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.

Industry Insiders: Daniela Luna, International Party Girl

Buenos Aires gallery owner Daniela Luna is just as likely to be caught reading The Harvard Business Review as she is to be seen dancing on a pole at six in the morning. She’s the outspoken mastermind behind Appetite, where you can’t turn a corner without coming face to face with photographs of sizable cocks, or more recently, a gigantic pink inflatable bear with breasts. Some of the city’s best DJs have made their debuts at her War Club parties, and with Appetite showing everywhere from Lithuania to London, this international gallery is becoming more than just a downtown destination for the scrappy chic.

How did Appetite start? I was having a very bad time of my life and I said, “Okay, now I want to do something productive.” I am one of the few freaks who really loves working, so I decided I wanted to do something of my own. I thought first, “I’ll do fashion design.” I realized I wanted something that included people. I decided to go with contemporary art because that’s the excuse for doing anything. If you’re doing contemporary art, you can do music, you can do design, you can do whatever you want.

And the sex angle? I really like working with sex, mostly because I like artists to express themselves with no censorship, and of course, sex is a very important part of life. I wanted the artists to be able to do whatever they want, but also I wanted it to be strong as a gallery and to have international projection. That was something that was seen as a contradiction. Also, I had almost no money. When I began, I could only survive for six months, and if it didn’t work, I lost everything. It was a big challenge, but I like challenges. I was the first gallery in San Telmo.

Besides New York and Buenos Aires, where have you taken Appetite? I’ve been working in Miami. I’m going tomorrow to London, and I’m starting work in China. When I wanted to get into Frieze Art Fair, no other Argentinean gallery had ever gotten in. Everyone said, “No, no way, it’s impossible.” I said I was going to do it, and I did.

When I first got here, I heard that you threw the best parties. I love that! Well, it’s true. Some of them go until the next day, and then I put some mattresses on the floor for people, and they wake up again and go on partying. Because if you get what I do with art and with artists, it’s going to be the same kind of spirit. It’s always about experimenting. I try to work with the best new DJs and at the same time invite artists to do performances and video. I’m a party girl, so that’s why I know how to give a party. I know the best from New York, to Moscow, to Lithuania, to London. Wherever I go, I know how to find the parties.

Which are your favorites in Buenos Aires? Well, my parties are the world-class parties. But after that, the best of the best is Zizek. They have, of course, the good nights and the not-so-good nights, but I really like what they do. They started around the time that I did, and many of their DJs played here in the beginning. At the opening party for Appetite, I had some people from Mexico from this amazing record label, Nuevos Ricos. They came here with some of the people from Zizek. Also, Santera. They’re doing it in Niceto. It has kind of the spirit of Zizek, music that is very different.

You spend a lot of time in New York. What are your favorite parties there? I really like Six Six Sick. I go all the time because the girls are really fun. I like how they dress. Before, I used to go to Misshapes, but then that closed. I was always dancing on the pole there. When I’m in the mood for something much more relaxed, I go to Darkroom. Usually I prefer crazy, of course. What I DON’T like of the New York parties in general is that they finish so early. Down here, we are very night people. In New York, I always get there at two or three when the party’s already finishing, and I want to kill myself! I try to be early, but I can’t. I just can’t.

What does Argentina do right with contemporary art? We have lived in crisis for many, many years. Maybe always. We’re very used to that, so we can handle it. Here in Argentina, you say, atarlo con alambres, “tie it with wire.” So you don’t have things, you just tie it with wire. And that’s something that’s mostly positive because art is very creative and very expressive, and if you don’t have the money, you’ll find another way.

After Dark Makeup: Lower East Side & Just Cavalli

After the sun goes down, the makeup brushes come out in full force. Beauty junkies can get away with a lot when roaming New York’s Lower East Side: the bars are dark, the drinking is heavy, and people look good in that uncombed, rolled-out-of-bed way. Just Cavalli sent this LES bar-hopper down the S/S 2010 runway the other day in Milan. She looks exactly the girls we know who shop at Blue&Cream and Opening Ceremony, hang out at White Slab, Darkroom, and Gallery Bar, eat at Les Enfants Terribles, and wear a ton of MAC. Appropriate, since MAC was in charge of creating the look. Maxine Leonard, the artist in charge, describes the look as “rock n’ roll to reflect the collection. The girls look a bit like they did their makeup themselves and had a great night out.” Here’s how the pros captured the LES girl.

