Marisa Tomei & Lit’s 7th Anniversary

imageLast night I watched the Academy Awards over at Aspen Social and Amalia event coordinator Kevin Crawford’s house with the last of my Life-era friends. I was scheduled to DJ over at Southside, but I only found out about the gig through a Facebook flier so I opted out when I realized I had to see the Oscars with the old gang. Everybody had a Mickey Rourke story, but I had a Marisa Tomei story. When I started that Monday-night bowling thing over at Bowlmor Lanes back in the day, Marisa always came by, being friendly, enthusiastic, and real. One day she was hanging out and chatting with me as I was buying my bowling ball in the old pro shop that used to be there. As the guy was engraving my ball “Steve,” he realized that my companion was the Academy Award-winning actress, and he slipped up; the engraving came out as “Sneve” instead. That became my nickname for quite awhile. She’s as fun and cool and genuine as she seems, and it was wonderful to see her honored once again.

Our little Oscars party had lots of club types from the old days and the present, like Octavia, Robert Escalera, Teagan, and my good friend Dean Winters, who was once a bartender and now is doing great as an actor. We all squealed when Wass, Marquee’s door king, appeared in a commercial. For many, clubs are a means of support while developing a career. At cocktail parties, when you hear people say “I’m an actor,” someone invariably quips, “What restaurant do you work at?” This economic downturn can have a secondary affect — if talented and aspiring art types can’t find employment in hospitality, then they may not flock here. The old lyric “if you can make it here you can make it anywhere” may become too difficult to challenge. Dustin Hoffman, Bruce Willis, Debbie Harry, Keith Haring, and so many more paid the bills with nightclubs before they made it.

Anyway, after a brief “hello I’m alive but I’m too late to DJ” appearance at that wonderful Southside Sunday party, I went over to Lit for their 7th anniversary soiree. Here I was actually scheduled to DJ. My boy Eric Foss who owns the joint asked me to spin, not having ever heard me — he’s a brave man. In his invitation he mentioned some of my past “heroics” but threw in a stint at Studio 54 that wasn’t me (that was Steve Rubell). I’m only half the man he was (although I am taller). Eric was also amused by a New Yorker piece that showed a single patron at his bar with a storyline about the bad economy’s affect on such places. The story implied that Lit wasn’t Lit anymore, but that’s junk. Lit is vibrant, packed, and relevant. It is my favorite joint, and the 7th anniversary was off the hook.

I entered the DJ booth as the last of about 10 DJs, and Carlo McCormick of Paper Magazine was to ping-pong with me. I put on one record and he the next in a sort of sparring match. I was ready to rumble. But, alas, Carlo was off doing Carlo things, so Leo Fitzpatrick, an extraordinary DJ talent, showed me how to use all the knobs and hi-tech things. With the onset of the Serato computer era, I am finding that each joint I spin in has a different setup for the CDs as fewer guys use them. Last week, at Southside, the setup was on the floor, so I had to do a squat every time I changed a disc. It’s better than going to the gym. I offered up punk, punk, and more punk, and the tattooed gals on the dance floor seemed to love every minute, although it was late and I’m sure they were quite drunk. How drunk? One of them told me I was cute.

Good Night Mr. Lewis: Nobu’s Richie Notar, from Busboy to Dubai

imageI sat with Richie Notar in his fabulous and famous restaurant Nobu 57, and as we talked, it felt like I was just catching up with an old friend from the neighborhood. The amazingly accessible Richie gave me an hour just before he set off to open more Nobu franchises in exotic places far away from his Queens roots. His partnership with Robert De Niro and his relationships with Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager may have kick-started his career, but success on this level is the result of someone who has given his heart, mind, and very soul in the pursuit of greatness. Working his way up from dishwasher — and not ashamed to say it — Richie is what this town is about; his hard work produced an empire. I am reminded of Caesars riding in triumphal chariots while a slave whispered mortality in their ears. Richie doesn’t need anyone to remind him from where he came from; he keeps his past real close, and despite triumphal success, remains humble and down to earth.

Steve Rubell once told me not to be “Steven,” he said to be “Steve.” He said “Steven” is too formal, and it puts people off. Is that the same story with Richie Notar? You know what? It kind of is. When it’s formal, it reminds you of when you were in trouble as a kid. And you kind of want to believe — whether it’s true or not — that if someone is saying Richie or Steve, there’s more of a familiarity with it.

So you’re accessible, people can talk to you? Yes, we’re in the hospitality business. Why not?

