Industry Insiders: Jeff Zalaznick, Private Eye

Jeff Zalaznick transitioned his career from mergers & acquisitions to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The editor-in-chief of AlwaysHungryNY.com and founder of DinePrivate.com was once a J.P. Morgan employee before finding his passion and his business partner, famed restaurateur Joe Bastianich. The native New Yorker talks about his newest online accommodation for private dining.

How was Always Hungry born? I started Always Hungry after a career in investment banking and finance and realized that food and restaurants were where my passion lay. I felt that at the time there was a huge gap in online sites that were focusing on not only the best technology for restaurant search engines — which Always Hungry has in terms of finding where to eat and what to eat when you get there — but also food-focused content. So that’s how Always Hungry was born. Always Hungry launched about a year ago.

And Dine Private was conceived from that? I was sitting at ‘inoteca with Joe Bastianich (Babbo, Spotted Pig), and he started talking about a way to sell private dining online. We started discussing the fact there was clearly a gap in the market. Private dining didn’t have an efficient sales channel. And basically a year later, we’re here. Dine Private was born out of that conversation and a lot of work in between. Always Hungry launched a year ago; I started working on it two years ago. Around the same time that I was launching Always Hungry, I started discussing Dine Private. It was launched in September.

Is there a subscription fee for Dine Private? No. Dine Private is free for the consumer, so for the customer or anyone in the business of planning events, anyone that goes to our website, it’s totally free. The goal of Dine Private is to offer the best pricing. This happens because restaurants have begun to price their rooms more competitively because they’re selling them against one another through our site. In terms of the cost to the restaurant, the restaurant pays a subscription fee and a booking commission.

How many restaurants do you have now in your database? When we launched, we chose a highly qualified group of people that we thought would be great partners in launching the site, and who could help us create the best product possible. We launched with a group of 14 restaurants that included all the BLT restaurants, the Craft restaurants, Daniel, and Babbo and Del Posto. Since then we’ve had this unbelievable response from the restaurants themselves. We’ve been inundated with requests, and at this point we’re probably signing between two and three a week. Right now we’re trying to get as many as we can and get them online so they can start booking private dining as quickly as possible.

Is Dine Private targeted towards smaller groups as well, for say, a birthday party? This is for anyone looking to plan any sort of event. From huge 200-person parties to a birthday dinner with no more than 12 people. We take over where the restaurant says, “Hold on, let me transfer you.” Whether that number is 8 people, 10 people, or 12 people, every restaurant has a threshold where you move from being a normal dinner reservation to being considered private dining or group dining. Now that person can go on Dine Private and immediately see what’s available on a certain day for a specific amount of people. That saves a lot of time. And you can do that for a party of 8 or a party of 300 people.

Are the price minimums negotiable? The whole idea is that the price that you get through us is almost the post-negotiation price because what we’ve done is create a way for the restaurant to price their room more efficiently. We hope that this creates an efficient marketplace. The goal is to save people money. For years, the private dining business was very opportunistic — they would size you up and see what kind of price they could get out of you. Now they realize that it is their benefit to be up-front with their pricing because they get better responses from their customers.

How has the customer reaction been so far? The customer reaction has been incredible. For anyone in the business of planning events, this is kind of the answer to their prayers; such an immense time saver. Instead of having to call a variety of venues to check on availability and pricing, they can get real time availability using our search engine in a matter of seconds.

What are the stipulations for the restaurants you feature? We chose the group that we chose to launch the site based on people that we thought were, in terms of their private dining practices, somewhat diverse, but were also set up to work through this and perfect the product with us. It’s not meant to seem like those are the only places we’re working with. Right now we’re working on signing up everyone from 20-person restaurants in the LES to different Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese restaurants — really all over the place at a variety of different price points. For us, all you need to have to be on Dine Private is a private room or real estate that you’re able to have a private event.

How are you marketing the site? Right now we’re working with a lot of people in the events business, whether it’s from concierge services to people that work within the big banks or law firms on the admin side to help plan events. We’re directly targeting them and their consumer through a variety of consumer benefit systems, and we’re also going to do some special events.

Are you still working day-to-day on Always Hungry? Now I run Dine Private on a day-to-day basis, but I still do Always Hungry and oversee everything there. Right now I have both.

Do you ever get any criticism on the top five lists? We don’t get too much criticism, but I definitely get emails all the time about it. It’s definitely something people love to discuss and argue over. It brings up great conversations and sometimes someone will bring something out of left field that changes my opinion.