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Base ● Foundation: Studio Moisture Tint SPF 15. ● Cheeks: Blushcreme in Joie de Vivre.

Eyes ● Base: Pro Black Black Paintstick. ● Liner: Kohl Power Pencil in Feline. ● Shadow: Pro Pigment in Black Black. ● Liquid Liner: Boot Black. ● Lipstick: Black Knight (applied on lid). ● Blush: Powder Blush Azalea (applied on brow bone). ● Mascara: Pro Lash Mascara in Coal Black.

Lips ● Gloss: Lipglass in Frankly Fresh.

New York: Top 10 Monday Parties

Butter (Greenwich Village) – Butter Mondays, but what else is new? This party has defied New York City’s attention-deficit disorder pandemic since 2002. ● Johnny Utah’s (Midtown West) – Nobody said Monday-night dancing had to be classy; instead, this midtown saloon hypes their bull-riding challenge for all the pretty service industry folks.

Antik (Greenwich Village) – Maybe your fifth martini at the Bowery Hotel put you in the mood to get a little sloppy on a Monday night. Luckily, Antik still draws a mixed crowd as sloppy as you, just across the street. ● Star Lounge (Chelsea) – East End favorite of Hampton jitney-ites takes over Serena in downstairs lair of Chelsea Hotel. Ignore the crowd who suddenly thinks they’re something special and enjoy the floor while Mondays are still decently hyped. ● Greenhouse (Soho) – Word on the street is that Greenhouse is packing it in on Monday nights. Watch Zach Braff smoke some green while you enjoy the LEED-certified bamboo-wood dance floor with fellow eco-nuts. ● Le Souk (East Village) – Garden in the back competes with a tent, hookahs, lanterns, and 9pm belly dancing for your limited attention. Blaring dance soundtrack might have you forgetting about your food, too. ● Lit Lounge (East Village) – The HUGS party with DJs Josh Wildman and Andrew Kwo keep the ain’t-we-shit set on their patent leather toes. And yes, you will need a shower immediately following. ● Cielo (Meatpacking District) -Deep Space house heads maintain rarefied air in a dimming sky. Outdoor haven for your sneakarette habit. Party has been haute for six years, a rare ‘cheers-esque’ meeting place for dance fans. ● Darkroom (Lower East Side) – For the really terrible weekend withdrawals, “M” at Darkroom offers free PBR from 11 to 12 p.m. and special guest DJs fit for dancing and sweaty basement-bar enthusiasts. ● Above Allen (Lower East Side) – Survivors from Le Royale’s Monday night jams take over the Thompson LES’ room with a view, except with more models and promoters. Great music yes, but this is more of a taking-in-the-view kind of place than a loosing-your-shit-on-the-dancefloor kind of party.

The Eldridge was replaced by Cielo for this Monday night list. The Eldridge is closed for private events on Mondays, and Cielo was unfairly overlooked. For updated party information, check out this weekly curated list on where to go and what to do all week long.
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Industry Insiders: Jason Baron, Dark Knight

Jason Baron, owner of two of the Lower East Side’s finest music dens, has all the makings of a rising nightlife macher: great timing, the party bug, plus tons of famous music-making pals. Five years down the road, the Annex and Darkroom owner reveals what it takes to stay current in the ever-shifting LES.

Point of Origin: I’m from Detroit originally. I moved back here about six years ago from London where I went to university. After I finished, I assisted a fashion photographer, but found I didn’t like fashion, so I got into music. When I moved back to New York, I was still photographing bands, including all the Interpol shows. That was what helped me get a scene down here.

The Darkroom used to be another bar before, and a friend of mine was familiar with one of the owners. They wanted to sell. The only places on the street were Max Fish, Motor City, and Pianos. I found out the place was open, so I just dove headlong in. I had had experience in nightlife in London and New York doing parties with friends and DJing, but I mostly learned as I went. It turned out to be an experience because I studied economics; I didn’t study food service management or anything.

The first night [at the Darkroom] was the Libertines after party, and after that it spun out of control. Even last Monday, there were people from Stone Temple Pilots and Spiritualized®. There are always 10 to 15 bands here. It’s usually people from out of town — people from London or Los Angeles. They still come back here because it’s their only point of reference in New York and they know it will be a good time.

