Good Night Mr. Lewis: Richie Notar Doesn’t Sweat the Recession

image[See Part 1 of Steve Lewis’ interview with Richie Notar.] We’ll get out of this recession, and Richie Notar’s Nobu will thrive through it. He believes, as I do, that the high-end joints will survive, while a lot of the wannabes will close their doors. People will eat at a Nobu, or have a cocktail at Rose Bar, even if they’re about to hock the Bentley, if only to show their peers that they’ve still got it. Sure, the cuffs may be shot out to hide the “stainless” Rolex, but those on top always know what time it is, anyway.

I enjoyed my sit-down with Richie. He made me feel like he wanted to always be my friend, like he really was happy to be next to me, having a chat. The cell phone didn’t ring, and no minion came to interrupt us with something “important.” I believe these traits are most important for a person in the hospitality field. I remember when I worked for Steve Rubell, and I would have this weekly meeting, and the phone would be ringing off the hook, the secretary blasting names — “Steve, Liza Minelli on 3, Calvin on 4, Jellybean on 1, Bianca on 6 …” — and he’d just wave them off because we were working. It was an amazing feeling that he would postpone talking to theses giants because he was talking to me. I went through walls for Steve, worked insane hours to prep for those meetings. I’d have every statistic, every angle covered because he felt our time together was that valuable. and I was honored to work for him.

Richie came through that system, and I think, like me, he still puts in the hours, still prepares, still values the time of others. There is no way anyone can describe what Steve Rubell was really like. I can tell you when I was running joints, I looked around my room and always thought to myself, “What would Steve or Andy (Warhol) think if they walked in right now?” Sometimes they did. When those two passed — way too soon — a little bit of that edge was lost. So guys like Richie and I do our best for ourselves, for those memories, and for a public we just can’t get enough love from. I build them now and write about them and I get paid some loot, but I do it for the love, for the action, and I think I see that in Mr. Notar, too. It just feels great when you sit in a room that you created and watch cool people enjoying their lives.

You’re opening a location in Los Angeles; tell me about it. Is this your first one in LA? Yes, we have one in Malibu, but the origin of it, which I’m not involved in, is called Matsuhisa, (which) was Nobu Matsuhisa’s first little restaurant that he opened 22 years ago. De Niro fell in love with the food, and it became his Hollywood canteen. There’s no real design; movie pictures and plastic lobsters on the walls; it would be considered almost kitschy, which is cool, because it’s back-to-basics. But here’s the dilemma for me: That’s the original, it’s a different partnership, but it started from there. How do we not hurt that or compete with that, but create a different persona for the restaurant? I’ve said this before; you can’t throw a rock without hitting a Japanese restaurant in LA, so how can we be different? I’m still trying to get my head around the dining habits of Hollywood. It’s a spoiled city, they want a lot of love. It’s me, me, me, so I’ve tried to do that with them.

You’re all over the world, and LA is coming now, 17 joints later — is it about not understanding LA? I don’t understand LA. Well, I kind of like Malibu. I’m a kid from Queens, so I see a dolphin and some mountains, and it’s a good day, you know? We’ve had the place in Malibu for ten years, and it’s very hippie-ish, and very cool, but LA was a no-go zone because Matsuhisa was there.

So now you’re just now figuring it out? Yeah. First: Does LA need another Japanese restaurant? Probably not. So what we’re focusing on is an experience. I don’t want to compete with the sushi, because if you have well seasoned rice and good fish, our sushi’s not going to be too different from yours; so it’s Nobu’s signature dishes, the bar, the lounge and our outdoor patio that are really groovy. We have a driveway with a fence that’s paparazzi-proof, and turns out that’s a high point in Hollywood, so people like David Beckham and George Clooney love coming in.

