a penthouse suite with sweeping views of the CBD and Sydney Harbour.
We’re talked through each of the four – including Scottish standards Macallan, Glenmorangie and Talisker and the highly sought-after Japanese drop, Yamazaki – by Tessa Bruce, who manages a couple of the Star’s many bars.
Most times she will run this tasting course - or, alternately, a cocktail school - at Cherry, a large bar adjoining the gaming floor downstairs, but for us it’s the salubrious surrounds of one of the complex’s finest penthouses.
Does good whisky taste even better surrounded by marble, leather and floor-to-ceiling glass? Not necessarily. But Bruce’s selections to introduce the complex world of whisky are spot on and several of our group leave the room more whisky-curious than when we entered.
More than a nightcap
In an odd turn of events we’re now off to the on-site day spa for a relaxing massage treatment, finishing with some time spent sprawled on a baking-hot stone. The Spa at The Darling’s menu includes seven man-focused treatments, one of which even serves a beer on arrival.
After a quick change ahead of dinner, we’re back in Black to sample as customers what we learned as budding chefs earlier in the day. Everyone orders steak and, as newly-minted experts in the matter, there is much dissection of what arrives at the table but general agreement that Gerrard’s technique has produced a fabulous result.
Dinner done, it’s off to Cherry for more drinks and banter, and we’re amused to find a quasi-VIP area – this time with a physical rope – has been set aside for us to sip on cocktails. Everyone is staring at us again, but this time it’s more ‘who the hell do you think you are?’ than ‘who are you and what can you do for me?’.
We’re relieved to adjourn for an evening nightcap at Black – our third time there today – where perusal of an impressive drinks list turns up a whisky gem I’ve not tried before and which sets a new benchmark for the smoky Islay malts to which I’ve become quite partial.
It’s an appropriate full stop, and a moment to savour an enormous 24 hours of pleasure, indulgence and learning before adjourning to the cosseting surrounds of The Darling’s well-appointed rooms.
If there’s one disappointment, it’s that our experience didn’t include the opportunity to drive a Ferrari around Sydney Harbour, which is another option box that can be ticked.
Still, we’ve basked in the glow of special treatment for the rest of the weekend and discovered that life “in the VIP” can indeed be pretty sweet; so perhaps that blat in a Ferrari can wait for another weekend.
‘Secret Men’s Business’ is a series of add-on experiences available to add to any booking at The Darling hotel. Contact the hotel’s concierge desk to discuss options and bookings.
Steve Colquhoun stayed at The Darling and participated in ‘Secret Men’s Business’ as a guest of The Star.