Saturday night, Prospect Avenue, Princeton, N.J.: Students filter down a row of mansions, flash their IDs, and enter a different world. Inside, the floors are lacquered hardwood, the walls are crisp white, the beer is on tap — and it is free. There are DJs on the dance floors, bands in the backyards, drinking games everywhere, and none of this has anything to do with a residential college council or a student activities fee: This is just any old Saturday night on “The Street.” This is Princeton, and these are the eating clubs.

The 10 eating clubs, which serve about 75 percent of Princeton upperclassmen, provide a lot more to their members than just a place to eat. For many students, the clubs function as dining halls, libraries, and the centers of their social lives. In comparison to Harvard’s finals clubs or Yale’s secret societies — other elite institutions within elite institutions — the eating clubs play a much larger role in the day and night life of individual students and of the University as a whole.

The tradition of Princeton eating clubs began in the mid-19th century, when the university’s refectory burned down and its growing student population needed to find alternative places to eat. The first eating clubs, which had names like “Knights of the Round Table” or “At Mrs. Van Dyne’s,” were casual associations formed in village boarding houses that often existed for no more than four or five years. The modern eating clubs trace their roots to 1881, when the Ivy Club was incorporated and built a house on Prospect Avenue, becoming the first official “upper-class eating club,” according to Princeton University Press’ “A Princeton Companion.”

The system of eating clubs now consists of five selective “bicker” clubs (Ivy, Cottage, Cap and Gown, Tiger Inn, and Tower) and five non-selective “sign-in” clubs (Terrace, Colonial, Charter, Cloister and Quadrangle), all located on Princeton’s Prospect Avenue. Each of the clubs is a private organization with its own building, staff, and daily service of breakfast, lunch and dinner. While clubs have no official connection with the university, junior Jim Williamson, the president of Princeton’s Class of 2007, who has worked closely with the administration on residential issues, said the relationship between the administration and the eating clubs is hardly acrimonious.

“The eating clubs are separate, but to say that they’re not a part of Princeton is taking that way too far,” he said. “Generally, there’s a great emphasis on working together because the University understands that there’s a large percentage of undergrads that are deeply involved in this.”

Princeton spokeswoman Cass Cliatt said that while the clubs are separate from the university, the administration remains aware of eating club activity and maintains some official connections, including a liaison to the clubs in the college dean’s office.

“Our students take their meals there, and it is part of their undergraduate experience,” Cliatt said. “Even though the eating clubs operate independently, our concern with the health and well being of our students does not stop at Prospect Ave.”

Club facilities often include dining rooms, libraries, game rooms, social spaces, athletic facilities, computer clusters and, in one of the clubs, a hot tub. Only the officers of the clubs actually live in the buildings. Marco Fosatti-Bellani, the president of the Colonial Club, said the food in the clubs, which is prepared by highly experienced executive chefs, is “awesome.”

Freshmen and first-semester sophomores, who eat in Yale-style residential colleges, are not members of the clubs. Students have the opportunity to join an eating club at the beginning of the second semester of their sophomore year, and it often remains their main dining hall for the rest of their time at Princeton. The quarter of Princeton upperclassmen who do not join eating clubs are dubbed “independents.”

In comparison to Harvard’s final clubs or Yale’s secret societies, Princeton’s eating clubs are in many ways less exclusive. Even the selective bicker clubs have open application; any student can go through the bicker process. Neither final clubs nor secret societies accept applications; students are simply “tapped” for membership, or at Harvard, “punched.”

Brandon Bierlein, a sophomore who recently became a member of Tower, said the bicker process was a generally positive experience.

“Some people equate bicker to a fraternity rush,” he said. “I really don’t think they have anything in common. I actually thought it was a lot of fun.”

Though Bierlein would not divulge the specific details of the bicker process, most bicker processes consist of a weeklong series of events and interviews through which applicants meet club members and get to know the function of the club. Members then gather to discuss each applicant and decide if they would be a good fit. Some clubs, like Tower, have “positive only” bicker processes, where members are restricted to discussing positive aspects of applicants in their deliberations. Other clubs, like the reputedly jock-heavy Cap and Gown, are notorious for bicker processes that involve eating buckets of condiments, throwing them up, and eating buckets of condiments again.

