Changes: Openings, Endings, & Good-Looking Females

imageThe mindset in New York is changing rapidly; we are venturing into a strange time of transition. In the minds of many, the economic downturn this winter evaporated with the new sunlight of these warm spring days. Yet I hear a little voice in my head saying, “not so fast, not so fast.” High-end folks with high-paying jobs are making the same loot they did last year but are reluctant to shell out big bucks for summer rentals and big vacations because their savings and investments have lost so much value. Las May 12, the Dow was at 12,867. Yesterday it closed at 8,469. The upswing in the last couple months certainly has been as refreshing as those warm spring winds, but the reality of loss is keeping the checkbooks semi-closed. Reports of the worst Hamptons and Jersey Shore real estate markets are everywhere, with an unheard-of short-season market developing. People have been renting for a month instead of a season. Yet, in the last two weeks things have improved, and there are signs that maybe it will be OK after all.

In the face of this, clubs are opening at a time of year previously considered impossible. The Gates, Griffin, and (any day now) Avenue’s opening all fly in the face of the “if it isn’t open by tax day wait until September” mentality. The outdoor spaces are getting spit-polished as there’s a great sense that the summer season in Manhattan will be banging. In years past, I could walk my dogs in peace on a Sunday morning. This year, I am anticipating dodging around revelers in herds as they endure “the walk of shame.” Sunglasses sales will surely surge. More roof parties than ever before will be entertaining stay-at-home partiers. I had a conversation with the operator of a very underground semi-legal place about air conditioning and such, and he’s figuring to be in business with a non-migrating crowd and an influx of tourists basking in the shine of our weakened dollar. Summer in the city, long considered a problematic time for owners, may be unexpectedly profitable.

My day started with an interview with a cool cat named Tom Folsom who wrote a book called The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld. We did it in my neighborhood of Nolita, finding some irony in having a chat on the stoop next to John Gotti’s old haunt, the Ravenite Social Club on Mulberry Street. The profound possibility of change — in fact, the inevitability of it — marked the day. The nouveau club operators of the model/bottle generation are adjusting fast to the new rules. This summer will be unlike the last one. I took my dark-eyed date to Mr. Jones for dinner, where we talked to owner Lesly Bernard about market realities and summer fun and changes. A successful operator is always reevaluating what is working, and accepting and dealing with what isn’t. The food service and vibe at Mr. Jones is fantastic, yet he is always looking to what’s next.

We then headed to Santos’ Party House, where a Holistic record release party was happening. Holistic is my friend Izzy’s band, but the opening act, Cringe didn’t make me cringe until the lead singer belted out the lyrics, “hey you good looking female.” He’s the hubby of Food Network star Rachael Ray, and about ten people told me that’s a big deal. I asked Dave Delzio who invited me to this soiree and how he could mix a classic rock band like Cringe with the Holistic’s hip hop sound, and he actually looked at me when he answered, “Isn’t Aurora hot?” He was referring to the very good-looking female to his right. “Well, yes,” I pressed on, “but what brings you to make the bold move to book a rock band to open for a hip hop band?” He gave me the skinny: “Izzy works at John Varvatos, and Rachael Ray is a customer there.” The packed house of hipsters, promoter types, man about town/manager J.R.. Walden, and scores of good-looking females will ensure that this one-off happenstance becomes the trend.

My own good-looking female and I made a mad dash for the door, stopping for a second to hear the dapper Jaizen explain the advantages of Buddhism for lead singers. He spoke of how much it helped Tina Turner and many others, and as we scooted away I swear I could hear him say, “Thank you, I’ll be here all week.” As I raised my arm for the cab, I put my dark-eyed gal into the yellow and quietly walked back into the hood. I stopped by the door of GoldBar to chat up Daisy, who used to work with me. I had missed her birthday, and I needed to say “hey” and tell her she was a good-looking female. The conversation was about change to the important things you think about a couple days after a big birthday. I adored her and enjoyed the warm night. The other GoldBar door honcho Jon Lennon walked by, and we talked for a long bit about good-looking females, the Tom Folsom book, Crazy Joe, old school values, and my case and the State of the Union. He was on his way to Umberto’s Clam House right across the way, where he would soon dine on linguini and white clam sauce (always a winner). Crazy Joe Gallo was murdered inside Umberto’s, but not this one, the one down the block; Umberto’s moved, but the gravy stayed the same. He got it on his birthday, April 7, 1972, while eating with his family late at night. The Dow Jones had closed at 9,162 that day. As I walked the few blocks to my apartment, I heard that little voice saying, “not so fast, not so fast.” I’ll be here all week.