And then will you edit the list? No. Once the lists are done — they’re done. But we’re always trying to do new ones to make them more and more accurate.

How many nights a week do you eat out? Seven. And most lunches, too. I’m lucky enough for it to be my business, so a lot of time it’s business related, but I would be doing it regardless.

What are your go-to spots? I have a different favorite for everything. For Italian I love Michael White at Marea, I could have the octopus and bone marrow pasta anytime. I love Del Posto, I love what they’re doing at Locanda Verde. For Chinese, I love Chinatown Brasserie.

Where do you go out after dinner? Recently I’ve been going to the Boom Boom Room. When I’m not there, sometimes I go to Southside, Avenue, places like that.

Industry Insiders: Sandra Ardito, Giving the OK to KO

Sandra Ardito heads sales, marketing and special events for KO Hospitality Management (Cooper Square Hotel, Empire Hotel, Hotel on Rivington, and Chelsea Hotel in Atlantic City). We met the hospitality connoisseur at the Cooper Square Hotel to get the scoop on the Hamptons Memorial Day hotspot, the Reform Club Inn (suites and private cottages in Amagansett), working for Ian Schrager, and why we should stay at Cooper Square (besides the fact that it’s the location of the Bjork’s afterparty tonight).

Is this the first hotel KO has developed? No, we did the Empire Hotel on 63rd Street, and we did the Chelsea Hotel in Atlantic City for Paul Sevigny and Matt Abramcyk. For those hotels, I would describe us as the hired guns.

Who are the other members of the KO team? Klaus Ortlieb, Yana Yevinson, Meg Burnie, Manuela Kolb, and Annie Ohayon.

How’d you get here? I was the director of special events at Chanterelle. Budgets were $250,000 to a million back then. And while there, I moonlighted by helping people open their restaurants. I opened the Harrison with owner Jimmy Bradley. I met some amazing people, like Joey Campanaro from Little Owl. I was Jason and Jen’s investor at ‘ino on Bedford street. Eventually, Meg Burnie brought me into meet Klaus at the Hotel on Rivington. That’s when I left Chanterelle. My first event at the Rivington was Timothy Greenfield Sander’s XXX Book. Bill Dye called me to be part of Gramercy Park Hotel with Ian Schrager. We opened with the Marc Jacobs party on September 11, 2006, after working for months nonstop. I shadowed Ian for the two nights before we opened the hotel. He had receptions for all of his friends and was surprised at how I knew them. He said, “You are the girl, you are going to do this.” It was like a love letter. And he trained me and nurtured me into this role. Finally, Klaus started KO Hospitality Management about a year and a half ago and asked me if I wanted to be a partner. It was very hard to leave Ian. At KO, we work with owners and developers from ground-up construction. We attaché the restaurant, the architect, the interior designer, and conceptualize the entire project.

Something unique about Cooper Square Hotel? Every book in the Cooper Square hotel was picked through Housing Works, which is a charity for AIDS victims. People can purchase the books and the money will go to the charity. Klaus is a seasoned professional who only takes on projects he believes in. He worked with Andre Balazs and Ian Schrager for years. He wanted the experience at Cooper Square to be completely different, that’s why there’s no reception desk. There’s a lobby host who shows you to your room. It’s about personal attention. Klaus sat on 575 chairs until he choose what he felt was the right one. We’re also building a screening room on the second floor. There’s an indoor/outdoor bar on the second floor as well, and a 3,000-square-foot terrace.

What is your specific contribution? The total experience here. I hand-picked the staff. What Ian and Klaus have given me, I hope to give to someone else.

What’s the next project? We are helicoptering to the Reform Club Inn in Amagansett to get ready to open for Memorial Day weekend.

What music do you listen to? Rock ‘n roll — Iggy Pop, The Raconteurs, Jane’s Addiction.

Favorite artist? Radek Szczesny.

Favorite restaurants? ‘inoteca, Little Owl, and James in Brooklyn

Favorite bar? Royal Oak in Williamsburg, Madame Geneva in the Double Crown and Bowery Electric.

Favorite hotel? East Deck in Montauk for a retro motel and The Crillion in Paris for high-end.

