The private Thames Club opens its doors to the public

New London — For the nearly 150 years of its existence, the Thames Club has been a private social club, available for members — many of whom have, over the decades, been movers and shakers in the region — to meet, mingle, chat and dine.

Now, though, the club is opening its doors on certain days for the public to come in and have a meal. It’s part of an effort to attract more and younger members.

Robert Salmonsen, the club’s president, said the rationale for the shift has to do with the fact that society has changed.

“We’re the oldest social club in Connecticut, but there are precious few social clubs that remain. It seems most apparent that the younger generations rely much more on social networks than they do on personal interaction,” he said.

The idea is that getting people who are younger or who aren’t members into the Thames Club for public dining will let them see what the club is like and what is has to offer — and that might lead to more folks wanting to become members. Instead of sitting in their apartments on their hand-held devices, Salmonsen noted, they could be at the club with friends, playing pool or chatting by the fireplace.

Derron Wood, who will become the club’s next president in May 2019, said, “So many people for decades have been walking past it and not even knowing that it’s a functioning, thriving, living, breathing institution. ... It’s an incredible facility and building.”

Russell Carr, who was the club’s most recent past president, discussed the financial side of the equation. He noted that the club’s taxes essentially have doubled since 2009, to $24,000 year, and that the total number of members has been steady for a while. There are about 64 full-paying members, with dues of $180 a month, and 32 members who pay reduced dues. (There are discounts, for instance, for young people, such as $50 a month for members under age 30, and for people who live more than 30 miles away.)

“If we had 20 more members, the tax burden wouldn’t be that big a problem. It’s still a pretty big tax, but we could afford it,” Carr said. “But attracting new members is hard, particularly young people because they don’t socialize the way people did 150 years ago, when the club was established.”

There's bowling, too 

The Thames Club was established in 1869, when two officers of the New London Northern Railroad company found themselves stranded in an inhospitable Amherst, Mass. They returned to New London and decided to organize a social club where members could find "a room with a tub," according to the organization's history.

The list of the original members reads like an index of city streets: Learned, Coit, Jennings, Bentley, Hempstead, Chappell, Converse and Whittlesey. While it was men-only for decades, women now are accepted for membership.

The club has had the financial wherewithal to exist for a century and a half, Carr noted.

“It’s not like we’re in extremis here, but we are looking forward, and we’d like to try some new things to see how would we structure the club going forward from 2018,” Carr said.

Hence, opening its doors for public meals on a limited basis. The schedule has to work around the club’s events and commitments. There is also a duck-pin bowling alley in the basement, and on some nights the downstairs club pub will be open to the public.

Recent menus show that a Sunday brunch might boast such offerings as bananas Foster French toast for $12 and classic New England breakfast (johnnycakes, bacon, poached eggs, cranberry chutney, green onion crema and dressed greens) for $15.

A recent prix fixe menu for dinner was $43 for three courses, with entrées choices of flank steak braciole (rolled with spinach and goat cheese and simmered in tomato sauce, roasted garlic, potatoes and lemon chili Swiss chard), pan-seared scallops (roasted beets, red pepper hummus, dressed arugula, brown butter and caramelized honey Miso), or braised chicken thigh (cannellini bean, cranberry and corn succotash, white wine pan sauce and crispy chicken skin).

And a Pub in the Club Bar Bites list has featured sticky soy wings ($10), housemade meatballs ($13) and beet salad ($12).

The chef at The Thames Club since three months ago is McKenzie Mahn, and he has a lot of experience in the restaurant world. He started out at age 17, working at Paul's Pasta in Groton as a dishwasher and at Herb's Country Deli in Uncasville as a prep cook. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Johnson and Wales University in Providence. He has been a line cook for Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain at Mohegan Sun, as well as working at the Engine Room, Oyster Club, and Grass & Bone in Mystic.

At the Thames Club, he is not tying himself to a specific kind of cuisine but is aiming to use fresh and local ingredients whenever possible.

“We’re just trying to do anything we can from scratch. ... Everything we can do on the premises, we do,” Mahn said.

Carr described the experience this way: “It’s local elegant dining.”

He said that the club isn’t staffed like a full-fledged restaurant. It isn’t trying to serve hundreds of meals but rather dozens. There are atmospheric advantages, he notes. The tables, for example, are spread out a bit more than at a restaurant, which allows for a little more privacy.

The benefits of being a member

For members, The Thames Club offers plenty beyond a delicious meal, of course. One feature is a monthly lecture, which has brought in everyone from best-selling author Jeff Benedict to puppeteer Heather Asch, who has won four Emmys for her work on “Sesame Street.” A string quartet from the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra has played, and the Chelsea Players’ Cabaret Ensemble performed “Songs from the World Wars” in November in honor of the centennial of the World War I armistice.

Wood, who is executive artistic director of Flock Theatre, runs his business mostly off his laptop and cellphone, but said that, since becoming a Thames Club member, he’s been able to hold auditions and rehearsals there and can meet clients there, as well. And, he added, he can just go to the club to put his feet up and relax or to have interesting conversations with fellow club members.

Salmonsen said, “The idea is that, once you cross the threshold, all of a sudden, there’s some kind of a change that comes over you. You know you’re surrounded by history and wonderful friends and family, and enriching experiences.”

People interested in perhaps joining can call the club and talk to manager Nancy Blair or email Bill Richmond, who is in charge of membership, at wrichmond5@comcast.net, to learn about the process.

Salmonsen recalled that when he and his wife moved to New London in the early 2000s, they didn’t know anyone. Through work-related contacts, he was introduced to the Thames Club.

“Overnight, my wife and I met over 100 wonderful people. So we really felt the immediacy of being put into the fabric of New London in a very short, concentrated period of time. It’s been wonderful,” he said.

Wood said, “I always say the Thames Club is the best-kept secret — and no one wants to keep the secret anymore.”

k.dorsey@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of Jim Giordano's name.

A few of the older tiles with the silhouettes of past and present club members that line the walls of the pub in the Thames Club. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
A few of the older tiles with the silhouettes of past and present club members that line the walls of the pub in the Thames Club. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

If You Go

What: Thames Club

Where: 290 State St., New London

Open to the public during December: lunch, from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 10-13, 18-20 and 27-28; dinner, from 5 to 8 p.m. Dec. 20 and 27; brunch, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 9 and 16.

And more: Pub nights are Dec. 22 and 28-29, from 5:30 to 8 p.m., limited menu.

Reservations are preferred. For more information, visit www.clubroomtc.com.

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