Occupations: We hit the ground running and became a part of the scene down here. Even to this day, with everything being built up, we still are a big part. Things went so well here we were able to find the Annex. It used to be another bar that had closed down and we rebuilt. The previous owners were six, seven months behind on rent. They hadn’t paid the liquor bills in forever but it made it really easy to get the place because the landlord was like, “Please, take it over”. Their concept was a little bit different. I don’t want to say it was tacky or anything. It was the same problem you see with places like Libation. They are trying to cater to a crowd that is only here on Friday and Saturdays. Everywhere is crowded on Friday and Saturday. You really make your money on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. I think that’s what killed them over there [at Bar Eleven]. It was more of a party than a job for Simon [owner of Eleven]. I think he took off and moved to the Jersey shore to sell T-shirts.

The idea with the Annex was to have an independent music venue because most of the other venues were controlled by Bowery Presents and AEG. Fortunately, knowing a lot of key people in the industry got us secret shows and after parties and really brought the name up. Thursday nights we have “Club NME,” and that has a huge profile. And Friday, we have “Ruff Club” — you see it in travel magazines on British Airways. Saturdays we have “Tis Was,” and it’s still doing quite well. We have bands seven days a week, and now and we have club nights after the bands Tuesday through Saturday.

What do you think has people coming back? I think it has kind of a clubhouse feel. They see other people here in their industry. Plus, they are well taken care of. It’s a destination point. When you go to certain cities, there are places you always go back to, especially if you are in the music and fashion business. We’ve never had a door policy. We charge gigs over there [at the Annex] so the bands can get paid, but that’s it. People always feel at home. There’s never a lot of press written about it. There used to be when Tricia [Romano] was at the Village Voice. She’d write “so and so was there,” and I would always get really mad. I like keeping it low-key so people know they can turn up at any time and be themselves. They don’t have to worry about someone saying they were drunk the next day to the press. Places that stick around for a long time and have a good name will grow on their own. All you have to do is keep on top of the new things — the new DJs and the new scenes. If you look at the big clubs on the west side, they blow the places up, make them huge, and pay people to come and hang out. But, then they usually close after two years. The lease at Darkroom has another 12 years and the Annex has another 15.

Known Associates: I work with Spencer Product from Ruff Club and Dimitry from High Voltage. Really everyone in the industry is just an acquaintance. A lot of the richer, older, more established club owners have more of a clique.

Where do you hang out? I go to shows, mostly. It feels like every freaking day there is someone coming in from out of town — bands calling me up to come down [to the bar]. I’d love to have a night off. I’d say I spend most of my time going to Bowery Ballroom just to keep on top of what’s happening with the music scene. As far as bars, I don’t really have a frequent hang. If anything, I go to ‘inoteca to have dinner. Is it trendy bars I’m supposed to say? I’ve been to every bar. I’ve done a lot of research.

Do you still have the exclusive basement open? No, that’s been done for a while. We used to be a lot looser with the way things worked around here, but as you grow up, you realize the consequences. I used to live upstairs from Darkroom and then upstairs from the Annex up until a year ago. The weirdest people would turn up in the middle of the night. Dave Attell did a TV show once in my apartment. Axl Rose was there one night. It used to be the most surreal shit. And usually it would just Paul [Banks] and I sitting around, going “Who are these people?” We’d be hanging out watching TV and a band would be on Saturday Night Live and then they would show up an hour later in my shitty little apartment. There are a lot of stories. Now, I’m a gentleman.

Industry Icons: Ian Schrager. He’s diversified so much, but if you remember, he was just a guy who owned a bar in Jersey and then he opened up Studio 54. He’s also a genius as far as design is concerned. Look what he’s done to the Gramercy Park Hotel. It’s amazing. He has longevity. You get the people that come in and out, open a club here, then one in LA, not focusing on anything. I know he has done things in London, but he’s always been really focused on NY. Also, Tony Wilson is an influence, the man behind Factory Records and the Hacienda Club in Manchester.

Projections: I’m working on an English pub that’s going to be in the neighborhood. I can’t really say any more about that. Someone asked me to do a bar in a hotel that will be in the area too. I think it’s the natural progression to be moving from bars to being a restaurateur to an hotelier one day. I’m engaged now. I just bought a ring. I look at it like a career. I’m still down here seven days a week.

What are you doing tonight? I’m going over to see my friend Simon [White]. He’s picking up a new band called Amazing Baby. He manages Bloc Party, CSS, and Broken Social Scene. He’s come over from London and I’m doing a special showcase for him. Supposedly, they’re amazing and going to be huge. They are playing with Bloc Party tomorrow so this is supposed to be their warm up show.