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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

(continued from page 1)

"We do things here that I've never encountered elsewhere, like birthday parties and leather jackets for every employee at Christmas," says Martin Shapiro, general manager of Tribeca Grill and a partner in Myriad. "But more than that, it's the day-to-day acknowledgment of people."

That acknowledgment seems to have worked. The staff at Tribeca joke easily and genuinely with Nieporent. This casualness, combined with first-rate service, good, often great, food and a see-and-be-seen atmosphere, is a trademark of Nieporent's restaurants, beginning with his first, Montrachet.

Before he opened Montrachet in 1985, Nieporent worked in several contemporary French restaurants in Manhattan: La Reserve, Le Perigord, La Grenouille and Le Regence. He also traveled and ate extensively in France. He can still rattle off most of the meals he's eaten there over the past 15 years, including the wines and the names of the chefs. "In the early 1980s I ate at Jamin [a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris] when the exchange rate was 10 francs to the dollar. They had a 185-franc fixed-price meal. I figured if [chef and owner] Joël Robuchon could do it for $18.50, I could do it for $16," Nieporent says.

To keep his prices down, Nieporent placed Montrachet in Tribeca, an area in lower Manhattan which in the 1980s was largely a Sahara of warehouses and lofts. (New Yorkers still have trouble finding the place, the name of which is shorthand for "Triangle Below Canal.") He also saved money by not splurging on expensive decorations and table settings. He asked himself, "Why can't we serve great food in a casual setting?" With the help of talented chef David Bouley, the restaurant was an instant hit, receiving three stars out of four from The New York Times only seven weeks after opening. Thirteen years later, the 1998 Zagat Survey calls Montrachet "an understated, slightly spartan, French bistro with masterful service and a superb kitchen and cellar."

"In our own way, we created the casual elegant restaurant in New York. We broke down the barriers that said you had to be French to be elegant," Nieporent says. "Spago [Wolfgang Puck's restaurant in California] did the same thing by trading the toque for a baseball cap."

One evening in the late '80s, a Montrachet regular and local resident looked up from his meal and asked Nieporent if he'd like to own and manage another restaurant. It was actor Robert De Niro, who said he could bring in some of his friends as investors. In 1990, De Niro and friends Sean Penn, Lou Diamond Phillips, Christopher Walken, Bill Murray, Ed Harris, Mikhail Baryshnikov and rapper Russell Simmons became proud co-owners, along with Nieporent, of the Tribeca Grill. Movie powerhouse Miramax is also an owner and has offices in the same building complex.

While the food at the Tribeca Grill is good--"We broke the mold," Nieporent says. "Most celebrity places have bad food."--it is undeniable that many diners come in hopes of catching a glimpse of someone famous, whether it is one of the owners, the people they bring in or just a guy from the neighborhood. "Eric Begosian lives nearby. Bill Murray brings in Michael Jordan when he's in town. Pat Riley used to come in when he coached the Knicks," Nieporent says. No sooner does he speak these words then Mickey Rooney sits at the next table and Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein walks by.

Tribeca isn't the only celebrity restaurant in the Myriad galaxy, however. Luther Vandross and Bill Murray are also investors in TriBakery. In addition to De Niro, Rubicon owners include Francis Ford Coppola and Robin Williams. De Niro has a piece of Nobu as does Japanese chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa. Rubicon and Nobu were nominated as Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation and listed in Esquire magazine's "Best New Restaurants of 1994."

"The celebrity factor is vital; it's like having the steak and the sizzle," Nieporent says. "Every night is show biz. You always have to be on."

Being on isn't always enough, however. New York has always been a restaurant mecca, but the Big Apple has never had as many good restaurants as today. Fueled by a booming economy that (until recently) showed no signs of slowing, consumers are more fickle than ever. "Competition is really stiff now. People used to have their favorite places. Now they want new experiences," Nieporent says. "A Korean grocery with a good selection of bread opened a couple of weeks ago, just a few blocks away from the TriBakery. Our sales dropped $500 on the day it opened."

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