Everyone knows we’re in an economic downturn. How’s the Nobu client being affected, and what’s Nobu doing to address this? You try to avoid it, but the reality is everyone’s in denial, and sometimes, it really smacks you in the face. In certain restaurants, like London, it’s really fantastic, but little things like lunches downtown, because it’s so close to the Wall Street area, you could feel it. But places like Las Vegas, it’s very difficult, the food traffic is down. We’re still doing OK compared to other people who’re closing, but in places like LA, we’re going to do something cutesy, like “tightening your belt hour” or “bailout bites.” I was trying to motivate the staff, and I told them this is history; whether it’s the 1920s or Prohibition, or even when 54 started and New York was stagnant, things go in waves.

But you can’t keep people down, certainly not New Yorkers. So I think soon people will digest that they have to change their lifestyle a little bit, and then they’re going to persevere and have “fuck the economy” parties. You’re already seeing them around a little bit — maybe people aren’t going to buy a third home in Palm Beach, but they’re certainly going to go out. And actually, for us, it’s almost a reverse psychology, where people will come to Nobu and they’ll sit at one of the front tables because they want to show people that they’re okay in this economy. We’re involved in a lot of egos in this world, and they want to sit up front and go, “I’m fine.”

You have this great mantra, “In order to have a good dining-out experience, you leave your cellphone at home, surround yourself with people you like, go where you feel comfy, not the expected place, go local if you can, and do not network over food.” I think just like they hang those choking signs, they should hang that in the front of the restaurant. I think the question was “What’s a good time for a night out?” and I think people expected me to say something pretentious. I’ve been around way too long to be impressed by something that’s not meaningful, and I love neighborhood joints. Maybe it’s the Italian in me, but in Italy you dine among friends, and it’s about the conversation in addition to the food being good. It’s this banquet, you’re chatting, and it’s an event. I always try to remember that, especially in the restaurants. We do family style here, and you feel more at ease. This is the type of place that’s user-friendly; you’ll come two or three times even in a week; I’ve had people come for lunch and dinner. If you go to some of the bigger event places, you’ll go for an anniversary or a birthday, and you don’t go back for a year.

Now, one of the things about the recession is that you have Nobu Next Door, downtown. Is that an everywhere thing, or only in New York? There was a space that became available next door, and at the time, we were saying no to more people than we were saying yes. We didn’t want to lose that opportunity to have something, and we thought just like Armani has Black Label, Emporio, and AX, we’ll try to provide something for a different demographic. So I’m going to take a little credit for this. I said, “Why don’t we just call it Next Door?” They loved it, and we just called it Next Door.

How hands-on is Robert De Niro? How often do you talk to him? I talked to him this morning, to be honest with you. He’s an interesting guy because people don’t know what to make of him, he’s very quiet and protective of his private life. But it’s no secret that Bob De Niro was instrumental in putting together Nobu by bringing it to New York, by taking the chance. I didn’t know anything about it — my friends made fun of me when I said I was going to run “this Japanese restaurant”. He’ll add his input, but at the end of the day, he’ll say, “OK, I would probably do A, B, C, D, but you do what you want, or what you need to do.” I value his opinion. Both of his parents were artists, he grew up in the Village, he’s incredibly sensitive, he’s well traveled and has great taste.

And he’s really responsible for holding Tribeca up. When I lived there, he was one of the champions of that neighborhood, and it wasn’t as easy to live there as you think. Years ago it was a ghost town, it was tough.

What’s coming up? We’ve opened up in Dubai, soft, meaning it’s not really a big splashy party. It’s on Palm Island. Dubai is like the Hamptons now — everyone from London and Europe goes there.

So, from dishwasher to Dubai? Yes, no doubt, it’s been a great ride, with so many experiences; we should collaborate on a book. But it’s true, I’ve been really fortunate, because life experiences to me are more valuable than driving around in a Bentley or anything that’s materialistic and comes and goes.

I agree with that, what I take with me from the past — I don’t remember the cars I was driving, but I do remember some of the people that were in them with me. Yeah, you know, sometimes it’s great to stop and reminisce about those times, because when you talk about a bad climate now, people are referring to times that were really just … fun. Hands down. You still go to places in London, and there is a Studio 54 night.