Industry Insiders: Rob Shamlian, Downtown Turnaround

Rob Shamlian has been in New York for 15 years. Pretty good for a guy who’s opened five restaurants and bars in a two-block radius on the Lower East Side. The L.A.-native comes from a background of the hospitality savvy, and his brother Will is huge on the West Coast (Library Bar, Spring St., Laurel Tavern). More on his newest addition, the “cantina with a club feel” and some input on the age-old New York v.s. L.A. war.

On his background: I did photography for ten years. I had agents in every city, and then it ran its course. I was traveling a lot and living off editorial. So, I did a lot of magazines and I figured, “You know what? It’s time to make some money.” My brother was in L.A. doing several places. So basically, I just said, “I want to do something here [in New York],” and asked him how to open a place. He wouldn’t tell me a thing, he just kept telling me not to do it. I opened Darkroom and he eventually gave me advice the whole way. From there, I opened Fat Baby, Spitzer’s Corner, Mason Dixon, and Los Feliz.

On the simplicity of opening bars: After photography, this was a piece of cake, actually. In editorial photography, there are so many elements to master. Half of its production and half of it is putting together teams. Stylists, hair, make-up, models, you deal with so many elements. Opening a space is similar, but it seemed like a cakewalk to me. When I was doing fashion, I was focusing 24/7. There’s no break at all. Here, you open up a place, you move on. Basically, you work your own hours.

On the lead-up to working your own hours: I want to open as fast as possible! I open, I put management in place, and I oversee them. If I do multiple places at once, I’m in touch with the other places and I move on to work with the other places and do tweaks. The manager is the one who will spend most of the time on the premise, and I check in daily. I don’t really micromanage unless there are issues.

New York v.s. Los Angeles: In L.A., bars close at 2 a.m. In New York, people live in very tiny places, so they want to get out. There’s a lot more energy on the streets here, and if people get hammered, they take a cab. I L.A., you can park yourself in front of a big TV. You have a pool and a 12-bedroom house.

On the new joint, Los Feliz: Los Feliz was meant to be a café on the top floor and a very casual place–a cantina with a club feel. We happened to get a really good chef, Julieta Ballestero from Crema, so our food ended up more upscale then I originally wanted. We still price it very fairly, but it’s not just plain tacos. There are very different ingredients. It’s all fresh.

Favorite menu item: All of it! There’s a really good ceviche on the menu that I eat a lot. There’s a foie gras taco that’s really good.

On future expansion: Basically, I’ve opened five places on the Lower East Side within two blocks. It’s great because I go back and forth. That’s where I’m looking right now. I’m trying to put together investors for basically five other places that I’m going to do around the city. I’m doing stuff in Brooklyn and I’m trying to diversify around the LES.

On his block: I liked the location of Spitzer’s. I was talking to the owner for six to eight months at least trying to get that space. They were going to give it to Starbucks. I talked to the other owner of that space. First, his thing was, “I’d give it to you, but my dad works here.” I said, “That’s okay. I’ll give him a job.” Eventually, I wore him down and he rented it to me.

Go-to’s: I’m not a big fan of the club scene, because I’m a little bit old for that. We take the kids to Brooklyn Teahouse. I hear The Meatball Shop is pretty good. My brother’s place, Laurel Tavern in L.A.

Worst habit: Poker. I’m a gambling freak. I don’t know if I feel guilty about it. I’m not scared of losing.

Lower East Side Reborn (as a Fat Baby)

At the beginning of the aughts, scenesters were already chattering that the Lower East Side was dead. After decades of hosting immigrant cultures and earning a reputation as the neighborhood most likely to relieve you of your wallet, Max Fish be damned, its moment as an urban frontier for artists and cool kids, off the radar of tourists and the tragically unhip, ended quickly. It rapidly swarmed with high-end boutiques and expensive lounges and out of town guests directed there by a knowing concierge, while staples like Luna Lounge, Tonic and Collective Unconscious were forced out of the ‘hood they helped create.

Because the new offerings were targeted to a bland, wealthy audience dependent on the ‘00s boom economy, and unlikely to move into apartments the size of tenements, whatever the counter-tops were made of, it was predicted that customer traffic would eventually trickle down and high-rents would topple the new neighborhood order. Blogs like Eater pulled no punches when reporting on venues like The Blue Seats, whose initial customer “deal” was to offer NFL game-day seat reservations for $50 a piece – excluding the cost of drinks. (Despite being “Deathwatched,” Blue Seats is still open for business.) Back in 2006, I had an assignment to write a piece about the rumored closing of Ludlow Street’s split-level club Libation and what that meant for the neighborhood. It, too, is still open.