Who do you admire in the business? I grew up reading about Ian Schrager and then had the pleasure of working for him. He hired me to be his director of special events. The man who started the party is looking at me and letting me see his vision. It’s an honor and the best compliment. I also admire Klaus Ortlieb for his loyalty, compassion, and integrity, and Nur Khan for the incredible way he takes care of people

Who do you feel does it right? Joe and Jason Denton of ‘inoteca and Lupa

What’s something people don’t know about you? I’m an avid gardener and spend all my money on plants for my roof deck that I made totally grassroots style with my boyfriend.

What are you doing tonight? Going to Bjork’s concert at Housing Works and then to her after party at Cooper Square Hotel.

Photo: Mike Mabes

Industry Insiders: Med Abrous, Mile-High Mover

Thompson Hotels’ director of promotions and entertainment Med Abrous, on his once-in-a-lifetime guest performance with Prince, bringing movie night to clubs and the bright side of the bottle-service decline.

What’s the best night you’ve ever had at one of your venues? A little over a year ago, I put together some concerts in the Roosevelt Ballroom for Prince. He performed six shows for about 300 people per show. It was so intimate, and he put on such an amazing show. During the third show, I’m sitting with a group of people — the crowd was almost more famous than he was, which is really weird — and he starts playing this riff, then calls my name and says, “Yo Med! Get up here.” So I get up onstage with Prince, and he’s playing “Play that Funky Music White Boy,” and I basically sing onstage with him playing backup guitar. It was amazing. I have a picture to prove it because it sounds like such a tall tale. I think that was pretty much the highlight of my life.

Was your performance any good? You know what? I have moves. I’ve really got moves. I was even doing mic stand tricks; I was milking it. Can I sing? Not really. But I put on a show — I was very entertaining. It didn’t help that I didn’t know all the words, but he was helping me out a little bit. It was one of those things where it’s like, okay, try to top this.

How many Thompson properties are you responsible for? I’m based out in LA right now, and I take care of all the front-of-house stuff for the Tropicana Bar, Teddy’s, Above Beverley Hills, and our new property Above Allen, which I’m really excited about. I’m responsible for programming the music, hiring the DJs, hiring promoters where they’re needed, and coming up with creative ideas to drive business.

How did you get into the hotel business? While I was going to Parsons, a lot of my friends were DJs and into nightlife, so to make some extra money I started throwing parties, and I got pretty good at it. I’ve always been interested in hotels, and even though I run the bars, it’s really all-encompassing because bars can be very much one-note, while hotels are multifaceted and have a more interesting operation. Jason Pomeranc, who owns the Thompson Group, was a good friend of mine — we had some mutual friends — and he hired me to do the Tropicana Bar, then we started to do Teddy’s and … voila! Who do you admire in the industry? I think somebody who’s really done it right is Sean MacPherson. He seems to have a great sensibility and great sense of timing for all the places he’s opened. I really respect his work — he’s got a ton of places, including The Bowery Hotel, Swingers, and a great tequila bar called El Carmen in LA. They’re places that last because he makes them accessible and not too exclusive. He delivers a great product with great service and a cool aesthetic. I would definitely use his career as a model.

What’s the best part of your job? I actually enjoy the creativity behind coming up with different concepts that people would like. For instance, in the summertime at the Roosevelt’s Tropicana Bar, which is kind of an oasis inside Hollywood, on Sunday or Monday we’re going to be doing movie nights. We will have different people curate the movies, and we’re building special menus with truffle popcorn, colby hotdogs, etc. It’ll be a night when people don’t necessarily want to go out and rage, but they’ll go and see a movie in a bar. Finding different ways to find revenue is something I really enjoy. The second thing is that I actually genuinely like people. Some people in this business actually don’t, but I tend to get along with people and enjoy most of their company.

You’re a bi-coastal boy. Where do you hang out when you’re in New York? I love to eat. I’m a closet foodie, so I have some go-to restaurants whenever I come to New York. I love Frankie’s in Brooklyn on Court Street, and I’m always discovering new places like Inoteca, which I really like. Frank, I’ve been going to forever on 2nd Avenue and the Corner Bistro to get my Bistro burger on — it’s the world’s greatest burger. In terms of bars, it all depends on what neighborhood I’m in, but there are a lot of great bars on the LES (besides Above Allen, of course) like Pianos and a lot of little local joints. But having a lot of friends in the business means that I have friends who own bars, so when I’m in New York, I usually do the rounds of all my friends’ bars, like 3 Steps on 18th Street, and then the bigger, popular spots also.

And in LA? In LA, the closest bar to me is the Chateau Marmont, so I like going there — the Bar Marmont is really great. There’s also been an emergence of a lot of really cool dive bars like The Woods, El Carmen, and Bar Lubitsch that I enjoy.