I worked for Steve Rubell, you worked for Steve Rubell, we have this in common. It’s funny, the movie 54 … Harvey Weinstein (who knew about my background) says to me, “Do me a favor, I want you to view this movie,” and I think this is going to be fantastic. So I’m sitting like a little kid in a screening room in Tribeca watching it, and I wasn’t liking it at all. It portrayed Steve to be a buffoon, with money sticking out, etc. And I thought, “This isn’t cool.” So how am I going to tell Harvey? I ended up telling him, “Well it’s great that you got the film there, the music is timeless and great.” I was kind of giving him backhanded compliments, and we left it at that. Steve was a brilliant man. It’s true. Steve had this lovability about him. He’s a little guy, he’s cuddly, and he’s everyone’s buddy. He’d even say it if he was being heavy with you: “Well, you know I can’t, buddy.” We had this love/hate relationship, because I was a brat, I was 15 or 16 and I drove for him. I worked at Enchanted Gardens, their first club in Queens, driving a beat-up old powder-blue Lincoln Continental with dents all over it. I probably couldn’t even really see over the wheel, but he just wasn’t interested in driving, and they liked having young people around.

Now, here you are, you’re a great success, you’re a partner in Nobu, which has 17 locations worldwide, and you’re opening more. And you carry with them the hospitality lessons you learned from Ian and Steve; at what point did Ian Schrager stop looking at you as the busboy or the driver Richie, and more as the business Richie? That’s a very interesting question, because a wise man a long time ago said, “You’ll always be thought about how you were when you walked into the equation.” But there was a time about three years ago when he came to Nobu in Tribeca, and he stopped me in the middle of it, saying, “I want to tell you I’m very proud of you.” It was almost like your dad finally recognizing your accomplishments. “I want to just tell you I’m very proud of you, look what you’ve done, I can’t say enough, buddy.” He used the “buddy” term, even though he knows my name!

It was a safety net. But it was also a reminder of those days, because he would say ‘buddy’ to everyone, but there was a different tone. There was “buddy” and then “buddy.” You would get it.

I know what you mean … But there was a certain way you would say “buddy,” and he used the “buddy” in a way that was just a memory, you know? And funny enough, about a year later, he started calling me for advice and asking me what I do at Nobu, or “I have a concept that I need in the Gramercy Park,” and I knew at that point, to answer your question, that I was a made man! I was respected.

I knew that I had arrived with them when one day Steve told me that he wanted me at the door. And that to me, because I knew that Steve has always been at the door, that was big. Yeah, he was so protective.

Yes, so protective. And he put me out there. And for me to be at the door at the club that he was running, it was almost like a passing of the torch. But really, I couldn’t walk in his shoes, and I don’t know if anybody else ever will. There’s only one of everyone, but you can pass the knowledge, and only a select few can absorb it.

Back then, art was a much more important part of nightlife. Ian Schrager has done that over at the Gramercy Park Hotel, and it’s brilliant to sit there, amongst those paintings. I mean, how can you be pretentious when you’re looking at great art like this? It humbles you. That’s a subtlety that’s missed on many people. He’s not out-spending, he’s out-tasting, and that’s important.

You made a statement in the New York Times, which I love: “Money doesn’t buy fun like it used to.” I thought it was brilliant. You know, there was a time that I had just come back to New York. I was in Paris, and I love going to a place like that where whether you’re 5, 6, 15, or 80 years old, it’s just fun. And it’s more of an event, you don’t get a bunch of people on their phones, trying to be the next billionaire, and it just struck me — no one’s really having fun! So the Times asked me about nightlife, and what’s going on, so maybe I was a little more passionate about my remark then.

And you made another statement saying, “Nightlife is filled with poseurs and inebriated youths.” I might’ve been referring to the Meatpacking District a little bit.

I think it’s club life in general. I think it’s a very very telling statement that in our era, the artist, the person who had arrived creatively was the VIP. Nowadays, it’s the broker with a black Amex. You get it. I was reminiscing about what Steve would say was “tossed salad.” Too many straights, get some gays, too many gays, get some straights, too many guys, get some girls. And with this mix, eclectic mix, once you’re in the club, it didn’t matter if you had a pot to pee in or not, you were in for a reason. No one cared, because you were in there and you were christened that you’re either cool or in the arts or there’s a reason you’ve been invited to this party.

