Industry Insiders: Larry Poston, Room Service Provider

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

Sound Ideas: Daniel Agne of Funktion One

What clubs offer that bars and lounges generally don’t is sound and DJs. There are a few guys at the top of the heap in the sound world, and Daniel Agne is one of those guys. If the sound is crisp and clear, chances are that the club owner spent a great deal of cash to make that happen. As a designer, sound considerations are a day-one thing. The open entrance to the mezzanine level at Marquee with no apparent break to stop the bleed from the main floor was a major design move. The padded ceiling and columns and front of the bar at Home overcame the tremendous bounce from the hardwood floors, brick walls, and concrete ceilings. Joe Lodi hid bass speakers behind banquettes and added a scoop that pushed the sound where it needed to be. The club world is never as easy as people think, and I hope this interview with Daniel gives you insight on the process of sound installation

You do the sound at premier nightclubs, putting in DJ booths, speaker placements, etc., making the room sound great. What’s the name of your company? The company is called Sound Investment and Divine Lab, and we’re often regarded as Funktion One in the US. We do sound, video, lighting, and entertainment technology

People say places like 1Oak have a great sound system because it has a Funktion One system. What is the history of Funktion One? We have access to essentially every type of loudspeaker, amplifier, and processor in the market. We’ve done many AB tests over the years and continually do them when new products are released. We base our company on the confidence that we are designing using the highest-performing equipment possible within the design budget allowed. Funktion One loudspeakers are the core of our systems because we feel that they are the best possible speaker available. Period. They are the result of a holistic design process that prioritizes overall system integrity as apposed to monetarily based design directives. In Funktion One, we found a philosophical approach that runs congruent with that of our own. Tony Andrews and John Newsham at Funktion One have achieved audio excellence by combining decades of technical experience in cabinet and speaker design with a passion for fidelity. By fabricating the speaker drivers in-house, Funktion One is able to precisely tailor the response of each loudspeaker model, using mechanical adjustments to cure mechanical problems instead of leaving it to electronic equalization after the fact, which does not address the root cause of the problem.

In the last ten years, we’ve seen a breakout of DJs and talent, so instead of getting $5,000 to $10,000 a night, DJs are now getting about $40,000 to $50,000. How is sound technology keeping up with the DJs, and how do inventions like Serato and the fade away from vinyl affect what you do? It makes it much more difficult to produce a quality result because technology was once difficult for the common man to obtain. You used to go to a recording studio as a privilege because it was an expensive and exclusive process. You would be there with trained professionals with standards and experience, so you had great quality equipment in experienced hands, and only the best of the best got there. Now, every busboy and their brother is a DJ because the cost of producing music at home is cheap, since they’ve found ways to make the products inexpensive. With all of these mass-produced, lower quality products, on the professional end we have more availability with producing higher quality and better sound systems. But we’ve also been crippled because with this highly accurate, super-loud system that can reproduce whatever comes into it accurately, we have loud distortion and poor-sounding tracks.

What’s the solution? The solution is education, as with any sort of technology. New technology can come in and dilute the waters, but there will also be a backlash — a purist approach that promotes the philosophy of “Well, okay, that’s great that you all started downloading and transferring diseased tracks everywhere.” It’s an education process, but it is starting to be socialized and realized, so there is common knowledge now that when you’re downloading the tracks at low bit rate and you’re paying less for it, that’s not a good thing. That’s like being a race car driver and buying a cheap engine.

What places have you done sound for in New York? Cielo, 1Oak, we just finished the Griffin with you and Marc Dizon, and we did the Crobar system when it became Mansion (M2). We work with Sean McPherson and Eric Goode. We do a lot of their hotel work; we just did the Jane Hotel with them, The Bowery Hotel, The Maritime Hotel; we worked on Mr. West, and we did the basement for APT.

You did Cielo, which is one of the premium dance clubs, and you did 1Oak, which is a different type of club — it’s a lot of mash-up, hip hop, and not as house-heavy as Cielo. Are there any adjustments you make for a club like 1Oak as opposed to Cielo? For Cielo, I have the luxury of tuning for complete accuracy and that’s what my approach was with it. With a venue where you are going to have a more eclectic DJ pool and format, you have to tune your systems to take out some of the things that would be adverse depending on what they are going to play. So if I knew on a system that everyone was going to play good music, I would tune it a little bit differently.