NYC Celebs: Where Do You Go Out?

imageAt the opening of Hair on Broadway, March 31:

● ROSIE O’DONNELL: We have just little local ones in our neighborhood that we go to, but we don’t really “hang out,” you know. I mean, we have four kids under the age of 13. You don’t really hang out a lot, when that happens. You know, the local Irish pub in our town, the OBI or the Casa del Sol, the Mexican restaurant. You know, there’s some kid-friendly places that we go — we’re kinda dull.

● TIM ROBBINS: Oh, uh, yeah — I’m tryin’ to think of someone that needs help right now. [laughs] A lot of people are hurtin’ with this economy. I can’t, I can’t — I don’t go out much. No, I don’t go to bars. We like Basta Pasta on 17th Street — great food. It’s an Italian restaurant run by Japanese people. Pasta with the cheese — they put it into a big wheel of cheese, and it’s really yummy.

● GINNIFER GOODWIN: Oh, I’ll give you LA. My favorite restaurant is this little spot called Vegan Glory, in a strip mall on Beverly. They have the most phenomenal tacos. Are you a vegan? I am, and that’s where I get my taco fix. I recommend the faux beef tacos — absolutely!

● TOVAH FELDSHUH: It’s not that extraordinary. I like to go to Orso, ’cause it’s right next to the theater. I love to go to the Harvard Club, where we’re members. I love to go to Daniel. Oh, my god, Bouley — way downtown; it’s brand new; it’s extraordinary. I went there for one lunch. I love little Chez Josephine, when I’m playing 42nd Street — Restaurant Row — I love to do Jean-Claude at Chez Josephine. You know, I go to the places that patronize me, that are good to me, and that are easy on me. Sardi’s always takes care of me — I always have their steamed vegetables and tofu ’cause I’m dieting. I love the bread — the extraordinary, very, very, thin, paper-thin bread, that’s garlic and thyme, at Orso’s. I love the Harvard Club ’cause they know me. I’ve been a member all my life, through my father, my husband, and my son. I love The Ivy restaurant in London. I eat there a lot. And I love The Ivy in Los Angeles, on Melrose. And I love The Wolseley in London. It’s fantastic. It was an old bank, like tonight [Gotham Hall], an old bank.

At the Lymelife premiere, Gen Art Film Festival, April 1:

● JILL HENNESSEY: I love the question. God, there’s so many. There’s a new place that opened up called The Charles — John DeLucie’s the owner. Oh, Tillman’s, one of my favorites. I think Leslie Bernard is the owner. Irving Mill, which my husband and I are partners in — it was rated as having the best burger in New York City, and one of the best new chefs, great bar. But Tillman’s — Leslie Bernard owns another place called Mr. Jones on 14th Street. It’s like this 1960s James Bond world that you suddenly walk into, with the best yakitori, food, and incredible drinks. Very sexy, very hip.

ALEC BALDWIN: I’m not a drinker, but my favorite bar to hang out in is the American Hotel in Sag Harbor, Long Island, ’cause it’s just a great, great, old room. It’s a great space.

NYC Openings: L’Artusi, Mr. Jones, Macao Trading Co.

L’Artusi (West Village) – Italian eatery dell’anima’s newer, bigger brother resto. ● Mr. Jones (Union Square) – Japanese-Danish fusion. Also, Japanese with no sushi on the menu. ● Macao Trading Co. (Tribeca) – Call it what you like — we prefer “Asian-fusion-whatever” — but Macao’s prospects aren’t a gamble.

Good Night Mr. Lewis: Lesly Bernard, Yakitori, and the Penguin Joke

imageLesly Bernard (see part one of interview) and I once opened a place called Peace down on Bleecker Street. There were a few investors, and we didn’t see any money, as it was short-lived. The whole buildout cost about fifty grand. Hell — I think we painted vinyl furniture we found on the street. Walter Vee was our DJ, and he promoted a little too — and as my old pal Arthur would say, “It was a hit!” Everybody came, and in its brief run, it was the best joint in town. As I said, it didn’t last long. I think the landlord had other plans for the space, but what we did impressed him, so later on he hired me to run the new club he built in that space. It was called Life, but anyway, back to Peace. I came in late one Saturday night as I still had obligations over at the Palladium, and Walter Vee introduced me to a pretty blonde gal at the bar. He asked me to tell her my famous penguin joke, and so I did. The small crowd lost it at the punchline, and she begged me to tell it again to her boyfriend John. I agreed, and John was brought over, and I started to tell my joke, but after the second or third line I realized that John was John John Kennedy, and the pretty blonde gal was Darryl Hannah, and I became a babbling idiot.

