Turning the Top Tables
How the legendary New York restaurateur Ken Aretsky built a fabled résumé of fine dining by turning setbacks into life-affirming experiences.
Ken Aretsky had been looking forward to playing the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, New York, ever since his friend John Hennessey invited him. When the day—Wednesday, August 5, 1998—finally arrived, the weather was spectacular and as he pulled his car into the parking lot of the historic golf club, Aretsky was sure it would be an experience to remember. Indeed it was, but not for the reason that Aretsky, the New York restaurateur and proprietor of Patroon, had guessed. He'd imagined golfing with friends and cigars at one of the world's most celebrated golf courses, maybe even for draining a 20-foot birdie putt or chipping in for eagle. To this day, Aretsky remembers it for something else.
Aretsky got out of his car and an attendant at the golf club approached him. "Mr. Aretsky?" he asked. "You have an emergency phone call from your restaurant." Aretsky immediately phoned his manager, who told him that United States Customs agents with a search warrant were raiding Patroon's walk-in humidor. Aware that the humidor was stocked with Cuban cigars, Aretsky dialed his attorney. He told Aretsky not to worry. The worst that would happen is that the Cuban cigars would be confiscated and a fine levied.
Although upset and concerned, Aretsky lunched and then set out for the first hole, which he parred. On the second, he reached the apron in two shots. As he approached his ball, he looked out on the horizon to see a golf cart driving toward him through the shimmering heat. "I knew something bad was going to happen," Aretsky recalls. "The guy stopped and asked if I was Mr. Aretsky. I said yes, and he said I have to get off the golf course. So I went off the golf course, phoned my manager, and she said there was a warrant for my arrest." The charge? Trading with the enemy, a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Aretsky's golf outing was over and the most difficult period of his life had begun. But Aretsky, a New York restaurateur for more than 35 years, with a résumé that lists award-winning eateries like Arcadia, '21' Club and Patroon, knows something about survival. He's learned that things are never as good or as bad as they seem. He's also learned that he isn't one to back down from a challenge.
It's said that all things begin with an idea. For Ken Aretsky, the idea of opening his own restaurant came during a night out in Manhattan in 1970. The setting was Maxwell's Plum, an Upper East Side café owned by Werner LeRoy, with flashy Art Nouveau decor and a vibrant bar. But what struck Aretsky most was its separate, upscale dining room, which boasted a different, more expensive menu. One night might be a casual get-together in the front bar and café. Another night could be a more intimate meal in the back. Some nights it was both. "I thought it was an amazing concept," says Aretsky, who was living on Long Island at the time. "I loved it and I thought it could translate onto the island."
Although Aretsky had never owned a restaurant, he was intrigued by the business ever since he worked for his father, Sidney, who supplied restaurants and malt shops around New York with soda systems. "I didn't like my father's business," says Aretsky, "but I liked the restaurant business and I liked the characters that I was meeting. They were a fascinating group of people." So with little experience, but an idea he felt could blossom into success, Aretsky opened Truman's in 1972.
Located in the village of Roslyn on Long Island's north shore, in a house Aretsky converted into a restaurant, Truman's featured a café on the main floor, while the second floor—inspired by Maxwell's Plum—was known as Upstairs at Truman's. The only problem was that Aretsky ran out of money before completing the upstairs dining room, so it remained closed, even though a brass plaque on the front of Truman's suggested otherwise. "Truman's started doing well and the food was really good," Aretsky remembers. "Suddenly people began calling for reservations upstairs, but we weren't open upstairs—the room was empty." Not wanting to turn patrons away, Aretsky instead said they were booked. "The more we told people that we were booked, the more they wanted to come."
Eventually Aretsky finished Upstairs at Truman's. By that time, the restaurant was besieged with customers, thanks to excellent reviews in local papers. Truman's did so well that Aretsky opted to sell his share of the restaurant in 1975. "The truth is, I couldn't understand how it was going to continue to be as busy as it was," he explains. "I wasn't really knowledgeable. I just thought I got lucky, which in fact I did."
After moving back to New York City, Aretsky tried his hand as a stockbroker. Then, in the summer of 1978, he bumped into Steve Orenstein, a high school friend, at Jim McMullen's Restaurant on Third Avenue. Aware of Aretsky's success with Truman's, Orenstein, a sportscaster and successful male model known to his friends as Oren, suggested they open a restaurant together.
Aretsky didn't give it much thought until he passed an abandoned bar on Third Avenue with a "For Rent" notice taped to the window. When he returned the next morning, the door was open, and inside he discovered an "unbelievable Irish bar" that convinced him of his future. Hours later, Aretsky was shaking hands with the owner and handing him a check for $4,500—three months' rent. "I didn't have money to cover the check," Aretsky recalls, "but it was July 4th weekend, so I figured I had [a few days] to come up with the money."
Elated, Aretsky called Orenstein and asked him if he was serious about going into business together. When Orenstein said "very serious," Aretsky invited him to see the place. "He said, 'It looks kind of dumpy,'" Aretsky says of Orenstein's first reaction. "I said, 'It is kind of dumpy, but when we get done with it, it's going to be terrific.'"
