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Maestro of the Myriad

Restaurateur Drew Nieporent owns and operates a veritable dining empire and shows no signs of abdicating his throne.
Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

Drew Nieporent is only five minutes late for lunch, a virtual early bird by New York standards. No sooner does he sit down at a sunny window seat of his Tribeca Grill then the hostess arrives with a message. Jim Lelyveld, executive editor of The New York Times, is on the phone. But he's not calling about a story; he wants a reservation at Nobu, Nieporent's extremely popular Japanese restaurant just down the street from Tribeca Grill. While Nieporent is impressed, he's not awed, because he gets such calls several times a day. "We try to be accommodating, and yes, I do try to squeeze in friends and give professional consideration to other restaurateurs," he says. But sometimes no amount of money or power will get you a reservation. "A few years ago at Montrachet [the second most difficult reservation to get among Nieporent's restaurants], I turned down Henry Kissinger."

A few minutes later, a package arrives at the table. It contains glossy color photographs and layouts of a property in San Francisco on Post Street. The real estate agent who sent Nieporent the information wants to know if he is interested in putting a restaurant in the space. "We call these the 'deals of the day,' " Nieporent says. "At this point we're not always ready to make a deal. It has to be right for us. And that includes the Rainbow Room."

The 43-year-old Nieporent had been in negotiations for some time to take over the world-famous restaurant and night club in New York's Rockefeller Center. But the deal eventually fell apart when Nieporent decided the $4 million annual rent didn't justify the investment. Acquiring the Rainbow Room would have been a coup, because Nieporent feels a real connection to the restaurant traditions of New York, although he's not exactly starving for business.

Drew Nieporent (pronounced, as he says, "knee--POUR, like wine--rent, like paying the rent") is the hottest restaurateur in New York, and therefore one of the hottest in the country. He owns parts of such Gotham eateries as Layla and City Wine & Cigar Co. in addition to Montrachet, Tribeca Grill, Nobu and the TriBakery, a retail bakery that services his restaurants and several others', including Windows on the World. His latest restaurant, Next Door Nobu (which was set to open in September) is a less expensive version of the original. Although reservations won't be required, that may not be an advatnage--at Nobu's no-reservations sushi bar, for example, the wait is often more than an hour. * Beyond New York Nieporent is

involved in the California restaurants Rubicon, in San Francisco, and FreeStyle, in Sonoma. In addition to being a restaurateur, Nieporent manages numerous restaurants (such as Manhattan's Grill at the Reebok Sports Club) and consults on others (such as those owned by Joseph Phelps Vineyards, Nieman Marcus and Interstate Hotels, to name just a few). Last year in England, Nieporent opened Nobu London, which garnered a Michelin star after less than a full year in operation. What's next--the dining concession on the Mir space station?

Actually, a couple of projects are on the plate for Nieporent's Myriad Restaurant Group Inc. over the next year. One is a midtown Manhattan restaurant at the former Doral Hotel, which has been bought by Westin and will serve as the chain's flagship hotel. The restaurant, slated to open in late fall, is literally close to Nieporent's heart. "We're going to do what I call 'risk-free dining,' meaning we're going to take 90 percent of the fat out of the food but without sacrificing flavor," he says. Appropriately enough, the eatery will be called Heartbeat. In addition, Myriad hopes to open a restaurant in another midtown hotel, the Sony Plaza, sometime next year. A third project, however, the conversion into a restaurant of the legendary Harlem Jazz Club Minton's, which has been in the works for a couple of years, now looks unlikely; Myriad says it has failed to draw sufficient support from local investors.

As he dines on roasted chicken with lightly dressed arugula, followed by an enormous portion of honeydew melon, Nieporent confesses to being 100 pounds overweight. "I usually have to lose a lot of weight every eight years or so," he says. "But I'm going on my thirteenth year."

Nieporent's corpulence as well as his thick beard, casual, almost rumpled appearance, and easygoing manner may seem to be at odds with the high-powered nature of what he does for a living, but they are in complete accord with his philosophy. "The whole thing is trying to be consistent in demeanor and in demands. When the staff sees you as sincere and level-headed, they know they won't get irrational decisions," he says. "You have to be caring to people who work for you or they won't perform at maximum levels. Loyalty begets loyalty."

Loyalty is one of the characteristics that George Lang, owner of Café des Artistes in New York, admires about Nieporent. "If you are his friend, even if you haven't talked to him in a year, you can count on him," Lang says.

For Nieporent, caring about his employees means doing whatever he can to make their jobs easier, including well-designed work areas so there is minimal wasted energy. It also means paying his chefs well. "But taking care of employees doesn't always mean paying them more money," Nieporent says. "We try to help steer their careers and take their families into consideration."

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