When I taught doormen the business, I always said, “You can always judge a book by its cover.” Now there are a very few exceptions — cops and robbers are professionals at hiding who they are — but for the most part, the public is screaming who they are, in their clothes, the way they carry themselves, the grooming. This was an important part of nightlife, and it no longer is. Nowadays it’s just uniforms, cheap clothes or expensive clothes that are just uniforms. You can’t buy taste.

Now, I want to go into the Nobu experience. We’re sitting in Nobu on 57th Street. This is a highly styled David Rockwell-designed place, every inch, every detail is covered, and he’s a brilliant man, one of the best designers out there. This place has gotten critical acclaim for design. The design is part of an experience; Warner Leroy was one of the originators, and he was on this block with the Russian Tea Room and of course Maxwell Plum, in this neighborhood; he taught us about the experience of nightlife. Tell me how you balance food, design, attitude, and service in your restaurant. My philosophy is you can put a great, grand design, and that’s fine. For ten minutes, you look at the design, and then you go onto why you’re there, eating with friends and so forth, and you don’t want to outshine that. I’m trying to sell an experience. You could fill your stomach anywhere, so why’re people going out? It’s for another reason, whether it’s to entertain, whether it’s to impress someone, whether you’re showing someone off, so I didn’t want to get caught up too much in this remarkable design because I didn’t want it to outshine what we were doing. Being up on 57th Street, I knew there was a little bit of a challenge because I didn’t want to be stereotypical or touristy. So how could we bring a little downtown cool uptown? I wanted to marry that downtown experience — which made us kind of famous — and bring it up here, and let people know they’d be safe and know that it’s not like a lot of people perceive. I knew there was a stigma, but I wanted to chip away at that a little bit.

It’s happening more and more; Greg Brier, who has the Brier Group, did Amalia and Aspen Social uptown. Even Danny A. went into the Plaza! That’s groundbreaking.

At one point, I was doing promotions and being very much involved in the running of four nightclubs — Limelight, Tunnel, Palladium, and USA — and I had a hard time cloning myself, just in New York City. You have 17 locations, you’ve got London, Hong Kong, Dubai, you’re everywhere, you’ve stretched far. You and I have the same problem; how does Richie delegate, and who is that person that you delegate to? Who are these people? You know Steve, it’s probably the hardest thing. First of all, it’s not a cookie-cutter operation … each one’s a little bit different. But there’s an experience and a familiarity people want when they come into Nobu, and that’s really worked in our favor. So I’m very proud of the fact that anyone who’s running a restaurant for me started as a waiter, or a host, or a reservationist.

Is that because of your past, having to work your way up? Yeah, I started out as a dishwasher. The first time I was in Enchanted Garden, I was 15 minutes into the job, 15 years old, I’m loading the racks, it’s a quiet night, and this little guy walks in, and he’s like, “What’re you doing?” and I said, “I’m washing dishes,” and he goes “No, no, no,” and I’m like, “Did I not put the glass in right?” And he goes “You’ve got a nice smile, buddy, (that was my first “buddy,” by the way), you should be out with the people. Bus, do something.” And it was Steve, and he plucked me out of the kitchen. And I realized that you have to do all of those things in order to be a good manager. And I’m very proud because they think I’m doing them a favor, which a little bit I am, but they’re actually doing me a favor because I’m keeping the consistency. So if you’ve been dining in New York and you go to Miami and you see a guy that used to be a waiter here and now he’s a manager, you go, “Wow, he knows me, he knows what I like,” and all of a sudden your experience is going to be better because that ties into an experience somewhere else. So all around the world, that’s how I try to keep the consistency.

Tune in tomorrow for more Richie Notar action.
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Good Night Mr Lewis: The Strike Zone

I haven’t had sex in eight months. To be honest, I now prefer to go bowling. — Lil’ Kim

Lucky Strike Lanes, an ultra-hip bowling lounge, opened last night with a suave soiree’ hosted by its marketing arm, the Strategic Group. I chatted up Strategic honcho Noah Tepperberg, and asked him, “Why bowling?” He replied, “Chicks and celebrities love bowling.” And so it goes. Crashing pins instead of crashing bores, and if a dude strikes out while trying to impress a girl, it’s a good thing. DJ Vice could be almost heard over the pin din and squealing models. The place is posh and new and clean, and it looks to be way more sophisticated than Bowlmor, where I’ve been throwing hooks into gutters for decades.