Which of your bars do you spend the most time at? Teddy’s. It’s kind of like my baby. It’s something that I work really hard on and has managed to stay successful for a long time. It’s a great space. In LA, a lot of places tend to be really slick and overdesigned, but Dodd Mitchell designed this space, and it really has a lot of character. The Roosevelt is already a historical landmark, and the design really lends itself to that. It has kind of a wine cave kind of feeling — it’s dark and comfortable — and we have great staff, great service, and it’s become kind of like Cheers, where people know each other and know that there will always be a good crowd and great music. We have great DJs that we always rotate, in addition to live music, so it’s become almost an institution at this point.

What positive trends do you see in the hospitality industry? Well, it’s more of a reality and not a trend, but the state of our economy is forcing us to do things differently and more efficiently. I think it’s actually a good thing that for the first time in a long time. People are going to actually have to live within their means. People are really tightening up their belts and trying to find interesting ways to still be successful in this economy. Bottle service, for example, is starting to fizzle, which I think actually has a good effect in the long run. I remember when bottle service first started; I was talking to Steve Lewis about this earlier. I remember that Life was one of the first places that people actually didn’t have to be cool to get in … they didn’t have to be artists anymore. And all of a sudden the investment bankers and hedge fund guys could come in and buy bottles and be in an exclusive place, and I think it hurt nightlife in a huge way. Now, with those people not spending as much money, and bottle service not being as prevalent in New York especially, I think it’s coming back to cool people coming together. Artists, etc. People who didn’t necessarily have money before the crash, and can still go out. I think that’s had a positive effect on nightlife.

Where do you see yourself in the future? I think the natural progression of things is to open my own place, but I’d definitely like to be in the hospitality business. I’d love to start with a small hotel and see what happens.

What are you doing tonight? I’m going to my parents’ house and having a home-cooked meal.

Jason Denton on Bar Milano’s ‘Teca-Support

imageA little over a week after Joe and Jason Denton’s eight month-old baby Bar Milano closed its doors in light of the bad economy (or rather, not pulling the crowds in), it reopened as an additional branch of resto hit ‘inoteca, the popular and affordable panini-pressing factory downtown. Jason recently sat down to talk to us about a rough past month, the exciting changes he’s made, and what the future holds in moving forward with the reanimated version of Milano.

How have things been? Much better. It was a rough January.

Really? Well, you know, I’m just not used to not being open. We just kind of felt like — with the timing of everything, and the restaurant –that we needed to make a change. And it was a good change. We closed January 31 — that was our last night — and then we closed for the month of January and the first two weeks of February. We took out the carpets and laid hardwood floors, and farm tables, and a chandelier, and just kind of ‘inoteca-fied it.

How has the new place been? We’re having a lot of fun with it. We feel really good about some great responses, and you know, it’s the same menu as downtown — a lot of the signature dishes — and then plus, we’ve added a few new sections on the menu. We have a little section for pasta, which is just really, really simple pastas, like, spaghetti al olio. There’s a little panette, with pesto, and potatoes and beans. And then, we also have another little section called “Spiedini,” which are Italian skewers. So we have things like scallops with Jerusalem artichokes, or octopus and potatoes, or sausage with broccoli rabe and peppers. And yeah, we’re trying to keep it cheap. I think the price ranges for bruschettas are $3, and then it goes up to the average main course around $12 to $13. So it’s much more price-effective than Bar Milano was.

What’s the customer feedback been so far? I think so far people are really, really happy. I work the door every night, so I can greet everyone and see the reactions, and I feel like it was a good move. People always seem excited.

Any more changes to come? Well, right now, we’re just open for dinner, from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. every night — we serve food ‘til 3. And then in about a week and a half, we start delivering. And then we start lunch on April 1.

Is Bar Milano being missed? I don’t think so.

No? I don’t even remember it anymore [laughing]. I blocked it out.

What can we expect at the new ‘inoteca? We have a lot of fun things going on with the cocktails. We basically have some of the drinks that we had before, but now we’ve created a pretty cool little cocktail book that has around 40 cocktails. Classics and everything. And where on the old menu, we had drinks that were from $13 to $17, all our specialty cocktails and everything are $10. I think you can expect a lot of fun — it’s a new location — and you can mix great cocktails with a great selection of wines by the glass, and some new dishes from ‘inoteca. Also the ‘inoteca downtown is only for parties of six or more, but uptown, due to its size, we are talking about 20% of the restaurant we reserve out. So we still have tons of walk-ins, but if someone wants to guarantee a reservation, they should go online to OpenTable, or make a regular reservation.

