Industry Insiders: Rob Shamlian, Downtown Turnaround

Rob Shamlian has been in New York for 15 years. Pretty good for a guy who’s opened five restaurants and bars in a two-block radius on the Lower East Side. The L.A.-native comes from a background of the hospitality savvy, and his brother Will is huge on the West Coast (Library Bar, Spring St., Laurel Tavern). More on his newest addition, the “cantina with a club feel” and some input on the age-old New York v.s. L.A. war.

On his background: I did photography for ten years. I had agents in every city, and then it ran its course. I was traveling a lot and living off editorial. So, I did a lot of magazines and I figured, “You know what? It’s time to make some money.” My brother was in L.A. doing several places. So basically, I just said, “I want to do something here [in New York],” and asked him how to open a place. He wouldn’t tell me a thing, he just kept telling me not to do it. I opened Darkroom and he eventually gave me advice the whole way. From there, I opened Fat Baby, Spitzer’s Corner, Mason Dixon, and Los Feliz.

On the simplicity of opening bars: After photography, this was a piece of cake, actually. In editorial photography, there are so many elements to master. Half of its production and half of it is putting together teams. Stylists, hair, make-up, models, you deal with so many elements. Opening a space is similar, but it seemed like a cakewalk to me. When I was doing fashion, I was focusing 24/7. There’s no break at all. Here, you open up a place, you move on. Basically, you work your own hours.

On the lead-up to working your own hours: I want to open as fast as possible! I open, I put management in place, and I oversee them. If I do multiple places at once, I’m in touch with the other places and I move on to work with the other places and do tweaks. The manager is the one who will spend most of the time on the premise, and I check in daily. I don’t really micromanage unless there are issues.

New York v.s. Los Angeles: In L.A., bars close at 2 a.m. In New York, people live in very tiny places, so they want to get out. There’s a lot more energy on the streets here, and if people get hammered, they take a cab. I L.A., you can park yourself in front of a big TV. You have a pool and a 12-bedroom house.

On the new joint, Los Feliz: Los Feliz was meant to be a café on the top floor and a very casual place–a cantina with a club feel. We happened to get a really good chef, Julieta Ballestero from Crema, so our food ended up more upscale then I originally wanted. We still price it very fairly, but it’s not just plain tacos. There are very different ingredients. It’s all fresh.

Favorite menu item: All of it! There’s a really good ceviche on the menu that I eat a lot. There’s a foie gras taco that’s really good.

On future expansion: Basically, I’ve opened five places on the Lower East Side within two blocks. It’s great because I go back and forth. That’s where I’m looking right now. I’m trying to put together investors for basically five other places that I’m going to do around the city. I’m doing stuff in Brooklyn and I’m trying to diversify around the LES.

On his block: I liked the location of Spitzer’s. I was talking to the owner for six to eight months at least trying to get that space. They were going to give it to Starbucks. I talked to the other owner of that space. First, his thing was, “I’d give it to you, but my dad works here.” I said, “That’s okay. I’ll give him a job.” Eventually, I wore him down and he rented it to me.

Go-to’s: I’m not a big fan of the club scene, because I’m a little bit old for that. We take the kids to Brooklyn Teahouse. I hear The Meatball Shop is pretty good. My brother’s place, Laurel Tavern in L.A.

Worst habit: Poker. I’m a gambling freak. I don’t know if I feel guilty about it. I’m not scared of losing.

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