EMM Group Opens The General, A Sure-Fire Hit

I’ve was invited to the friends and family opening of The Generalthe new restaurant from EMM Group at Bowery and Spring. EMM is Eugene Remm, Mark Birnbaum, and Michael Hirtenstein. They are the force behind Abe & Arthur’s, CATCH, CATCH Roof, CATCH Miami, Lexington Brass, SL, SL East, Tenjune, Chandelier Room, Revel Nightlife, FINALE, and Bow, and lots of other stuff. Bow and Finale are the other parts of the Spring and Bowery space that once housed Boulevard and Crash Mansion. Executive chef Hung Huynh of Top Chef fame offers up modern Asian cuisine in a red-chaired gilded wallpapered paradise. All the inside-info is here.

Opening up this time of year is interesting. Most operators look to open in the early or late stages of spring or fall, and with 300 seats, there will be a lot of kinks to be worked out. Groups like EMM have fewer kinks than most.  Opening now allows the place to hit its stride as the nice weather and affluent snowbirds return. They can do no wrong in my book. The General stretches the Bowery strip from its previous above-Houston Street border where joints like Daniel Boulud’s DBGB, Gemma, Peels and many others serve neighborhood residents and well-heeled visitors. This is not the Bowery of my youth. Little Steve Lewis trivia: my great uncle was one of the famed Bowery Boys.

Most clubs reported near-normal attendees for the week after New Year’s but much lower revenues. People went out but seemed to be tapped or burnt out.  For all except for the very top operators, New Year’s Eve is a loss when you account for the naturally slower nights preceding it and the after-effects. I’m still beat up from all the rushing around, and Christmas bills are still being paid. Getting me out requires special coaxing.

Many people obviously get terribly drunk on New Year’s Eve and try hard to slow it down for a couple of weeks. Then there are those resolutions which often include a step back from the boozing. My resolutions always end in a vow to break all my resolutions ASAP. We are still enjoying tourist dollars, but those will fade away as vacation bucks tend to fly to warmer climates this time of year. The cold keeps people in and, well, you get the idea.

EMM group is way ahead of this game. They have a built-in clientele that’s enamored with all their other joints. CATCH is still more than killing it, and the word "NEW" is always a sure draw. The General, a NEW offering from an established hospitality group enters as a sure thing. I’ll keep you posted.

Industry Insiders: Mark Birnbaum, Hospitality Honcho

Mark Birnbaum, the man who makes up the other half of Tenjune, speaks to us on the opening of the Chandelier Room at the W Hotel in Hoboken tonight, his icons, and why New York’s Meatpacking District is still the center of clubdom.

What’s the story with the opening event for the Chandelier Room? It’s tonight, 7 till midnight. The full facility will be open for all to see, even though the W has been open and operational for about a month. There will be a full red carpet outside and several live performances. There’s a piano bar in the lobby — very Frank Sinatra. There will be a lounge singer and a woman singing on the piano, like in The Fabulous Baker Boys. DJ Cassidy will be spinning. The Chandelier Room will be open inside, including the ballroom and outside. The Living Room Bar will host our surprise performer.

Describe the décor. It has a large, oversized chandelier. There are very high ceilings, and the windows are huge. As soon as you walk in, we have floor-to-ceiling windows that face Manhattan virtually throughout the entire space. The walls are all windows. It’s beautiful. To the left, you have a fireplace, and behind the fireplace is a private room which you can see into. It’s a small room for about 25 people. That room also has windows overlooking the city and a flatscreen TV. The outdoor space has another bar and clear views overlooking Manhattan. It has a retractable awning in case of rain, and it’s very loungey, with outdoor carpet and another fireplace.

What are the differences in owning and operating a club in New York and New Jersey? For starters, here we have the support of an entire hotel above us. People are coming because they’re excited to see the new W. This isn’t promoter-driven, it’s venue driven. Not to mention, in this area it’s the only game in town. In New York City, you have hundreds of hotels and boutique hotels. There isn’t really competition for us out here. The W appeals to a different demographic in general than Hoboken is used to. If anything, it anchors people to the town, keeps people in Jersey, and gives people a reason to come to Hoboken from surrounding areas. I think it’ll certainly help the businesses around here, like the restaurants and the parking garages, and even the other bars. You have to give people a reason to come out here. There are a ton of Hoboken residents and people who live in surrounding areas who work in Manhattan, and they’re thrilled that now they can stay put and stay local with something of New York City quality. A lot of people in this economy are saving money where they can, and this will save a commute into Manhattan from Hoboken. People can get slightly less expensive drinks, with essentially the same vibe.

Do you have any favorite joints in Hoboken? I like the Nine Bar, near the W, and the restaurant Zylo in the hotel happens to be very good as well. It’s a Tuscan steakhouse.

Do you think that Manhattanites will make the trip to visit the space on a regular basis? We’re not relying on it. There are plenty of people in the area, but I will say yes. Think of how many coworkers people have that are coming in from New Jersey. Now people from New Jersey can say, “Come to my spot for the birthday party or the after-dinner drinks.” Some people will come from Manhattan to hang out with their friends, since there’s a worthy place to hang out. The place is rocking now, filling the lobby from 7 at night to 2 in the morning. And it’s right across the river. For us, it’s a 10 minute commute from Manhattan. My apartment literally stares into the W Hoboken, and I’ve been watching it get built for the last four years. What establishments do you frequent in the city? The Waverly Inn has the best atmosphere and crowd. Hillstone, formerly Houston’s, has the most consistent product — best ribs and best spinach dip. And Acapella has amazing food and service. It’s the full experience of Italian dining

Who do you admire in the hospitality industry? Keith McNally, the restaurateur behind Balthazar, Pastis, Schiller’s. He has vision, confidence, guts, innovative design, and the best atmosphere with everything he does. He is a true pioneer. Andre Balazs, the hotelier behind Chateau Marmont, The Standard, and The Mercer. He has laid out a framework for me to guide my own business strategies.

What positive trends are you seeing in the hospitality industry? With this economy, customers that spend their hard-earned money are expecting the best hospitality and service. We’ve prided ourselves on always taking the best care of our customers, and as a result people stay loyal to us. I’m happy that it’s appreciated, and these days it really shows.

And negative trends? The cost of doing business in our industry makes it very difficult to turn real profits

What is the most-anticipated event you have coming up in 2009? After the Chandelier Room, we have two new New York venues opening in May. A two-story restaurant and a below-ground club located in the old Lotus space on 14th Street. Where’s your dream space for a new venture? I must say, we are in our dream space. Tenjune is smack in the middle of the Meatpacking District, which we feel is the greatest location in the country for the business we are in. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.