SERVING UP MORE THAN TENNIS by Abby Sher
From Chris Evert to clothesline bacon, a famed tennis club evolves with the times
When Orange Lawn Tennis Club opened its doors in South Orange in 1880, the light bulb was still a new concept, Billy the Kid was running wild, and Coca-Cola had yet to be tasted.
Within its first five years, Orange Lawn became wildly popular with tennis players nationwide. By the 1940s, the club was hosting one of the most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world: the Eastern Grass Court Championships. Standing room-only crowds of up to 4,000 lined the patios while tennis legends went head to head. Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, Althea Gibson, and John McEnroe are just some of the big names that graced Orange Lawn’s courts. Governor Brendan Byrne and George Plimpton played an exhibition game that drew 40,000 fans too.
As I drive up the winding path even on a recent wintry day the grounds of the club are stunning, with their rolling lawns and pristine courts. Moreover, Orange Lawn is one of only 14 clubs in the United States that still has grass courts. (Its grounds are cut and cared for by Steve Irvin, resident groundskeeper for over 30 years.) The original layout is still there, complete with old-fashioned press box and fan stands. There are also clay courts, a pool, an outdoor café, playgrounds, paddle-ball courts, indoor tennis bubbles – and stunning views of the valley.
After clay courts were introduced at the US Open in the mid-1970s, grass courts diminished in appeal for professional tennis players; indeed, over the next few decades tennis clubs in general struggled to keep their fan base. America was getting sucked into specialized sports programming such as ESPN or the Tennis Channel. Instead of going to the tennis club, we could watch at home with our families. Soon, we could even record the matches we were interested in, and play tennis virtually with console video games.
So how does a place such as Orange Lawn, with some of the most picturesque and renowned spots in American tennis history, stay relevant in modern times instead of just sitting on a hill as a relic?
To answer that question, clubhouse manager Stefanie Peters, the club’s membership and marketing director, takes me on a detailed tour, showing me all the ways Orange Lawn is redefining not only itself but the role of social clubs and tennis matches in this digital age.
The renovations began just a few years ago. In 2018, Bruce Schonbraun was asked to revive Orange Lawn. He’s a real estate developer who grew up in Jersey City, playing tennis against a chain link net at the public courts. Schonbraun and his ownership team took on this revitalization project not just because he loves tennis, though: He also believes that Americans are making a concerted effort to spend more time with their families. To that end, he started by revamping the courts and making a large outdoor playing space for children. There are now tennis camps for kids, a growing young athletes’ training program, and a social calendar full of family barbeques and parties.
“At Orange Lawn, families are at the heart of everything we do,” says Peters. “We are a social club with tennis and racquet sports at its core. At Orange Lawn, busy families can embrace a healthy, fun and relaxing lifestyle, a chance to enjoy time with their loved ones. Our many activities from Mother’s Day brunch at our world-class restaurant to a healthy, competitive tennis match, to reconnecting with friends and family at our pool, offer memories and friendships lasting a lifetime.”
Schonbraun and his team enthusiastically embrace the fact that this club has been around for almost 140 years and yet is now focused on attracting the next generation. Walking into the clubhouse on a recent afternoon, I’m greeted by a large framed plaque listing the tennis all-stars who once played here. The walls are covered in framed photographs of these great athletes in action too. And yet the arched windows and crisp new layout gives the place a special “home away from home” feel.
There are several places to wine and dine inside: a modernized dining room, a private party space, a gorgeous banquet hall, a sports bar, a garden dining room, and a pub that is decorated with the original art deco murals, beautifully restored by local artist, Heather Pallotta from Studio-18.
The newest innovation at Orange Lawn is unquestionably the food. In May of 2019, Schonbraun teamed up with acclaimed chef David Burke to reimagine the club’s dining rooms. Burke is famous for creating popular, whimsical dishes such as “clothesline bacon,” which has been copied at many different restaurants around the country. The bacon is precooked in maple syrup and spices, then hung from a tiny clothesline with real clothespins and blowtorched tableside so it is crisped up and drips fat onto a pickle in front of the dinner guests; they can cut it off with a pair of scissors when they’re ready to eat.
Burke grew up in Hazlet, NJ, where he says he started out as a dishwasher at a Sheraton Inn on Route 35. “I’d go into the kitchen, where all the cool guys were,” he tells me with a boisterous laugh. “I was dying to learn how to cook, but no one would teach me. You know, they didn’t have time…they just think you’re a kid, bugging them.”
Burke eventually got one of the “cool guys” to teach him a thing or two. After that first lesson, Burke was hooked. He studied at the Culinary Institute in upstate New York, then started traveling internationally, working in whichever Michelin star French kitchens he could. As he recounts how he learned to make croissants in France, it’s hard not to drool. But he’s grateful now to be back in his home state. David Burke Orange Lawn is just one of a dozen restaurants he currently oversees, and he tells me that he spends the most time here.
“This is a unique building,” he explains. The very same manicured lawns and elegant archways that draw people into the club can be somewhat of a challenge for getting new diners. “It’s not a very visible spot, so you have to know we’re here...it’s a hidden gem.”
To help draw in new guests, Burke and Schonbraun have developed a new take on the Dining Club by expanding menu options. For just ten dollars a year, anyone can grab a meal at David Burke Orange Lawn. They can also come to midweek happy hour, enjoy a bite, and watch a match on TVs at either of the bars in the clubhouse. Additionally, the club offers individual memberships, family memberships, and a growing list of new options for young players.
And as Peters describes it, if you come to Orange Lawn on a Saturday morning and stand next to that refurbished press box overlooking the lawns, as those first cans of balls pop open and the bacon starts sizzling, you’ll know exactly how magical this place can be.
Abby Sher is a writer and performer living in Maplewood. Her latest book, Miss You Love You Hate You, came out in February, 2020.