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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.
Michael Marsh
From the Print Edition:
The Blues Brothers, Jan/Feb 2008

(continued from page 1)

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.

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