What do you mean by “good music”? I’m talking about the quality. When you get into mash-up and stuff like that, it’s absolutely highly diseased tracks that are being transferred. It’s like the plague — this person now has it and 37 people have transferred it — it just doesn’t sound great. It’s compressed, and it’s cheap downloads in the first place. To a certain point, there’s nothing you can do; we are working on a certain proxy to reintroduce and grab elements that are salvageable, but it’s difficult. 1Oak is more consistent than other places with having good DJs, and obviously Cielo is also because Nicholas Matar had a rhyme and a reason when he set out to do that and he did it. My design firm Lewis & Dizon just did Griffin with you, and when they brought you in, there was a conversation about how the sound was going to work within the design of the room. I’m sure that Nicolas Matar of Cielo was designing the shape of the room and seating with sound in mind from day one. Was it the same with 1Oak? Ronnie Madra, Jeffrey Jah, Scott Sartiano and Richie Akiva were both very very adamant that it had to have a great sound system. I think that our company takes a tremendous amount of pride in working with designers. We appreciate the aesthetics of a room, and we’ll go to great lengths to try not to violate that. Sometimes it’s a wrestling match, but we try to come up with custom and unique solutions that would not violate what the design and functionality of a room needs to be. With 1Oak it was actually quite a process with the design to get to where we were, but they did the things they should have done; there were a couple things we were fortunate about, and they did allow me to put things where I needed.

1Oak has a vibrant social scene, and the seating area generally has less sound so that people can speak, while a place like Cielo has great sound in every spot of the room. How do you do that — is it a challenge for you? What you do is have your main focus area, and then off of that you’re doing fills and trying to timeline it to be coming off of the main system. It’s a delay, when you timeline something — you have a system that is going to be your main system, it’s going to be the loudest area, and you’re just trying to accent that.

So what you’re saying is that even in a small room, if the sound is not properly balanced, you’ll hear echoes? Yeah, shorter distances show up as confusion because your brain doesn’t process it accurately, and it’s a disruption instead. At greater distances it’s actually referred to as the Haas effect, but you start to then discern that there are different starting points, or it’ll be like an echo, or it has its own beat to it because it literally starts to get disruptive.

You hear this in a lot of big spaces like Capitale, where you have high ceilings and hard surfaces. Yeah, that’s a room slap echo, where it bounces of the walls.

Clubs are being built everywhere in the city, residents are moving into club districts, and the co-existence of clubs with communities is becoming a big issue. How much consideration is given to the leaking of the sound to the street? It’s important for every single job, and the earlier on in the process that we can get involved with the design and the layout, it really benefits the project. It is obviously a really heavily weighted factor, and every club owner does know that because it is an Achilles’ heel. It can put a club out of business sometimes — does so even if they are running it properly. There’s an issue of how you can achieve that unless you’ve really painstakingly designed the space, or if you have the luxury of sound space within the venue.

You fortunately work for good people; do you turn down a lot of jobs? I do, more often today than I used to, because I’ve learned that despite your best intentions, your efforts are going to end up being inhibited by the personality of the owner. You have quite a reputation; there are two or three people in the city who are talked about in the same breath as you, but sometimes people buy you only because they want your brand, for the vanity of having it. There will be pitfalls. I’ve learned that through Spirit. I was promised a lot when we started that I never got. He [Spirit owner Robbie Wooton] didn’t accept our input, and I should’ve turned that job down. He made a promise that he didn’t keep as well. When I said, “This isn’t enough sound,” he said, okay, “I’ll tell you what, when we turn it on, we’ll have some time and if it’s not right, we’ll get the rest of the parts.” And then when it got to that point, he didn’t do what he said he was going to do, and none of those factors come up when people talk about it or. People don’t consider that part; it’s just your reputation.

When people come in and they hear you did the sound, they’re expecting value, and if you can’t give it to them, you shouldn’t be doing the job. Yes, he turned around and spent three times as much for a different sound engineer and also used the equipment that I already had in there. So he had mine, plus three times as much, so I thought, okay … that’s fair. So, in that I learned a valuable lesson, which is to understand what the result is going to be for the risk you are incurring and figure out if it’s really worth it. Because it took me a lot of time to repair what the impression was of that work.

