Industry Insiders: Marc Rose and Med Abrous, Night Gamers

Tired of the bottle service-heavy, interaction-light nightlife of Los Angeles, best friends Marc Rose (left) and Med Abrous (right) opened the Spare Room, a unique lounge in the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel, early last year. The lounge features bespoke cocktails, vintage bowling alleys, and a variety of gorgeous handcrafted board games. The combination has proven wildly successful among partiers looking to socially network without staring at pixelated screens. We asked the innovative duo how they managed to get Angelenos to put down their iPhones and pick up their Scrabble tiles. 

Where are you from and how did you get here?
Marc Rose: Born and raised in Brooklyn. I was a diehard New Yorker, never thought I would leave. I went to NYU’s Tisch school and majored in drama. I got involved in nightlife from a young age. I was promoting and throwing parties, and I helped to open a very popular club in the ‘90s called Life. Then I left it all. I was 24 or 25 and I took off and came to LA to pursue an acting career. I got off to a great start and worked at it for a number of years before I found my way back into this business.  While I was here I also started a creative marketing agency called Treehouse. I realized that I was using my ideas to further other people’s brands, when I really wanted to create a brand of my own, which is how the Spare Room came to be. We really consider the Spare Room more than a bar. We consider it a brand. 
Med Abrous: I was born in Manhattan, but I have been out in LA for almost ten years now, which seems crazy. For about seven years I have been the director of bars for Thompson Hotels, which are based here in LA at the Roosevelt. Besides having a background in the hospitality industry, Marc and I are best friends. We always wanted to open a bar together, so we finally did. 
 
Where did the concept for an upscale gaming lounge come from? 
Marc Rose: We had friends who were no longer going out because the experience became really just about bottle service, people on their cell phones, and no one interacting with each other anymore. The idea of going out was supposed to be the social life, but no one was really socializing with one another. And our friends were looking for a place that was somewhere between a restaurant and a nightclub. So that’s why we wanted to create this lounge. We found ourselves in people’s homes in the Hollywood Hills and they’d have dinner and then set up a game. It would really bring out the best and the worst in people. We always say that you never get to learn about people more than when you compete against them. We wanted to create a place and an atmosphere where people can drink and have fun, but also where they can whip out a game and compete against each other, or against strangers. It was about talking to each other, looking at each other, not looking at your phone the whole time.
Med Abrous: Exactly. In examining the landscape of nightlife in LA, we found that there has been a void. There was nowhere for people to go to interact socially that wasn’t a nightclub or a restaurant. There was nothing in between. We developed the idea of the Spare Room and found that we can create a place that is vibrant and lively, but where people can actually talk and interact, and the common thread that we found was games. It seems so simple, but it breaks down a lot of boundaries that people have for themselves, and when they come in groups. 
 
It seems to encourage a level of engagement that is both old fashioned and refreshing. 
Marc Rose: I think the number one misconception is that people think we are a throwback or retro bar, and we are not. We are just trying to reintroduce the classics to people and reinvigorate the sense of community. The best thing is when strangers challenge each other to a game. And whether they compete for fun, or they compete for the loser to buy the winner a drink, it is a win-win for us. 
 
What kinds of games do you have there now? I know there are a couple of vintage bowling lanes. What else do you have? 
Marc Rose: The bowling lanes are the star of the show. They are a couple of old lanes that we went down to Texas and found from the foremost collector and supplier of bowling equipment. We restored them to their original beauty. As far as the other games go, we offer everything from backgammon to chess, checkers, Connect Four, Yahtzee, Jenga, Mancala, Monopoly, Scrabble, and various card games. But these are not the games that you can just go and purchase at a store. All the games are handmade. We worked with local craftsman to customize or completely custom-make the games we have. We have Monopoly sets that are plaid and suede, or leather, and Scrabble sets that are made from various acrylics. We have a custom-made Connect Four set made from walnut. These are games you’d want to put out on your coffee table. We feel like gaming is a lifestyle. We hope that people take the idea home, and that’s why we are in discussion to create our own line of games and selling them separately. 
 
