By Mark Ellwood
photography By jEnnifEr roBBins | November 26, 2014 | People
The biggest players and coolest places that make NYC nightlife tick.
The Butter Group’s Richie Akiva and Scott Sartiano at Up & Down. “We have a tight door that’s not about money,” says Akiva.
This pair were the brains behind the first 1Oak in Chelsea, which they’ve since successfully cloned as far away as Mexico City. Unlike many rivals, they’ve also focused on restaurants, with 12-year-old hot spot Butter overseen by Food Network star Alex Guarnaschelli.
Your day begins and ends…
SCOTT SARTIANO: One of the biggest myths about being a “nightlife” person is when your day begins. I wake up around 9 am and I’m in the office until 7 or 8 at night. There’s not a ton of rest in what we do.
How is NY nightlife changing?
RICHIE AKIVA: People have gotten pickier and they have shorter attention spans, so you have to keep them entertained.
SS: Ten years ago there was much more of an underground scene. Now, with the Internet and blogs, the second there’s an idea, it’s made public to the world.
Bottle service: yes or no?
RA: Eight years ago, when we opened, it was all about bottle service. It was almost becoming an ordeal to go out in New York and have to wait until you got seated at a table, then be charged a huge minimum. When we opened 1Oak we decided to take it back to an old-school way of nightlife: no minimums.
Who are the new money guys?
RA: Wall Street guys are not spending like they did in the late 1990s. Nowadays, it’s mostly Europeans who are the ones trying to show off. But we have a strict, tight door that’s not about money. You can’t buy your way into our places.
Tell me about your wildest big spender.
RA: Someone came in and ordered 100 bottles of Cristal. Then, as the bottles were coming out, he walked out and said, “Just give it to everyone else.” He didn’t even stay until they hit the tables. It put everybody in a great mood.
How do you stay hot in New York?
SS: Stick to what you know. Be consistent with that product. We created a niche with what we were: an upscale, exclusive nightclub.
RA: A lot of people coming into the nightlife business make the mistake of trying to reinvent the wheel. A lot of times it comes off too harsh, as a little much.
That involves your music programming, too?
RA: We kept it open-format—rock ’n’ roll, house music, hip-hop, ’80s, feel-good music people want to dance to—rather than just EDM [electronic dance music] beats that are strong, hard, and pretty one-dimensional.
Longtime pals Eugene Remm and Mark Birnbaum, founders of EMM Group (with Michael Hirtenstein), on the terrace at Catch Roof. “New York has become an inter national market,” says Remm.
Thanks to such nightclubs as Finale and Lulu’s, and Top Chef-helmed restaurants like Catch, the EMM team, spearheaded by Eugene Remm and friend Mark Birnbaum, has over the last eight years helped blur the distinction between the dance floor and the dining room.
What’s the biggest shift you’ve seen in nightlife?
EUGENE REMM: People’s jobs have changed. They have to be up early and have a lot of responsibilities. They aren’t out until 4 am. Entertaining and socializing are done earlier, over food.
Are there more high rollers in restaurants now?
MARK BIRNBAUM: In one of our restaurants a very serious wine buyer spent almost half a million dollars on wine at one seating. And yes, he did drink it—not all of it, though. We and the staff took a sip of whatever was left.
What about big spenders in nightclubs?
MB: They’re from out of town, Mexico, Texas or wherever. People used to buy the biggest bottle; now, they like to make a splash, with maybe 20, 30, even 100 bottles of Cristal, DP, or Ace of Spades Champagne. There are more people being brought out, more sparklers [hand-held fireworks]. You can do this a few times a night instead of once. If someone is in the bathroom and misses the first show, they’ll catch the second or third.
How has social media impacted your business?
MB: Not long ago, people would show up and you had them until the end of the night. Now, if someone is bored, they can look down at their phone—and Twitter or text friends to see what’s around that’s better. People go to three places a night, minimum.
ER: You can’t really control the message in the same way. Now, people are looking on their phone at 1 am, and if they see something amazing happening elsewhere, they get up, close their tab, and leave.
Sounds like we’ve moved into a much more democratic, post-bottle-service world.
MB: Bottle service came from Europe in the early 2000s. It was more about VIP rooms, separate from regular clubs, with an entry fee. Well, that lasted until the economy blew up in in 2008. Then everyone realized you didn’t have to buy 20 bottles to get the same treatment.
What happened to those big-spending Wall Street wolves?
ER: There are a lot of restrictions, mostly by the government, on the finance guys now, so that type of spending isn’t what it used to be. New York has become an international market, and that wealth is balancing it out.
So there are still crazy, big-spending nights?
ER: Recently someone bought 100 bottles of Perrier Jouet in one shot. That was pretty wild. He provided the evening’s entertainment for the entire place.