Even a guy who hung regularly with uber-celebs was stunned by the kid I saw saluting the coffin of his father. A few weeks later I noticed the couple waiting on line with the crowd at coat check at the Palladium. I checked their coats for them (the only coats I’ve ever checked). They thanked me quietly — either they didn’t recognize me or were maybe afraid I’d tell another joke. If you see me around. ask me. and I’ll tell you the world-famous penguin joke … or not. Meanwhile, back to my interview with Lesley Bernard.

You made a transition. You were this great promoter — my right hand at Palladium. Do you consider yourself a promoter now? I call myself a producer.

And you decided to get into restaurants. Was it an age thing? I decided I didn’t want to promote anymore. I was tired; it was a combination of that and the lack of creativity that I could put into it.

Thursday is my favorite night, and you’ve always had a lot of success with that night. What does Thursday mean? Why Thursday? Actually, in those days I was doing a party almost every night, but Thursday was the anchor. On Thursday night in those days, people went out; people went out every night of the week, but Thursday was the hottest night because anyone who was worth their salt was probably doing something entrepreneurial. In those days, the guys that filled the clubs were the artists, writers, and photographers; it wasn’t the yuppies that clubs are full of now. So on Friday they weren’t working. You were your own boss; nobody was looking over your shoulder, so Friday if you went in hungover, who gave a shit?

So one day you woke up and nightclubs weren’t filling you anymore, so you decided to be a restaurateur? I didn’t know what I was going to do.

So how you became a restaurateur? I stopped doing promotions and nightclubs, which was my second life. My first life had been finance, after I graduated from Georgetown, then I did the whole promotions thing. After awhile, I realized that I didn’t want to promote anymore, and I didn’t want to go back to banking, so I lived in San Francisco for awhile until I got a call from one of my idols, Keith McNally. He said, “Hey Lesly, I’m opening up a couple of places and I’d love for you to come back and do them for me.” So I came back, and he had just signed the lease for Pravda, and he was thinking about signing the lease on Balthazar.

You made Pravda hot. Yeah, Pravda’s still running, and Clementine ran for seven years. The places that I do stick around, they don’t disappear. Clementine was sort of a knee-jerk reaction to all the French bistros; there’s more French bistros here than in all of Paris. As a Haitian guy I love Americana — it’s so sexy to me — so Clementine was my homage to Americana. This is what I love now, maybe because I’m older, but sometimes I don’t want to be in a restaurant — most of my place are not restaurants, they are places with great food, great service, great ambiance, but they’re not restaurants.

So your work with Keith led you to open your own places? Yes, I came back and worked with Keith, and he’s a genius. I can talk to him for ten minutes on the phone, and I’m going to learn something for nine of those minutes. When he’s snoring, I’m taking notes! I learned so much from him, and after I worked with him, I decided that I could do this — I couldn’t do Keith, but I could do Lesly Bernard. So now I have Tillman’s and Mr. Jones, and I’m opening up three more places in New York. The Village Tart will open in about four weeks on Mulberry, and it’s going to be an adult desert café lounge: frozen yogurt, gelatos, great savory tarts, and other deserts. Then Premier Brunch will be on First Avenue later on.

Tell me about Tillman’s. Tillman’s is a sort of slice as Harlem; it’s my love of Americana, and what’s more American than Harlem or jazz? What I love about the Black-American culture is the richness and the soul. Its sort of gotten usurped by the T.I.’s and that whole crowd, but there’s so much more to it. I wanted to build this soulful little piece of Harlem, and as a result, when you come to Tillman’s, you’re going to see a crowd that you don’t see in New York anymore; a real mix. Even on Mondays, I have cool, funky, live music playing.

I have this theory that places don’t get tired; I think that the energies of the people who run them get tired. I think that a place can run forever. The new guys, they don’t know what work is. They think work is to surround themselves with girls and sit at a table. You will never catch me doing that. You’ll never catch me in my restaurant sitting down. I’m always working, and I tell this to my staff also — it’s a service industry, whether it’s a nightclub or a restaurant. They’re the waiters, but I’m the headwaiter. I’m there to cater to my clientele, so you’ll never see me sitting down with a bottle like a big shot. I have to make sure that my guests are taken care of … I’m just a glorified waiter, and that’s what’s lost in our industry now. Take bottle service for example — the one thing wrong with bottle service is that there’s no service. They slap the thing down, and then they walk away.

