‘New people, new experiences’: City Club fills the gap left by the University Club

When the University Club closed during the pandemic, members mourned the loss of a fine-dining room that had been a gathering place at MU for 30 years.

“We had by far the best food and service in town,” said former General Manager John LaRocca in a Missourian story published last year.

To fill the gap, a group of former members have put together the City Club of Columbia, a rebranded organization dedicated to preserving many of the traditions of the University Club.

The City Club differs from the former club, however, in that it has no brick-and-mortar location or membership restrictions. Instead, the organization focuses on events across Columbia that explore the community’s social assets.

“We’re trying to broaden our scope of who we appeal to,” said Linda Keown, a board member of the new club.

Loyal members of the University Club attend the events, she said, but word-of-mouth, along with friends bringing friends, are helping to spread the word.

At the heart of the City Club’s mission is offering education, enjoyment and friendship through its events, according to the club website.

“I think we are looking for opportunities to explore Columbia further,” said Tootie Burns, the last president of the University Club and now a City Club board member. “To learn, to educate ourselves, to make new friends and to create experiences that people want to participate in.”

The City Club has already held three events — a spirits-and-cheese tasting at DogMaster Distillery, a wine tasting at the Country Club of Missouri and a dinner and conversation with Nobel laureate George Smith and his wife, Margie Sable.

“I think the main thing that people value is the camaraderie, so you’re getting together with friends and family,” Smith said. “Most of these folks have known each other for years and years.”

As a volunteer-run endeavor without any paid staff, Burns said City Club differs from her experience with the University Club because there is no managing staff or permanent location for the events.

It helps them be “much more attuned to maybe what some of our friends who attend our events are interested in,” she said, and they are learning as they go.

Burns said fellow board member Bill Costello frequently equates directing the club to “building the airplane as we’re flying.”

Most of the board members belonged to the University Club, which was located in the Reynolds Alumni Center and a popular place to entertain guests, celebrate family milestones, recruit potential hires and schedule philanthropic events. It was also the training ground for hospitality management students at MU.

It was “always a good meal, well served,” Keown said. “It was just a very classy place, and I really miss that.”

The University Club closed in September 2020 at the height of the pandemic but continued to prepare meals for students in university housing who were in isolation or quarantine from COVID-19. The university then made the decision to not renew the lease, which ended in August 2021.

Keown said a group of committed members formed an “ad hoc board,” and volunteers spearheaded a new experiment that would later become the City Club.

The club’s website launched a few months ago, and information about future events will be located there. Events are open to the public but require an RSVP and fee to attend.

An events committee will soon begin planning for 2023, aiming for at least one event every quarter. But, if opportunities present themselves, Burns said it could hold eight or 10 each year.

A goal of these events is to “just provide different opportunities for people to explore our town,” Keown said. “You know, things that maybe people hadn’t thought about.”

She has lived in Columbia since 1957 but said she had never visited DogMaster Distillery before going with the club. The events serve to explore what’s unique about the community, not exclusively university-associated things, she said.

“The University Club was a wonderful place, and it was in a beautiful location for 30 years on the MU campus,” Burns said. “But I’m really excited for City Club. So as opposed to looking back, we’re looking forward to City Club taking off and becoming a new opportunity for people to gather and socialize and experience some great opportunities in our city of Columbia.”

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