The competitive element brings out the best and worst in people, but hopefully mostly the best.
Marc Rose: But even if it is the worst, that’s ok too, because it is good to learn that about people. We have seen some first dates go really bad at the Spare Room, which is interesting. 
 
That must introduce an interesting dynamic. If the girl beats the guy five times in a row, his ego is going to be hurt. 
Marc Rose: Right, and we have also seen it become a great icebreaker. I think another big thing about the Spare Room in general is that we opened it inside of a hotel, which is where we see this brand growing. We are in discussions now in some other markets to open the Spare Room, but it would only be in a hotel. We see this as a great amenity to a hotel guest, as well as a great local scene. We feel like these are rooms that our parents and grandparents had, and we sort of missed out a little bit. We are trying to bring that element of activity back.  
 
Can you tell me a little more about the cocktail program?
Marc Rose: Our beverage director is Naomi Schimek and she is amazing. I refer to her as our chef more than our beverage director and bartender because she is constantly pushing the envelope. We paid so much attention to the little details of this place, down to the scoring pads and the scoring pencils, so the cocktails needed to match that. We don’t consider ourselves at all to be a pretentious cocktail bar. We are very proud of the cocktails we offer and the ingredients we use and the spirits we choose, but our idea is to help to educate people who don’t know everything about cocktails. We don’t want to intimidate people. We want people to learn and have fun. 
Med Abrous: Absolutely. The most important thing for us is to provide a great service. The cocktail program that we have is always changing. There are a lot of cocktail bars that look down their noses at people, and that doesn’t make for the most pleasant experience. We make handcrafted cocktails accessible. We are a high-volume cocktail bar. It is important for us to get cocktails out in a timely manner, but also that they are made with the utmost quality and care. By no means are we a farm-to-table cocktail bar, where there are tons of greenery and fruits. We do use all fresh fruits, but we try to highlight the flavors of the spirit rather than covering the spirit up with a ton of seasonal ingredients. Our cocktail menu is divided into two sets: the classics, which we switch seasonally, and our original cocktails.
 
How would you handle someone who wants to try something new but doesn’t really know what they want? 
Marc Rose: People come in and we ask “What do you normally like to drink” or “What are you interested in trying?” We are ok with giving samples to people. I always tell our bartenders that if someone doesn’t like something, make them something that they will like. Something new that we are about to put in the space is a customer recipe library. If you came in and you created a drink with a bartender, our bartenders would help you to name that cocktail, and would record that in a little library card catalog behind the bar so that every time you come in it will be filed under your name. 
 
What is your favorite game to play when you are at the bar? 
Marc Rose: I am a big Yahtzee fan. I think it is a game that you can play all night long. It takes some level of paying attention while it gives you the freedom to gaze around the bar and interact with people who aren’t in the game, and it can go down to the very last roll of the dice. 
 
Do you have a particular cocktail that you like? 
Marc Rose: I am a rye whiskey guy. I usually drink that neat or with one rock inside of it, but there is a drink on the menu right now which is an homage to a Brooklyn bar, and it’s called the Slope. It’s a variant on a Manhattan. That would be a go-to for me.
 
You have succeeded in a space where many have tried and failed. What’s the secret?
Marc Rose: My partner and I really care about what we do. We care if people are having a good time, not just that they came to our place. It doesn’t matter if we are packed or mellow. Obviously we want to do good business, but for us it is more important to see people using the space as we intended it. I think if you care, and you build a space that you would want to be at every night, it’s sort of contagious. I built a bar that I would want to go to every night, and it seems like other people get that same feeling. 
Med Abrous: We have put things into perspective and see our business as not being a sprint to the finish, but a marathon. We have grown organically. We keep improving our product by examining how we can make things better, whether by refining the games or refining the cocktails. So far people have responded very well to the meticulous nature of both Marc and me and how we run our business. It is in the little things. More and more people appreciate a comfortable place where they can have fun, as opposed to standing in a dark nightclub where you can’t tell how much care or passion went into it. 