The not-so-great model drops the bottle, and that’s called service. And then they want 20 percent tip!

So I’m having dinner with you here at Mr. Jones, and I love the food. Can you explain what it is? I’m proud of this place. The funny thing is that in Japan, yakitori is very commonplace; it’s on every street corner; but in New York, most people only know sushi. In Japan, yakitori is street food, and I fell in love with it. The thing about yakitori is that the Japanese love their cocktails, so it’s basically drinking food. They have these light portions so they can drink more.

And you have two of the best bartenders in the city. They’re the sickest guys in New York. When I built Pravda with Keith, originally it was going to be a vodka bar, but I pushed for this cocktail thing. At the time, in downtown New York, in any club you went to, the fight was whether you were going to have an Absolut and tonic or a Stoli and tonic. That’s what people drank, but I thought we needed something softer, more feminine, because I was always more about the ladies. So I started doing cocktails at Pravda with Keith, and when I opened up Clemetine I created a whole other slew of cocktails: sidecars, mojitos etc. I sort of made mojito a word in Manhattan. If you look at old articles about Clementine, they would say, “They served this Cuban drink called mojito.” Pravda and Clementine spearheaded the whole downtown cocktail culture.

Good Night Mr. Lewis: Lesly Bernard & the Return to Adulthood

I was at a party the other night in the new basement Studio at Webster Hall. The party was for a movie called Let Them Chirp Awhile which is getting a bit of a buzz. The crowd was stunning — not the stunning used to describe the skateboarders-turned-promoters and their lovely ducklings, but stunning as in actresses and actors and successful, young, hip adults. It was a eureka moment as this crowd, above all others, has been disenfranchised by the club world. They don’t come out anymore, although they used to. I walked over to say hello to my actor friend Zach Galligan, who will never escape from the description, “You know … Zach Galligan, from Gremlins!” (Sorry Zach, that might not be how you want your career defined, but it’s great to see you in this film, and I’m looking forward to it.) The adult crowd had a blast, and that brings me to Lesly Bernard. Lesly and I have worked together in the past, and I’ve always liked hearing his point of view on things.

What I always take away from Lesly is that the adult crowds that visit his spots are better in many ways than the club crowd. Even the young people sharing cocktails last Friday night at his new restaurant, Mr. Jones, were mature. They represent a post-clubbing nightlife crowd that isn’t at all stuffy or boring … stylish people enjoying specialty drinks, listening to great music, and having conversation. Clubs, for the most part, have become mindless. They have a fury and a sexual intensity driven by loud beats and frenetic lights; this is when they are at their best. Having seats occupy most of the dance floors has precluded the need to converse, thus the nonspeaking but gorgeous model/bottle crowd has been the center of attention. A return to days of intelligent conversation may be at hand even in the clubs. The models can’t reel in the bottles as much anymore, and therefore design should shift to embrace a more cocktail-y crowd. Joints that have space may offer chill-out rooms where a smart set who don’t necessarily want to embrace the cost of dinner, but still want to get away from the boob tube, might come to strut their stuff.

Lesly Bernard is hosting us at his fantastic new restaurant, Mr. Jones. You claimed that you didn’t get the name from the song “Mr. Jones,” but I don’t believe you. First of all, do you think I listen to Counting Crows? I swear to you I didn’t come up with the name from that song.

Before restaurants you worked me with me, JellyBean Benitez, Pascal, Jacque, and Alex at Palladium on 14th Street. That was a precursor for this model-bottle crowd; you guys brought in the hippest crowd. Yeah, it was pretty hot, they had to shut down 14th Street for our party — and when I say shut down, I mean police barricades. I think 14,000 people came that night that it was Pascal, Alex, and I with you at the helm. We killed it.

We couldn’t get anyone else inside, we had to take people in the back door. I think we did 8,000 in the front and 6,000 in the back. At the time, I had never done anything in a nightclub before. I didn’t like nightclubs, so I would rent these crazy spaces — old warehouses or abandoned band shelters — to throw parties. At some point, you told me those days were over, that they were going to come shut us down — then they started shutting us down left and right. I decided we would do a nightclub if we could still make it feel cool; we had to do it our style, really make it hands-on and make it feel like it was a privilege to come there, and the thing blew up. In those days it wasn’t about bottle service; you couldn’t buy your way into these parties. The people who comprise of the nightclub scene right now — the people who are on the guestlists right now, who are buying the bottles, who are the VIP now — forget getting in, they didn’t know where the party was. By the time they found out where the party was, it was gone, it was somewhere else. I don’t think that can be done anymore.