The partners decided to call the place Oren & Aretsky, and by the time they opened in December 1978, they were dead broke. It didn't help that after the opening night party, customers were few and far between. All of a sudden what seemed like a promising venture wasn't panning out. At one point, Aretsky and Orenstein were so desperate for patrons that they rented a limousine and parked it in front of the restaurant in the hope of attracting stargazers. It worked. Slowly but surely, people started coming in.
The real turning point for Oren & Aretsky, however, came courtesy of the New York Rangers hockey team, which began the 1978-'79 season in horrible fashion. Defenseman Dave Farrish and many of his teammates began showing up after games to nurse their wounds. "They couldn't win a game, but they were the nicest guys," says Aretsky. "The truth is, in my heart of hearts, I think the reason they came to the restaurant was because it was empty and they didn't get booed."
Aretsky and Orenstein soon became friends with the players. Then the Rangers started winning. "Suddenly they were the toast of the town and everyone was on the bandwagon," remembers Aretsky. "All the networks and all the sportscasters wanted to interview them, and the players insisted they be interviewed in Oren & Aretsky. We were on every channel and we got busier and busier and busier."
While the Rangers went on to the Stanley Cup finals, Oren & Aretsky went on to become one of the city's hot spots and was flooded with celebrities and sports stars such as Reggie Jackson, Ken Norton and Wayne Gretzky. Rock bands were a constant, as were professional models such as Carol Alt. Aretsky and Orenstein also became friends with Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager of Studio 54, and they all referred customers to one another. "It was the most amazing time," say Aretsky. "It was like magic. Every night was an experience."
By the early '80s, however, things began to change. Rubell and Schrager were in prison for tax evasion and the original Studio 54 had closed; the Yankees didn't re-sign Reggie Jackson; and social diseases such as AIDS were dulling the city's lust for nightlife. "I really got cold feet," says Aretsky. "I got scared. I thought my business was going to be terribly impacted by all of these things happening around the same moment, and I wanted to get out.
"The truth is I had a great time with Oren & Aretsky," he says. "It became more than I thought it would be, but it was also a period of time." Aretsky wanted to do something else and had his eye on property he and Orenstein had been leasing on East 62nd Street. While Orenstein wanted to do another Oren & Aretsky, Aretsky wanted to create a high-end American dining experience. "I've got a great idea," Aretsky told Orenstein. "I'll take the lease, you take Oren & Aretsky–just take my name off the door." Orenstein agreed and they shook hands on it.
While Aretsky accepted that his round of golf at the National Golf Links of America would have to wait, his attorney arranged his surrender at the United States Attorney's office. When Aretsky arrived the next morning, he heard the charges against him detailed. According to U.S. Customs, Aretsky had purchased more than $45,000 worth of Cuban cigars between May 1997 and July 1998, and was reselling them to customers in Patroon's second-floor cigar lounge. "The most honest thing I can say is that I had a sense that it was a borderline issue," says Aretsky. "But I never imagined, nor did my attorney, that one would be charged with trading with the enemy.
"Looking back on it, I did break the law. There's no question about that," he says. "But at the time, it just seemed ludicrous. I couldn't grasp the concept of trading with the enemy. And I can tell you that the U.S. marshals really didn't think this was the crime of the century. They were a little upset that they weren't doing something quite more important than arresting the likes of Ken Aretsky."
Aretsky describes the next year and a half as "a nightmare," even with the financial and emotional support of his partners, friends and family. While his attorney worked laboriously with the authorities on a plea bargain, Aretsky found it nearly impossible to concentrate on Patroon, especially with a possible felony conviction and jail time threatening his reputation and livelihood as a restaurateur. Finally, a deal was reached and Aretsky pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of mislabeling tobacco products, which included a $5,000 fine, three years' probation and 250 hours of community service.
With some relief, Aretsky met with his probation officer to discuss his community service. He quickly found out that it wasn't up to him to decide how to fulfill his debt to society and that "cleaning bedpans at Mount Sinai Hospital" might be in the cards. He asked the probation officer if he could do something that might really make a difference. Recognizing that Aretsky wasn't a hardened criminal, his probation officer told him to think about it and return with ideas.
"Understand that before I got arrested, I had never done any community service," says Aretsky. "I had handed out turkeys at Thanksgiving and stuff like that, but not community service." Aretsky wasn't sure what to do as he sat down to dinner that night at Butterfield 81–a bistro on the Upper East Side that he owned at the time–with his close friend, the actor Peter Boyle, and Boyle's wife, Lorraine. When the topic of Aretsky's community service arose, Lorraine suggested C-Cap, or Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, an organization that educates students in public and vocational high schools about the culinary arts and the restaurant business.