New York: Top 10 Entrees Under $25

imageBecause the choice shouldn’t be between restaurants where Chipotle and Per Se, here are a few spots that have embraced the middle ground.

10. Moules-frites @ Schiller’s Liquor Bar (Lower East Side), $18 – Same Parisian-bistro vibe as at Keith McNally’s Balthazar and Pastis, but you’ll save yourself some cash, a two-hour wait, and any shame involved in being stingy with your wine selection (the list is divided into “cheap,” “decent,” and “good”). 9. Hamburger @ J.G. Melon (Upper East Side), $8.50 – Nothing can pack in hoards of NYC prepsters like this UES landmark’s juicy burger. 8. Romanian skirt steak @ Delicatessen (Soho), $17 – Forget that foodies critically panned it and that a neighbor urinated on the glass roof; with nothing on the menu over $20, a lively atmosphere, and plenty of swank space, it’s little surprise that Delicatessen is almost always packed.

7. Open filet mignon grilled taco with roasted poblanos, onion confit, rice and beans @ Manana (Upper East Side), $23 – Good eats and eurotrash eye candy come together at this Mexican spot from the folks behind Serafina and Geisha. 6. Steak frites @ L’Express (Flatiron), $19.50 – Nothing like hearty protein and carbs at 4 a.m. 5. Dutch-style pancake with pears and Canadian bacon @ Prune (East Village), $14 – A must for brunch, the baked pancake is so good it’s not only worth the wait, but worth dealing with the diminutive spot’s stern no-substitution policy. 4. Chicken dolsot bibimbop @ Bonjoo (East Village), $12.95 – Cheap enough to order as take-out, the traditional Korean chicken bibimbop is served sizzling hot in a heavy stone bowl. 3. Zucchini and heirloom tomato lasagna @ Pure Food and Wine (Flatiron), $24 – Not for nothing does outspoken meat lover Giselle Bundchen have a house account at this surprisingly satisfying raw and vegan spot. 2. Grilled mushrooms, mozzarella, pesto & spinach panino @ ‘inoteca (Lower East Side), $11 – Carbs, vino, a bustling corner LES location, and communal seating make this a perfect before-the-bars meal. 1. Sweet & crispy jumbo shrimp at Buddakan (Chelsea), $24 – A sceney spot with eats, cocktails, and décor likely to impress even the most jaded New Yorker.

Industry Insiders: Jason Denton, Italian Stallion

Italian Stallion: Jason Denton, co-owner of Italian eateries ‘ino, Lupa Osteria Romana, Otto Enoteca Pizzeria, ‘inoteca and Bar Milano, speaks on still being giddy after 20 years in the game, getting deported to New York, living off canned fish, growing up in a culinary wasteland, and being Italian at heart.

Are you Italian? At heart I am.

Really? Nobody in your family? You co-own five Italian restaurants. No. Actually my family really didn’t cook that much Italian where I grew up in Idaho. Just the staple Ragu and overcooked steaks. It was OK growing up because we always had a meal in front of us, but it was never in pursuit of gourmet. Monday was the same dinner for like 20 years, really.

How did your restaurant business start? When I was 18, my parents and I moved to Seattle where I started college. I was also washing dishes at this little steak and rib house called Billy McAl’s, and I kind of fell in love with the restaurant business the first time I stepped into the place. I loved everything about it. Whenever I walked, in people were always happy and energetic. It seemed like a real camaraderie, and it was something I really enjoyed. And I enjoyed it enough to drop out of college to become a dishwasher. I knew at 18 that I wanted to be in the restaurant business.

You knew at 18? You don’t understand. I still get goose bumps when people come into my restaurants and have smiles on their faces. I think probably the spark before that was because of my uncle, who was in the restaurant and nightclub business in San Francisco. He always had these crazy parties. When I was 14, we were going to Disneyland, and we drove up through San Francisco to see him and he was this flamboyant, crazy entertainer who everyone loved. He took us straight to his bar, which was one of the hottest spots in San Francisco. And there were gorgeous women all over the place, and they’re like, “Oh Mr. Denton, right this way,” and I was like, “Oooooh.” When I turned 21, my uncle was getting ready to open up a new place in San Francisco called Harry Denton’s, and he asked me to come and help. It was so grand, people in tuxedos, lines around the block; it was the hottest place in San Francisco.