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.

Above Allen, a Down-to-Earth New Lounge

Above Allen, or AA, had its soft opening on Friday — but since it’s a terrace where being outside is most important, don’t expect things to completely pop for a couple of months. The first thing that struck me was the couches with their Stephen Sprouse print. I did a triple-take and caught up to my friend Jim Walrod, the designer, and asked him about them. Med Abrous is putting this insanely downtown chic joint on the map. I know Med from the Mark Ronson days of Life, and after an hour of catching up, I asked him a few questions to clarify what’s going to happen here.

The Thompson LES Hotel looms large over the still-vibrant-in-this-recession Lower East Side with a smart, hip staff and the belief that it will be a part of the neighborhood. Embracing those values instead of being above it all seems to be the right path. There was an old movie called Dead End which starred Sylvia Sydney, Joel McCrea, a young Humphrey Bogart, and the Dead End Kids (Bernard Punsley, one of the Dead End Kids was a great-great uncle of mine). Anyway, in the movie an incredible new ivory tower looms over the Lower East Side, and all the people in the 1937 Depression-era slums look up at the swells partying like its 1924 above them. I asked Med about the similarities — was this going to be a ritzy place in a hood slipping into economic misery? But he seemed dedicated to embracing the LES and its artistic/hipster side, especially by keeping drink and food prices relatively low. Designer Jim Walrod’s use of the Stephen Sprouse fabric in the décor sends that signal. Jim said, “There was nobody more downtown than Stephen,” and we exchanged personal stories of our interactions with him. All agreed that despite his brilliance, Stephen was always accessible — and so they say, will be AA.

Jim, is this fabric really … JW:… Steven Sprouse? Yes, It’s the last fabric that exists.

This really is the original fabric? JW: Yes, they didn’t even have enough of it to finish the seats, so we reduced the amount of furniture.

So instead of just knocking it off and reprinting, this is the original. Many people still don’t know who Sprouse is, but he’s getting a lot of press now. His work is finally being recognized by huge groups of people. So Jim, what’s the design idea here? JW:The building is on the LES, and there’s nobody I can associate more with the LES than Stephen Sprouse. When I was young, Sprouse sort of stood as the icon of this part of town. When I used to go to clubs, him and Terri Toy would be sitting there, and they were almost unapproachable, until you did finally meet them, and they were the nicest people you could imagine.

Terri Toy was a transgendered friend who broke out and did YSL fashion shows before retiring to Iowa as a housewife — a great LES story. JW: Stephen was always one of those people who represented something. When rockers wanted to look like rockers, they went to Stephen. When Axl Rose wanted to look like a rocker, he went to Stephen, and Stephen designed everything for him. He was also the curator of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. So when I decided to do this room, Stephen Sprouse was very much a part of it.

So it’s not the ghost of Stephen Sprouse, it is the inspiration of his life that is teaching us how we can be. The fact that there’s a commitment to this excellence, to bring this LES icon into this new kind of environment is very important I think. JW: Absolutely, I think what we’re really trying to do here is to keep in line with the Thompson brand, which is a luxury boutique hotel brand, but not take away from the LES and what it is. Marrying the two in such a way that we still have an authentic LES vibe, while maintaining the kind of expectations of great service that the Thompson been known for.

What’s the name of this place? Med Abrous: It’s called Above Allen. So it’s AA, which is a funny name for a bar.

The views are incredible, I see the Empire State Building, the Chrysler building, and downtown, and the LES stretching before us. MA: Yeah, we’re actually hanging off the seventh floor of the building over Allen Street, and the reason for naming it Above Allen is to be consistent. We’re branding these terraces or bars as above whatever hotel they’re in. A60 is the bar on top of 60 Thompson, and the bar that I’m involved with in the Thompson Beverley Hills has an amazing roof deck called ABH, which means Above Beverly Hills. So it’s trying to incorporate this brand in different properties around the US. One of the things I think the Thompson does well is that each hotel they build is really reflective of the neighborhood. There’s always the consistency of luxury and service, but they really go out of their way to try and make it part of the neighborhood and really create something unique.