In fact, despite the financial and real estate markets having soured, business is still booming on the LES. Clothing boutiques abound in even greater numbers than they did five years ago. The pricey and unremarkable restaurant at the Hotel On Rivington, now called Levant East, seems to be humming along after several misfires. The weekend lines outside the overpriced, widely-reviled, tightly-packed rock club Fat Baby are long, and brimming with a bridge and tunnel crowd. There’s no shortage of acclaimed restaurants or $6 draft beers within arm’s reach of the intersection of Ludlow and Rivington. It’s hard to get weekend seating at beer havens Spitzer’s Corner or the Marshall Stack and just about impossible to spend less than $20 on two beers and an appetizer in either venue.

And, there’s so much more to come. At least two dozen nightlife venues have opened, or are about to open, in the hood this year, despite the recession. Apparently, flavorless gentrification can go on and on and on, a lesson we should have learned from the Meat Packing District.

The LES’s new hangouts include, The Doghouse, a cavernous dive bar that serves free hot dogs; Meatball Shop, self-explanatory; T-Poutine, dishing up the newly trendy Canadian confection involving fries, gravy and cheesecurds; Los Feliz, a three-story upscale taco and tequila bar; Thompson LES, a trendy hotel with a poolside lounge and a zero-star restaurant (hello, alumni sorority mixer!); Bia Garden, a mostly-hidden Vietnamese beer garden; an upcoming piano bar AND an upcoming karaoke lounge; and yet another unnamed, unlisted speakeasy far from the subway. I don’t intend to label any of these concepts as dreadful (Los Feliz and Bia Lounge seem to be well-regarded), but none of them seem particularly inventive, with their well-studied, one concept hook. Would you brag about any of those things to your out-of-town friends to justify your four-figure rent?

Of course, if you’re forced to hang on the LES, which inevitably, you will be, many of the spots that opened in the aughts, and especially the later aughts, aren’t so bad. If you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well enjoy a Banh Mi and a good cocktail. So if you do find yourself wandering south of Houston, east of Bowery, here’s a game plan that works. The LES is dead, long live the LES.

Eat lunch at An Choi. The entire menu is superb, and it’s a particularly suitable place to grab a lunchtime banh mi and beer — and if daytime drinking is not your thing, the Roasting Plant serves exceptional coffee mere steps away. Grab first date drinks at Allen & Delancey, which still runs an impressive bar even if the kitchen is infamously volatile. Get your snack fix at Mikey’s Burger, imminently opening in the old Rush Hour space, where Michael Huynh promises to offer clever Asian spinoffs of the American classic. Browse leather jackets at Orchard Street on Sundays, when pedestrians reclaim the street from vehicles and the storefront’s move their racks to road’s center. Drink one of the last cheap PBRs around at Welcome To The Johnsons, which hasn’t changed since you were last there in 2004. Find one of the first respectable LES sushi restaurants at Uo (mostly unmarked, above longtime resident 151 Bar). Eat fresh liquid-nitrogen-made ice cream — indeed, they make it right in front of you with KitchenAid Artisan mixers — at Lulu And Mooky’s. Get your dance party fix at 200 Orchard, once the hottest new neighborhood nightclub in 2007, for just over a month until it had licensing issues — it recently reopened, finally. You know exactly what you’re getting at Stuffed Artisan Cannolis (as a self-respecting Italian I can tell you that the regular cannolis are good, but the cannolis with unusual fillings, PB&J, pumpkin spice, are better). Finally, if you are nightlife royalty and you must do one thing that is late-night, exclusive, luxurious and satisfying, stop at The Eldridge. You will find a buzzworthy hotspot that delivers the goods — if you can get past the doorman

Industry Insiders: Jack Dakin & Corbin Plays, Design Dream Team

Jack Dakin and Corbin Plays are two Northern California Bay boys who came to New York City to create lounges and restaurants that combine functional design with the cool factor. They ended up working for the likes of Serge Becker, Sean MacPherson, and Eric Goode and on venues such as: Joe’s Pub, The Bowery Hotel, Jane Hotel Ballroom, The Park, Dirty Disco, and Duke & Duchess. The duo plans to soon branch out to New Orleans, Dallas, and Philadelphia. We caught up with them before their national invasion.

Which present-day designer/architect does it right? Jack Dakin: Marc Newson. The man does an excellent job bridging the gap between fine art and design. Corbin Plays: Santiago Calatrava does it right. He combines function with form in a balanced way. He’s both an engineer and an architect.