Andrew Goldberg and Jonathan Schwartz of The Strategic Group at Avenue. “Music is the biggest driving force inside most NYC clubs,” says Schwartz.
The Strategic Group has been at the center of New York’s nightlife scene for almost two decades. Company honchos Goldberg and Schwartz now export the group’s successful NYC mainstays like Tao, Marquee, and Lavo worldwide.
Are you a night owl?
JONATHAN SCHWARTZ: We’re definitely not late-to-arrive kind of guys. I’m up at 8 am. In the morning, I’m working on programming; from 1 to 8 pm, we’re taking meetings. I’m probably planning dinner for 10:30 pm, and I’m at the club from 12:45 to 4 am.
How do you stay relevant in NYC after nearly two decades?
ANDREW GOLDBERG: I preach “hospitality, hospitality, hospitality.” If we opened a barn that had great speakers and took our hospitality to that room, guests would come. People want to spend money wisely and not have buyer’s remorse the next day
Has the number of free-spending high rollers diminished?
AG: We’re lucky. In New York, the 1 percent still exists. We deal with jet-setters. New York has become the hub for Russians and South Americans. They don’t like to party in their own countries, as that could show political bad taste. They come to New York to feel liberated.
No matter what, everyone wants to party in Manhattan?
AG: New York is the capital of everything trendsetting. The number-one songs hit New York before any other city; fashionistas get their clothes here before they hit Paris. People will always be watching to see what happens in New York. It 100 percent sets the temperature of things.
Talk to me about the rise of the brand-name DJ, which is one of your signatures.
JS: When I got into the business 12 or 13 years ago, everything was about the door policy and fashion and who’s who. Now, I think music is the biggest driving force inside most NYC clubs. The number-one question I get is, “Who’s deejaying tonight?”
How do you program your music?
JS: It isn’t just about EDM. Marquee is an example of that; on Wednesday nights, it has a great niche that is 90 percent hip-hop. On Friday nights we have an amazing deep house night [deep house is a subgenre of EDM that combines elements of jazz, funk, and soul]. Then on Saturday night, we go for a Tiesto [a Dutch DJ and record producer], or even a local $1,000-a-night DJ who plays great EDM. People love hearing their favorite downtown pop track, whether it’s from Spotify, Billboard, or the iTunes chart. Right now, you can’t walk into a club without hearing the new Kiesza track three times in one night.
Ryan Tarantino and Shawn Kolodny at VIP Room. “Now a nightclub has to provide an experience that’s not just a room with loud music,” says Tarantino.
Lavo and Pink Elephant vet Kolodny teamed up with Rande Gerber protégé Tarantino to form Tri Hospitality, with its anchor property a New York outpost of St-Tropez boîte VIP Room. Barely a year old, it’s already welcomed everyone from Rihanna to Jack Nicholson.
What’s the biggest shift you’ve seen in NY nightlife?
Shawn Kolodny: The market is much more corporate, with bigger groups playing with bigger dollars. We’re affiliated with VIP Rooms in Paris, St-Tropez, and Dubai, and we share databases, so we can send guests back and forth.
You’ve invested heavily in technology for your space.
Ryan Tarantino: When I started, you just needed to have superior liquor and an attractive staff. Now, a nightclub has to provide an experience that’s not just a room with loud music; you need light shows, DJs, entertainment. We dumped a million dollars into a state-of-theart light show that creates different graphics to go along with an event in the room. If it’s your birthday, your name will be flashed in bright lights and do a 360, so the entire room will know.
How has social media impacted your business?
SK: Everybody is tweeting or Instagramming where they are, so things spread quickly—word of a specific event or something cool can take off on its own. It’s great for last-minute things, too. We’ve had celebrities tweet or Instagram from the club, which is fantastic for us.
How do you become a celebrity magnet?
SK: We just try to cater to them as best we can. Some are more difficult than others. But everybody wants to be close to them for a second.
Who was a memorable guest?
RT: One gentleman’s favorite thing was to spray very expensive Champagne, monster 12-liter bottles of Cristal or Ace of Spades. He would ask us to buy ponchos for the entire staff so he could stay until almost closing time and spray everyone.
How do you retain buzz with such reduced attention spans among clients?
RT: If a table setup isn’t working or a certain sitting arrangement, we change it. The newest thing for us is extending the VIP area, roping off the section and adding personal security. It’s right in front of the DJ booth. Everyone is focused on the DJ, but it creates more of a show with VIPs in front of them. The VIP is the show as well.
GroominG by Erin AndErson for ivy ElEvEn, usinG impEriAl bArbEr products (Richie Akiva & Scott Sartiano); GroominG by michael Johnson usinG Dior homme at Factory Downtown (Eugene Remm & Mark Birnbaum); grooming by michael Johnson, using Dior homme at Factory Downtown (Shawn Kolodny & Ryan Tarantino)