Industry Insiders: Taavo Somer, Rustic Freeman

Freeman’s and Rusty Knot co-owner Taavo Somer talks about his failed busboy career, the proper use of porno paneling, and why he strives for simplicity when doing three jobs at once.

Point of Origin: I moved here when I was 27, for a job at Steven Holl Architects. And my first day was an immediate wake-up call that it wasn’t gonna work out. I had been working in big firms for years, and this was my dream job. And when that disillusionment came, I thought: screw architecture. I’ll do something else. A friend there knew Serge Becker. I thought I’d be a busboy, learn to tend bar. When I met him, he was like, “Why do you want to work in a bar? I have no busboy openings but I have a project.” It turned out to be Lever House, which he was working on with John McDonald, and the designer Marc Newson. Serge didn’t have a trained architect in his office, so he said, “Do this until a busboy position opens up!”

Occupations: I co-own Freeman’s and the Rusty Knot. I was going to throw a big New Year’s party at a club Serge was opening in Brooklyn. The club didn’t open in time, and Serge felt bad, so he introduced me to this space on Chrystie Street. The landlord was cool with the party, but he said we had to use the alley entrance off Rivington. As soon as I saw the alley, the party dissolved, and I wanted to open a café. I already had a concept for a restaurant, and I just put the concept in the space. That’s how Freeman’s came about. The Rusty Knot is a 1950s nautical bar, really mellow, cheap materials, cheap drinks, 50-cent pool table, free jukebox. It’s got porno paneling, you know, fake wood like the Calvin Klein basement ads. The building itself is pretty unremarkable. But if you find yourself being a snob about something, my instinct would be to embrace and explore it, and that’s when epiphanies occur. It’s born from the location on the West Side highway. It’s not beautiful.

Side Hustle: I never wanted to do just one thing. When I was first in New York I was spending a lot of time in NoLita, which back then was really kinda cool. I started going into Selvedge and lamenting with Carlos [Quirarte, now of Ernest Sewn] about the state of New York nightlife, how there’s no Mudd Club. Where was the good rock party? So we decided to throw our own at the Pussycat Lounge. I started making T-shirts. And we sold them at Selvedge. Then we got in trouble, because the owners didn’t know. But they sold out. If I didn’t have the discipline I learned from architecture I wouldn’t be making clothes today. Now, we have Freeman’s Sporting Club. I design suits and shirts. The aesthetic of the restaurant definitely influenced the aesthetic of the clothing and the store itself. There’s also a barbershop in the store, and we just opened another, FSC Barber, on Horatio Street.

Favorite Hangs: Between Freeman’s and the Rusty Knot, there’s only a couple of nights a week that I’m free. I go to the Spotted Pig, because it’s like family there. I usually eat dinner at Il Buco once a week. I still go to Frank and Lil’ Frankie’s once in awhile … I have friends there. I go to a lot of the dive bars that I used to go to, like Joe’s Bar. In London I go to Rules, and in LA, for whatever reason, I like going to Dan Tana’s.

Industry Icons: Luc Levy, who owns Café Gitane. I love his set-up … he’s got his spot, it’s been open for 11 years, one owner … it’s an effortless business plan. Serge Becker, definitely. You could throw out ideas, and if he used it, he’d always credit you. This guy Jason Mclean from the old Loring Café, in Minneapolis. The place had Shakespeare one night, and a gypsy wedding the next, just weird shit happening. Freeman’s got its artichoke dip from there. Sean McPherson and Eric Goode, too. Even though they have a lot of projects, they’re still hands-on and obsessing about doorknobs. When I designed Gemma, I would go antiquing with them and saw just how much they labored over small details.

Known Associates: William Tigertt is my partner for Freeman’s and Freeman’s Sporting Club. My partner at the Rusty Knot is Ken Friedman, who also owns the Spotted Pig and is about to open John Dory. There are a lot of musicians that I love. My friends, kids I grew up with, are in the Hold Steady. I like what they’re doing. Their approach to music, in contrast with what’s happening in the rest of the industry, is really pretty awesome.

What are you doing tonight? I’ll be upstate. I have a house. I’ll just cook and hang out and garden.