I started a Monday night party at Bowlmor, I think in 1995, that lasted a year or two. Lots of celebrities and lots of girls were into it — that Noah knows his stuff. I started getting pretty good at it, so my boys and I all got our own balls — mine was red with white swirls, and I was having my name engraved on it while the actress, Marisa Tomei, watched. She was a semi-regular and quite famous at the time. Right as he started to engrave, the pro shop dude recognized the Academy Award-winning actress. Well, “Steve” ended up “Sneve,” and there was no way to fix it, so I was Sneve from then on at Bowlmor.

Last night’s at Lucky Strike Lanes was packed with a crowd you come to expect from Strategic (Marquee, Tao, Lavo, etc.) — hip, monied, pretty, it was all there. Everyone was having fun; some were even bowling. A fabulous young girl said she “loved it all,” but asked “why it was all the way over here, in the middle of nowhere” (12th Avenue and 42nd Street). I replied with a straight face that, “the crashing pins and balls were real loud, so it had to be a little bit away from everything.” She accepted my explanation, sipped her sticky drink, and went off to squeal. Bowling is fun; it’s communal, and you don’t have to be any good to enjoy it. Bowling clothes are sexy, so it figures to be a home run … er, strike. Noah and Danny A. will host Halloween there.

I didn’t attend last night’s opening of the new Cain — photos of giant elephant tusks turned me off. I have heard mixed reports. Some say they’re real, some say they’re fake. If they are real, it’s not only a disgrace, but I believe very illegal. I consider the players over there friends and I sincerely hope the tusks are reproductions.

Instead, I went to Ella for the opening of “Soul Glo.” I was told by a reliable source that DJ Moma is the real deal. I was told, “He has a real job during the day, like an engineer or something, and he does this at night.” Moma wrecked the place. The downstairs was packed with a hip crowd, and everyone was feeling it. An urgent text message brought me next to the Eldridge, where a really hot crowd was also enjoying great music. This time, DJ Mos was wheeling and dealing, and I had a shot of something gooey and dark and potent with Jason and some of the Eldridge staff. I had to sit down after that, and Matt Levine had me at his table. Chris Noth was high-fiving him, and supermodels swayed back and forth, without squealing, at least; but I could still hear bowling pins crashing in my head, and so I headed home.

I had started the night at the opening of the restaurant my partner, Marc Dizon, and I had just completed in Times Square. Aspen Social began and, as far as I could tell, people were liking it. I spent many months conceptualizing — identifying fabrics and fixtures, and chairs and art, etc. — and I would like to thank all the people who were patient with me, as it tends to be all-consuming. The experience exhausted me, as we only had two months and a few days to build out this large restaurant/lounge. The MisShapes played an amazing set. I’ve heard them before, but really appreciated the music they offered to a crowd which wasn’t necessarily what they were used to. It didn’t feel out of place in Times Square. As Greg Brier has proven at Highbar and Amalia, it’s safe to go to Midtown. It stands to reason if they’ll come to Times Square, they’ll go to bowl over on 12th Ave.

Places are opening now, and the gloom of just a few weeks ago seems to be showing signs of hope, of growth, of new. I told this to some nice lady in a suit; she looked at me with deep, down, Dow Jones-y eyes and said, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” I looked at her with that look I reserve for cabbies who take me through Union Square at 5 p.m. and said, “I’ve seen a lot.” My phone is ringing. Lots of people are talking about opening a restaurant, a club, and even a hotel or two. Suddenly, there’s loot to build. It’s as if they’ve identified the bottom — or is money coming out of the stock market looking for a place to breathe? I’ve been through a recession or two. People are going to go out, they’ll drink, they’ll dance, and they might even bowl.

BlackBook Tasting Menu: Amalia, New York

imageAmalia, brainchild of Greg Brier (also of Aspen Social), Vikram Chatwal (also of Dream Hotel and Night Hotel), Chef Adam Ross (of Salts) and BlackBook’s own Steve Lewis (also of Aspen Social and Webster Hall) announced a new menu this week. We tried it. We liked it. We think you would like it, so we created a special BlackBook prix-fixe menu at a special price for BlackBook readers. From now through November, drop our name at the door, and you can sample the BlackBook-tasted and -approved off-menu menu. Five courses, all-inclusive for $35; read on for details and pics of the spread.

image 1. Tuna Tartare

image 2. Corn and Tarragon Fritters with Maple-Ancho Syrup

image 3. Lamb Meatballs with Cinnamon Yogurt, Tomato-Cumin Sauce, and Mint

image 4. Sautéed and Crispy Calamari with White Beans, Chorizo, Piquillo Peppers, and Garlic Toast

image 5. Greek Cheesecake– Feta Cheese Cake, Blueberry Port Sauce, and Black Olive Gelato

Good Night Mr. Lewis: Greg Brier, Midtown Maestro

Greg Brier is the man behind Highbar, Amalia, Aspen, and the soon-to-open Aspen Social Club in Times Square, designed by yours truly. Greg is a very dear friend of mine. Of course, he hires me once in a while to design his spaces. I’ve done two and half spaces for him so far. I did Aspen initially, then Amalia. Now we’re sitting in the Aspen Social Club at 47th Street and 7th Avenue.