Though Bierlein said he personally did not have a hard time with the bicker process, he said he thinks some students can find it much more difficult.

“I think they don’t like the air of almost a social marathon, the sense of having to meet as many people as possible in three of four sessions,” he said. “It puts a lot of pressure on the people who are bickering.”

The bicker process can also be very different for those students who are not admitted to the club of their choice. Senior Grace Labatt said a friend who was rejected from a bicker club actually took the next semester off. Being rejected from a club, Labatt said, can be especially difficult when students bicker with friends or when they have a parent who was a member. In general, the bicker process can be hard for shyer students, Labatt said.

“For most of the clubs it’s based on first impression, and not everyone gives a first impression that’s good,” she said. “A lot of it is who you know. Sometimes it breeds a fakeness.”

This year, bicker clubs posted an acceptance rate of just under two-thirds. Students who are not accepted to the club they bicker in their sophomore year can either bicker again in the fall of their junior year or join one of the sign-in clubs, which accept members based on random lottery. Bierlein said that while some students bicker a club twice, very few will bicker more times than that.

“After two times, there’s kind of a clear message sent,” he said.

While the eating clubs as a whole may be less restricted than final clubs or secret societies, certain eating clubs have the reputation of being more exclusive than others. Robert Weiss, a freshman who is still deciding whether or not to join an eating club, said each of the clubs has a particular stereotype and group of people associated with it. Ivy, the original club, is still considered the most prestigious, or, as Weiss said, the home of “the northern elite.” Other stereotypes vary, Weiss said: Cottage, the second club, is populated by “the southern elite;” Terrace is “artsy;” Charter is for “the math and science people.”

But while reputations vary, almost all of the eating clubs are more expensive than the university meal plan offered to Independents. Williamson estimated that the difference in cost can be up to $2,000 a year, a difference he said could deter hesitant students from joining an eating club, especially because the additional cost is not covered by financial aid. But for students who are eager to join a club, Williamson said he thinks financial considerations rarely come into play.

“You can always take out a loan,” he said. “I know some people who’ve done that.”

Becky Brown, a member of Cap and Gown, said she knows students who have worked all summer to pay for membership in an eating club. A friend of hers even sold his motorcycle to afford his club, she said. Brown said that while the elitist stereotypes connected to some clubs are partially true, the clubs are not as economically segregated as they might seem.

“There’s the stereotype that Ivy is the wealthy rich kids, that they eat on white tablecloths and stuff,” she said. “The stereotypes have a little bit of truth in them, but I think that once you get a little closer than the surface, there really is a lot of diversity inside the eating clubs in terms of socioeconomic class and race. I think they’re getting a lot better.”

On Sunday night, Princeton’s student government passed a resolution that it hopes will encourage the University to modify its financial aid policies to cover eating club expenses.

Though the student government has no formal control over financial aid, Fossati-Bellani, who is chair of the Inter-Club Council, said he hopes the resolution will inspire the administration to make changes that will help make the eating clubs a viable option for all Princeton students.

“There is a pretty clear socioeconomic divide between eating club members and Independents,” he said. “This is a good opportunity for the University to change that divide.”

Perhaps the most important function of eating clubs, many students said, is their role as the locus of Princeton’s social life. Many students spend Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights on “The Street” — the common name for Prospect Avenue — going to parties thrown by the eating clubs. Eating clubs often present a unique social outlet, Williamson said.

“Frats and sororities at Princeton are relatively small,” Williamson said. “Additionally, we’re not in a big city, so there’s really only one bar in town.”

Like the eating clubs themselves, eating club parties range in exclusivity and tenor. Some parties admit only members and students with color-coded guest passes; others are open to all students. Some parties are simple events; others are full-on concerts. For example, Tower will be sponsoring a visit by Gunther later this spring. Bicker clubs are more likely to have exclusive parties, Williamson said.

Labatt, who left her eating club after one year of membership, said that even as a non-member, she enjoys the social opportunities she can find on Prospect Avenue. Visits to Yale and Harvard, where she said the scene seemed dominated by room parties, left her unimpressed.

“I feel like when I was at Harvard I was just stuck in this little room, and I was kind of bored,” she said. “It seems like you have to know the right people there. Here, you don’t have to be popular to go to The Street.”