When are you opening? MA: In early March. There have been previews, like a little something for New Years’ Eve, but our strategy is not just to do a big grand opening and burn too brightly too quickly.

Well, this is a terrace, and opening a terrace is the winter is kind of strange isn’t it? MA: It is strange … there could definitely be better times to do it, but what we’re trying to do is see how the room moves, make sure the staff is well-trained and that we’re providing great service.

Some people believe that this is a recession-proof neighborhood because these kids have a way of making money — they’re young, they’re hustlers. Do you think you can you make money here? MA: I absolutely think so. What’s great about this neighborhood is that people who come down here and open something are really looking to run a marathon. They’re not looking to be the hottest club on the planet for three months then die out and struggle to keep business alive. I think people come in here with a longsighted vision, and we’re very much of that same thought. I think we’re going to have a very long life and really become a destination place so you always know that you can come to Above Allen and there will always be good people, a great setting and good design. Our goal is to meld all of those things, including great music and great vibe into a harmonious experience always.

What are your price points? MA: Our prices are actually really competitive for the neighborhood. They’re not extravagant at all, although hotels generally are more expensive than other bars. It’s about $11 for a drink, and specialty cocktails are $14, whereas more places it would be $16 or $18.

Is that because of the neighborhood, or is it the neighborhood meeting the recession? MA: I think it’s both. We don’t want to alienate ourselves from people in the neighborhood. It’s an extremely artistic, driven community, and people don’t want to just spend $15 on a drink or $10 on a beer. It’s not that crowd — we’re not trying to bring Cipriani’s to the LES.

What kind of music are you going to play? JW: We’re going to have really eclectic music. It’s not a dance club, so in choosing my DJs, I’m much more interested in track selection rather than turntablist ability. We’re not going to have A-Trak or a real turntablist cutting up. We’re in the process of programming different nights, but anywhere from soul to a lot of rock ‘n’ roll, to indie rock, since we’re on the LES.

When can my readers come here to imbibe? MA: We’re going to start off opening about three nights a week, Thursday through Saturday, just to get to operations down smoothly. It’s going to be very friends and family in the beginning. With all our Above properties, we do special membership cards. They don’t cost anything, there’s no membership fee, but if you’re special enough, you’ll receive one in the mail so you can just go right up into the elevator and you’re not dealing with a myriad of door people or security, and that’s kind of the vibe here. But we want it to be a really cool group of people — everyone who’s bringing something to the table vs. just large bank accounts — so we’re also not really planning on doing lots of bottle service up here. We just want to have really great crowds.

What’s the door policy? MA: Well, there will be a doorperson at the bottom of the elevator, and they’ll be keying people up. We’re talking about having a dedicated elevator, but since this is a brand new construction our elevators work damn well. I’m really excited about this property … I think it comes at a difficult time, but we’re all excited about this particular bar, and I think we will have a great time. We have a lot of the right pieces in place.

You’re in a hotel, so is there an amount of money that the hotel requires you to generate? Is there less pressure than a normal bar wouldn’t have to deal with to generate revenue, as the bar also services the hotel guests — do you have a certain rent to cover each month? MA: In operating any venue in a hotel, there are lots of advantages especially that in a hotel most of the revenue is generated by rooms. So, yes, there is a dedicated amount going to rent, but the pressures of being overly profitable are not the same.

Are you serving food here? MA: Yes, we’re going to have a menu with small plates from Shang until 2 a.m. through April. That’s another thing — we’re more interested in the crowd that goes out between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. We don’t want to be a place where people get here at 2 and become that late-night place.

But a place will evolve it’s own identity. If at 2 a.m. you’re packed with a good crowd, you’re not closing the door. MA: Exactly, but really what we’re aiming towards is to have an earlier place where people can come and have cocktails and maybe start their night if they’re going to have a late one — or, just be a destination, like, hey you know what? I’ve got to work tomorrow. I’m going to be done by one or two.