Larry Poston officially opened the West Village resto Hotel Griffou with business partner Johnny Swet on July 1. Poston made his name in New York restaurant circles as a manager at Pastis and the Waverly Inn, and Swet gained his hospitality know-how at Balthazar and Freemans. Most recently occupying the 9th Street space was notorious speakeasy Marylou’s, but the name of the new joint is after the original, French 1870s occupants. The modern dining rooms are themed as a salon, library, and artist’s studio with a French-inspired classic cuisine menu. Poston gives us an inside look at the new spot.
What are you focusing on now that you’re open for business? My business partner Johnny and I are really priding ourselves on great food and great service. That’s what we know. We’ve learned from Keith McNally that no matter all the fanfare and no matter what comes in, great food and great service are the only things that keep them coming back ten years down the road.
How did you first meet Keith McNally? I started waiting tables at Pastis in 2000, so I interviewed with Keith. He hired me, and I worked there for six months and then moved out to LA with dreams of being an actor. I was a pool boy at the Chateau Marmont for four months. So that was my West Coast experience. I hated LA. I came back and started waiting tables again at Pastis. They promoted me to manager on the floor, and I worked at Pastis for six years.
Most important thing you learned from McNally? Keith had been a maître d’ when he first started out. He taught me a lot as far as what to look for with people, and he would say, don’t just seat the people in front of you with the suits and the flashy money, because they always get a table. Look behind them and see the nervous couple or the little old couple or the funky-looking group that doesn’t always get a table, and seat them. That adds to the room and also keeps that eclectic mix of New York going. You don’t always want suits, you don’t always want fashion people, you don’t want all of any one thing. I would love to have Mick Jagger over here, some drag queens over there with a rock band and then some Wall Street guys. That’s what keeps it interesting. That’s New York to me.
Then you worked with another legend, Graydon Carter. It was just that time, that point of trying something new and spreading your wings and getting out there. And that’s when I met Graydon Carter over at the Waverly Inn. That was a whole other aspect of service and learning people because that’s a man who is like maître d’ to the stars. He’s the epitome of a host. It’s his room, and he knows where everyone should go. I got to know a lot of names at the Waverly Inn, obviously.
What’s the Waverly’s secret for remaining A-list over the years? You have Eric Goode and Sean McPherson who know restaurants, and they also have their own chic clientele of people who they bring to any project they’re involved in. You get that mixed with the energy of Graydon Carter and all these amazing A-listers in there for a great dining experience. You get the mix of a person who knows the people and the people who know how to run a restaurant. Once, I was telling a friend some of the names who went in the place one night, and he was like, “So, what you’re telling me is, if the Waverly was to explode right now, it would be the end of civilization.”
What’d you take from that experience to opening Hotel Griffou? How to deal with certain people. There are a million different personalities here in New York City, and then you have a certain amount of clientele that is …
High maintenance? Well, the great surprise is when the ones you expect to be high maintenance aren’t. It’s just having to deal with personalities. Higher-end personalities have higher expectations. You learn how to coddle egos in a way. I think that’s what the Waverly taught me: how to really deal with egos. That’s a good way to say it.
What came first for Hotel Griffou — the concept or the space? Johnny and I talked about doing this for awhile, and we had a concept. We had this place over in the East Village at one point, because we were thinking of modeling after some of those southern juke joints, speakeasy-type places that have great names like the Playboy Club or the Lizard Lounge. But you have to walk into a space that feels right. Johnny worked at Freemans, and I worked at the Waverly Inn, and both those places are very unique — Freemans is down that alley, and the Waverly Inn is at the bottom of a townhouse. In New York. It has to have a special vibe or a special space, then the bones were here and boom. I was never here for the Marylou’s experience, but I’d heard these amazing stories about what was here before. We’re hoping we can return it to some of its past glory.
You’re obviously alluding to that with the name. Hotel Griffou was what is was in the late 1800s. It was owned by this woman by the name of Madame Marie Griffou. It became this real mecca of ideals, artists, writers, and poets. One of the true stories is that Mae West actually did come here after her indecency trial, which is funny.
How long has this been in the works? From embryo to now — about two years. We initially started construction this past February.
What’s your favorite part of the interior? I can’t really choose. The inspiration Johnny and I talked about was an artist’s town house. There’s something about the feel of the salon, and I like the studio because of the crazy art and all the work that’s been contributed. Johnny spearheaded the design, but it was collaborative, and all the work that was contributed was by artist friends.
How much input did you have in the menu with chef Jason Michael Giordano (of Spice Market)? Johnny and I had ideas of what we wanted on the menu . We wanted those traditional dishes. Classical American cuisine is what we called it, and then we discovered that this place was owned by a French woman, and we had to throw a French nod to the cuisine. We wanted a signature dish, which is the lobster thermidor fondue.
Is that the most popular menu item? Yes, as well as the poutine, which is French fries with duck confit topped with a little buffalo mozzarella. It’s amazing. Also, the fried seafood basket, which is something from home. I love fried food, fried fish, cod, fried shrimp, fried oyster, with chips, we’re calling it Calabash, we’re not going to call it Southern, but yeah, that’s exactly what it is. It’s a mix of some rich dishes and some light dishes. We thought that the idea of a great restaurant was that you can go here three or four nights a week and always have a new experience.
True that the pork cutlet recipe was found on the menu from the 1800s here? It’s very true. We have a sautéed pork cutlet recipe that was on the original Madame Marie Griffou menu from 1892. They’re sautéed, lightly breaded with this delicious pork gravy au jus with green beans. They’re delectable.
How was your soft opening? It was great because we invited a lot of industry people that we’d worked for and trusted their opinion. We got really good feedback and notes that we can take with us to keep improving. You get a little anxiety about your peers coming, and knowing you’re going to really hear the truth — which can be unpleasant, but always necessary. The bottom line is that everyone was pleased with the look, the feel, and the vibe of the place, which is important.
Where do you go out? I like Norwood a lot, and Little Branch. As far as dining I still love Indochine and also Peasant.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure? The Real Housewives of Atlanta.
Photo: Scott Pasfield