A meeting with Richard Grausman, C-Cap's founder and president, was arranged and Grausman told Aretsky that, given his profession, he could really do something wonderful for the organization, especially by visiting schools around New York and speaking to the kids. Aretsky had never done anything like that before, but the idea intrigued him and, if his probation officer agreed, the answer was yes. Aretsky broached the subject with his probation officer, who, after speaking with Grausman, gave the green light.
The first school Aretsky visited was Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn, one of New York's most dangerous schools. When he arrived, Aretsky was disturbed to find barbed wire fencing surrounding the school and armed police officers at the front door manning metal detectors and physically searching students. "I couldn't tell if it was a prison or a school," says Aretsky. "I was shocked that students went to school in that kind of environment and stunned because I had never been exposed to it."
Given his experiences growing up on the Lower East Side, when the area was as tough as a neighborhood could be, Aretsky made a connection with the kids, all of whom had been affected in one way or another by violence and crime. But it wasn't easy. "I went home that day and saw my children," says Aretsky, "and I started crying because I was so shaken up from the experience. I realized how fortunate I was."
Aretsky continued visiting schools around the five boroughs and soon exceeded his mandatory community service. "It was really something I got into," he says, "and in the end, I was kind of thankful that I got arrested, because suddenly I found myself in a position where something good was coming out of something horrific.
"The government works in mysterious ways," adds Aretsky, who continues to do charity work for C-Cap. "Of all the ways to get me into those schools, it was because I was arrested for selling Cuban cigars. For me, C-Cap is one of the greatest things I've ever been involved in and whatever bitterness I had toward the government was negated by my work with the organization."
For all of Aretsky's success in the restaurant business, he's quick to recognize the restaurants that provided him with inspiration. Truman's, he says, was inspired by Maxwell's Plum, while Oren & Aretsky was styled after the iconic J.G. Melon bar and restaurant on the Upper East Side. When he mentions Arcadia, the restaurant he opened on East 62nd Street in 1983, he cites Lutéce, the four-star French restaurant (now closed), which André Soltner owned.
"I thought that the best restaurant in New York City was Lutéce," he says. "It had four stars and never had to worry about reservations. The place was booked solid. I thought if you take [a restaurant such as] this and do it American with a woman chef, why can't New York have an Alice Waters [the founder of California's Chez Panisse, an archetype of championing local cuisine]?"
Aretsky soon found Anne Rosenzweig, one of the first women to become a celebrity chef, and together they turned Arcadia into a three-star restaurant. "Anne was way ahead of her time," says Aretsky, acknowledging the role Rosenzweig played in Arcadia's success. "She was doing stuff that nobody else was doing–ramps, fiddlehead ferns, kale, kasha; lobster club sandwiches and chimney smoked lobster; corn cakes with crème fraiche and caviar. She was a wonderful chef with a great sense of flavor. I have not had food like that since." Arcadia stayed at the forefront of Manhattan's culinary landscape for the next 15 years (the restaurant lost its lease in 1997), attracting celebrities from Woody Allen and Marvin Hamlisch to Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass.
While Arcadia was thriving, one restaurant that had fallen on difficult times was the historic '21' Club, which opened in the 1920s, became a speakeasy during Prohibition and was a legendary hangout for celebrities and socialites during the '50s and '60s. By the 1980s, however, '21' was falling into disrepair and losing much of its core business. It was sold to wealthy businessmen Stephen Swid and Marshall Cogan in early 1985, and the following year, over the July 4th weekend, Cogan paid Aretsky a visit and offered him a position as president, chairman and manager.
"Cogan had no idea what he was doing and somehow he thought that I could run it," say Aretsky, who, like many people, had been intimidated by the place, not knowing for sure if it was a club or if anyone could get in. "I thought it was a challenge and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The restaurant had 400 seats and I had never done banquets before. It was an extraordinary experience and I learned so much."
After a renovation and restoration–and rededication to the quality of its food menu–Aretsky quickly had '21' back on its feet and regaining the notoriety it once enjoyed. It was also cigar-friendly. Patrons could smoke freely and Aretsky kept a private humidor for regulars. He even cohosted a charity cigar dinner in the early days of Cigar Aficionado with Marvin R. Shanken, the publication's editor and publisher. "It took a while," says Aretsky, "but we did very, very well and I was proud of that. It also got me out there even more than I had been, and made the circle of people I knew that much bigger. It was an honor to run it and it was a wonderful achievement to turn the place around."
When rock bands inexplicably break up, the reason often cited is that generic term "creative differences." When Aretsky was fired from '21' Club in 1995, the term may have been fitting, but in truth, he doesn't know why he was fired. What Aretsky does know is that it set the stage for his next venture: Patroon.
Aretsky has enjoyed the pleasures of great cigars since he was a young man. Over the decades, he's become an avid lover of the leaf, with a taste for Cuban cigars. Today, he places Padrón among his favorite brands. "I like the sensibility of cigars," he says. "Smoking a cigar is relaxing, but it's the whole act more than anything else." It's little surprise then that, after parting ways with '21' Club, Aretsky wanted to create a haven for upscale diners and cigar lovers. When Patroon opened its East 46th Street doors in 1997, that's exactly what it was.