I think it can. I think there’s nothing missing except the effort to be put in. When I go to a place like Webster Hall, and you’re in that big room and its actually pumping, there’s nothing like it. The potential of that energy still exists. Its just not enough people know how to get there because the bottle service thing has taken those people out. I think that before, there was also a real cross-section of the population. When you went to a party that we did or we were involved in, there was a mix of people — black, white, gay, straight, old, transvestite, all having a party together. But like with any other business in Manhattan, people saw we were making a killing, and decided that they wanted to get involved. So all these people who never created anything, never did anything, but had money and wanted to buy their way into business would open up a nightclub, but guess what — they couldn’t fill the club on their own, so they created these promoters who weren’t producing anything, they were just promoting. Next thing you know, there are ten nightclubs, but only four or five of them had a vision or a point of view. So people think that bottle service ruined the business, but it didn’t — the business was ruined, and then bottle service evolved out of it.

I think bottle service saved it. Yes, people would buy the nightclubs, and now there are 70 clubs with 7 nights a week to fill, and they couldn’t pack themselves, so owners started hiring promoters. So promoters say, how am I going to do this? Oh I know a lot of French people, I’ll do French Tuesdays, I know gay people, I’ll do gay nights. So in order to create these nights, they had to create seven different stories, and then it got more and more segregated. This happened because all these guys tried to get in the game who really didn’t have any business being in the game. So now that you couldn’t fill the places, you had to beg people to come, and you couldn’t beg them to come and then try to charge them. So to make money, the next privilege was to be able to sit down. But we can’t charge you to sit down, so you have to pay for the bottle. The cool people weren’t going to pay for the bottle, so now those guys that didn’t know where the party was before have to rely on the bankers to buy those bottles. So I crack up when I hear guys say, “Oh man, bottle service ruined the game.” No, no, the game was ruined, and then bottle service evolved as a result.

There was one great lesson that you taught me. We were doing an Elite Models party at the Palladium, and I was talking about blowing it up and sending out 100,000 mailers, and you said, “No, no, don’t do it, don’t tell everybody it’s going on, because everyone will walk in and see these 1,000 beautiful girls and think it’s like this every night.” It was brilliant and we followed it. It’s branding.

Tell me how that works. I do it all the time. I never want to work to enhance somebody else’s brand; I always want to enhance our brand, whatever the party is that we’re doing. My concept is, why am I going to sell Elite? That’s not going to help me next week, but if I say, “Hey, Palladium is having a great party on Fridays,” and people come and they see this place littered with beautiful girls having a good time, they think, “Wow Palladium is hot!” Then the next week, you layer it with something else, but you don’t sell that product either. So I never want to sell someone else’s brand. And for a lot of the events that we used to do, we had people basically sub-promoting the event, but we did it in such an organic way that people didn’t know. I still do it, when I do a restaurant; you’ll come to my place, and you don’t know that I might have a director having a little party here with 15 or 16 of his friends, but you have to continue that work, you have to constantly bring that, and ultimately, your brand is going to get that cachet, and it’s going to explode.

People don’t understand the amount of thought that went into this process. Yeah, I always spend 75 percent of my energy on production and 25 percent on promotion. Now people spend the exact reverse, 75 percent on promotion; just hire a lot of promoters. But what are you offering the people? We produce and the promotion will take care of itself, because the best promotion is when someone comes, has a great time, and says “I’ve gotta go back to that place.” Not someone cold-calling model apartments for clientele. One of the things that’s changed is that when we were going to do a party, my phone will start ringing, “Lesly, where’s the party?” People were calling me to find out where the party was, as opposed to now, where people are calling people to tell them where the party is … it’s completely reversed.

Openings: New York, San Francisco, London, Chicago

New YorkMr. Jones (East Village) – Japanese with no sushi. What? ● Aspen Social (Midtwon West) – Acid etched forests ● Archipelago (Soho) – French sushi. Oui. ● 1 2 3 Burger (Midtown West) – Burgers, shots, beers ● Pinche Taqueria Dos (Nolita) – Tacos. Muy bien.

San FranciscoLa Mer Cebicheria Peruana (Fishermans Wharf) – Peruvian Japanese fusion ● The Moss: (Sunset District) Science is rad.

LondonBroome & Delancy (South West) – LES comes to LON.

ChicagoThe Whistler (Logan Square/Humboldt Park) – Music that doesn’t suck. Plus PBR.