First of all, Amalia and Aspen Social Club are in this Times Square/Midtown area, and Aspen is really in the Chelsea thing. And instead of being downtown or in the Meatpacking District where everyone else is, you’re in Midtown. Explain what you like about it. Well, I mean in addition to that, we just opened Highbar in Midtown as well.

That’s right. I forgot about it because I didn’t design it. [Laughing] You’re right, it’s not as beautiful as all the other places, but it’s successful, and it is in Midtown.

I hang out downtown and have always been a downtown guy. I started to realize there’s no dividing lines in New York. People live in Midtown, they live Uptown, they live on the East Side, they live on the West Side. A lot of people claim they live Downtown, but nobody can afford to live Downtown. So they’re all living up here anyways, so our whole ideas was to take this kind of downtown cool aesthetic … a more artistic, creative aesthetic, and put it into a Midtown environment and see how it would work. And it’s been incredibly well received, because these guys are so used to seeing this cookie-cutter design in their restaurants.

In this area? In this area. And all their restaurants and all their nightclubs. We knew that if we came up here and developed and created stuff with you and really kind of redefined the lines of what’s cool and hip, making Midtown just as hip and cool as downtown. By creating the right elements with design, our staff, music, etc., it would be successful, and it has been a huge success.

Well, the W Hotel really broke through many years ago. They broke through with style, some sort of style, some sort of programming. The Whiskey and Randy Gerber have been up in this area for a very long time. So there was a successful precedent, and certainly you are capitalizing on that knowledge. I remember you and I having conversations when we were designing Amalia and talking about whether people would come or not. Specifically to the downstairs, which is like nightclub or lounge for Amalia. I said to you that I believe many people live uptown, and if they’re going to the other clubs downtown, they need a place to go before and a place to go after. So you’ll do well. Yeah, it’s a great stop-off before you start heading downtown for a late-night space. I think in addition we really need to talk about the fact that right now, the economy is in the shitter, and basically we are going to depend on our tourists to an extent, and we’re in the right position to be to be depending on tourists.

I hadn’t heard that! As a designer, I designed this wall [at Aspen Social Club] to be visible from the street. The idea was that there’s thousands and thousands of people walking by this restaurant every day, and you just want to grab them and have something visual for them to see. And the foot traffic around here is unbelievable. Absolutely, but the tourists we’re going for are the high-end kind of European tourists; people that can really appreciate this design. You know, they walk by and see these cookie-cutter generic spaces, and nothing really impresses them. When they’re coming from Europe, or Japan, or Southeast Asia, or wherever they’re coming from, they’re used to very high-end materials and cool stuff happening inside their restaurants, lounges, and nightclubs. And we’re one of the few people that are actually doing that in the Midtown area. It’s really attracting those people.

When you stand outside, you basically have Pig & Whistle to your left, a deli to your right, and of course this beautiful restaurant. Back in the old days, in the early 1980s, when 44 was open at the Royalton, Conde Nast used to hold court there. Some of the coolest professionals in the fashion world are working in this area, and they’re looking for a cool place to hang out. And I think it’s so refreshing to them that they can walk out their front door and they have a very cool place, like they did back then. So again, it’s not a brand new concept — we’re bringing back basically something like you said that started back in the Midtown area and re-creating it.

Back when the economy was crap also. One of the things that we want to talk about is the versatility of the space. It does function as a nice place to sit and enjoy an informal dining experience or lunch. But in addition to that, the lounge has a DJ. I think what will end up happening is that promoters and nightclub people who end up going to Marquee or 1Oak may come here, have dinner, and they may stay later. I think more people will come by later at night — it’s a sexy enough space. In the 1980s you used to have a model next to a drag queen next to the guy in the business suit. And that’s really what made the party fun. That’s what we’re re-creating. There are times that I look over and I’m like, “What is this, 1989?”