What past designer/architect influences your style? JD: I have to thank Serge Becker for giving me my start in this business. He inspires me every day. Also, I have to admit — although it sounds cheesy — I do love all those midcentury designers: Gio Ponti, Alvar Aalto, Oscar Nemeyer. CP: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. He designed on all different scales from large buildings to furniture. His ideas are clear throughout.

What venues around the world do you think are done well, with style? JD: The R- Bar in New Orleans. It’s an amazing balance of hipness and dive. Best Bar in America and two-dollar Miller High Life. La Esquina is still going strong, and I’m impressed at the way they make the components — taqueria, café, and restaurant — function so well. Also, I love L’asso on Kenmare … just plain amazing pizza. I’m very impressed with the new Standard, although I haven’t seen the whole thing. Also I recently stayed at the Standard in Miami and enjoyed that as well. CP: Clerkenwell on Clinton Street. Great food, people, vibe and location. Joe’s Pub has cool music and comfortable lounge chairs. Oyster Bar because the ceiling is great and food is good too. The Outrigger in Kona is my favorite hotel, because the bar hangs over the ocean, and you can sip cocktails and watch the fish and turtles swim by.

Favorite city for design? CP: Rome with the layers of history, and boldness of the architecture all stacked on top and interlaced. The downtown neighborhood of Testaccio — where the clubs are — is built into the ancient Roman amphora dump. All the walls are made of ceramic pots that they used to transport olives and wine back in the day. Like Rome, New York has those layers of history, and the old 1800s tenements are contrasted by the new modern glass structures. JD: If I don’t say New York, then I’ll have to ask myself why I’ve lived here for the past 14 years.

What’s special about New York in that regard? JD Different people mixing. Of all the places I’ve been, I’ve never experienced a place as diverse as New York. I think every New Yorker answers that question with my answer, so it’s a bit of a cop out, but very true.

What’s the next New York trend in architecture and design? JD: In the last ten years, New York has moved much more in the direction of cultural segregation, with the creation of a lot of insular cliques. I think that in the next couple years, the pendulum will swing back, and when you go out you might sit down with a prince, a punker, a banker, a model, and an artist. CP: My outlook on the future of architecture in New York is that the best way to make a more sustainable city is to not only build new buildings but to restore the well-built existing architecture from the past.

Where do you go when you go out? JD: I go to Oro, my local coffee shop, every day. Café Select also has a scene I enjoy, very low key but lively. Also, I have to mention the sound system at Santos, what the fuck? CP: The list would be too long, but most recently Spitzer’s on Ludlow, and Dumpling House on Eldridge.

Something no one knows about you? JD: I’ve always wanted to learn to play the violin. CP: I shed tears while watching The Deadliest Catch.

Photo by Ivory Serra

New York: Top 10 Beer Bars

image10. Jeremy’s Ale House (Lower Manhattan) – Not the greenest option, but when it comes to price, there’s no arguing with their $4 32-ounce Styrofoam buckets of Coors. 9. Zum Schneider (East Village) – It’s Oktoberfest all-year-round at this frat-tastic joint where the impressive beer selection comes in small 0.3l, regular 0.5l, or large 1.0l glasses. 8. Heidelberg (Upper East Side) – Nothing like drinking two liters of beer out of a glass boot.

7. Alligator Lounge (Williamsburg) – A penny-pinchers delight, wood-oven pizza comes gratis with any drink order. 6. Blind Tiger Ale House (West Village) – For the perfect beer to complement everything from your morning breakfast to your sausage dinner, look no further. 5. d.b.a. (East Village) – Bring your reading glasses to pore through the 200-plus beer options handwritten on dozens of chalkboards. 4. Spitzer’s Corner (Lower East Side) – With 40 craft beers on tap and a corner LES location, the always-packed rustic gastropub pleases both the beer geek and the collegiate crowds. 3. Brooklyn Brewery (Williamsburg) – Straight from the source for some of the freshest brew in town. 2. Beer Table (Park Slope) – Beer-inspired eats along with suds imported from around the world make for well-paired combos, like the yeast-raised waffles and Schneider-Weisse brunch. 1. Village Pourhouse (Greenwich Village). Their number is 212-979-BEER, is there any more to say?

New York: Top 5 Best Low-Pretense Newcomer Bar-Bars

image‘Cause sometimes you need a spot where you can just work your patter.

1. Rusty Knot Key West/West Village posh-dive mashup. Commence humming lyrics to “Brandy” now. 2. Marshall Stack The simple, classic appeal of a fuzzed-out power chord. 3. Spitzer’s Corner If Abercrombie & Fitch was a bar — not entirely in a bad way, either.

4. Smith and Mills Industrial charmer feels a little like a longmoored cruise ship. 5. The Volstead Subterranean pseudo-speakeasy lubricating midtown’s best and brightest.