For my first job, he put me at the door, so I was 21, at the door in a tux, and people would be doling out cash, and then some night the mayor would be coming, or some other socialite — there was all this excitement. I kept working with him for a while, and one day he just pulled me aside and asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I told him I wanted to open my own restaurant. He said the only way to do that was to learn how to cook. From 6 a.m. the next morning I started working in the kitchen, making sauces, washing vegetables and fruits. It was all bottom-rung, entry-level work. I did that for about three years and kind of hit a point where I felt I needed to grow a little more before I packed my stuff up and went to Europe for around seven months just traveling.

What did that bring to your restaurateur experience? Did you have great food and get inspired? No, actually we were on a really super-tight budget, so we just ate cans of sardines and drank cheap bottles of wine every day, all day long.

When did you come back? I ran out of money, so I decided to work in London and got a job as a chef at this place for a bit. I had a girlfriend in Paris, who I kind of met along the way on the trip, and I would make money during the week and use it up on the weekends to visit her. Eventually I had too many trips back and forth from London to Paris, and then I got deported back here.

So when did you move to New York? Well actually when they were deporting me they said it was either San Francisco, Seattle or New York and I had lived in San Francisco and my parents lived in Seattle so I told them to send me to New York, and I arrived here with ten bucks in my pocket 15 years ago.

When did you finally start working on your new restaurant idea? I got a job waiting tables at this place called Po. One of the owners there used to work at my uncle’s restaurant as a waiter, and he was partners with Mario Batali. He had a couple of shifts available so I was worked there as a waiter for some years. Then at some point I realized that I can never work for anyone else again, because I had worked for the best bosses, like Mario, who is a tireless worker and a really good guy. That was when I had the idea about opening up ‘ino with my wife, and then we opened the little bruscheterria which has been around for ten years. It was before anyone here really knew about paninis. It’s like my baby.

The idea of Bar Milano just came about over the course of the last few years, wanting to do something a little different. I wanted to step it up a little bit, and try to find a new neighborhood. We also loved the combination of Milan to New York. I think they’re very parallel. They’re very sexy and very financial, and there’s a good mix of a lot of different foods around. We wanted to stay focused on northern Italian food and style wise make it very Milanese. We felt like this could be a New York restaurant as well as a restaurant in Milan.

Do you ever want to start something on your own? I love having partners because it allows me to do a lot of things that I really love to do. I have two kids, I don’t work on the weekends, and it’s very important that I hang out with my family. Also, I just finished my second cookbook. So it’s important for me to get time to do that kind of stuff. I’m not that guy who’s going to be here every night till two in the morning and come home late. I always try to get home at 5 o’clock to have dinner with the family and then leave after the kids go to sleep. It’s a good balance to have great partners because it allows you to have some sort of normalcy.

What’s a regular day for you? I get up every morning at 6 a.m., hang out with the kids in the morning, make breakfast, take them to school with my wife. Then my day starts at one of the restaurants. I’m at ‘ino by 8:45-9 o’clock every day, and I’m there for a couple of hours. And I’ll go check out some of the other restaurants for lunch, maybe Lupa or ‘inoteca to see if they need anything. The hardest part is when I open up new restaurants; they take so much of my time that sometimes I have to neglect the others for a little while.

I love the way you talk about your restaurants like your children. Other than my family, I live and breathe the restaurants, and like I said before, there’s nothing that makes me happier then seeing a smile on a person’s face, because I know that they’re going to come back. That’s probably why I moved out of the kitchen. I love to cook, and I’m probably pretty good, but if I did the same dishes a hundred times over in one night and wouldn’t be able to see the reaction on someone’s face, I wouldn’t get the same satisfaction as I now get by shaking hands and working the tables. We always kind of joke and call it spreading our fairy dust.

How is the current economic state affecting everything? It’s a new challenge that we haven’t really had in the last ten years, and probably Bar Milano is feeling it more than the other places that aren’t as expensive and very established.

Which restaurant is your favorite? Well, my baby is ‘ino. It was kind of where we started the whole panini craze. That was the first one we came up with. It’s kind of magic for us. I love all of them. It’s like my children. They all have such a special spot for so many different reasons, I don’t think I can necessarily love one more than the other. But if I had to pick one it would be ‘ino because it’s my menu, and a lot of my boys have been there for years. It’s like a family.

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.