Maestro of the Myriad

Restaurateur Drew Nieporent owns and operates a veritable dining empire and shows no signs of abdicating his throne.
| By Sam Gugino | From 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."

"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."

Perhaps experiences like that are why, despite his smiling visage, Nieporent chews his nails almost to the bone. "I'm a very oral person" is the excuse he gives. But there may be some truth to that because he also loves cigars--big cigars, like double coronas. Among his favorites are the Onyx 852 and the Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona. When he travels to London, he indulges in a Partagas Lusitania. Besides pure pleasure, cigars serve another function for Nieporent. "I have a short attention span; cigars help me focus," he says.

It was Nieporent's well-known taste for cigars that brought him into contact with investors interested in opening a restaurant with a cigar theme. The result was City Wine & Cigar Co., the Tribeca eatery that debuted last year. On an early Thursday evening this March, Nieporent holds court in one corner of the restaurant, looking like a combination of Buddha and Fidel Castro. He lights up a prized cigar and generously offers one from his personal stash in the restaurant's walk-in humidor. Between puffs, he alternately answers two cell phones while greeting people as they enter the dining room.

"Uh-huh, 18-foot ceilings? Do we have street frontage? Wait a minute, I got another call."

"Headquarters. Yeah, Rockwell [David Rockwell, designer of Nobu and one of the top restaurant designers in the country] just called me from Milan on the other line."

"You still there, Rock?"

When Nieporent isn't on the phone, his staff is whispering in his ear or bringing him papers to look at or documents to sign. Myriad doesn't have offices, so Nieporent and staff use the restaurants for their administrative work.

Back on the phone, Nieporent is having a three-way conversation with his brother, Tracy, who handles marketing and promotion for Myriad, and partner Shapiro about a charity event.

"Eight appetizers for 500 people! That's 4,000 pieces. I don't care if it's meatballs, that's going to take a lot of time," he barks into the phone. "I'd rather cut them a check for $10,000 than put that kind of pressure on my staff."

Off the phone Nieporent says, "A lot of people are trying to get something for nothing. I hate when people try to take advantage of you. I don't care who they are, even my wife--well, maybe not her--I tell them they just can't do that."

Like many high-profile restaurateurs, Nieporent devotes a good deal of time to charities. He figures Myriad gets about 10 solicitations a day, enough to take up about a third of Tracy's time. The list is long, but some of Drew's favorites are Share Our Strength (a leading antihunger organization), Pediatric Aids, Meals-On-Wheels (his grandmother was a recipient of this meals-to-the-elderly program), City Harvest (which uses leftover food from restaurants to feed the homeless) and Jewish charities. The charity especially close to his heart is one funding research for Tourette's syndrome. His 10-year-old son, Andrew, is afflicted with the illness.

Was that Todd Eldridge? I saw him in the Olympics," says a wide-eyed Nieporent with boyish enthusiasm as he examines a party going into the dining room. Nieporent is a huge sports fan, especially hockey. He has Rangers season tickets and admits to occasionally playing hooky, going to a game instead of visiting one of his restaurants. "A lot of restaurateurs do," he confides.

When he's not in his restaurants or at a sporting event, Nieporent tries to spend as much time as possible with his family. "I knew I was away too much when I walked into the house one evening and my son said to my wife, 'Mommy, who's that strange man?' " In addition to Andrew, Nieporent and his wife, Ann, have a six-year-old daughter, Gabrielle. After living in Greenwich Village for a number of years, the Nieporents moved to New Jersey six years ago. Nieporent's wife advises him not to say exactly where. "She thinks my kids might be in danger," he says with a rueful smile, "now that I'm a celebrity."

While Nieporent credits Cigar Aficionado editor and publisher Marvin Shanken for rekindling his interest in cigars, it was Nieporent's father, Andrew, who first lit the flame. A cigar and pipe smoker, Andrew along with his wife, Sybil, raised Drew and Tracy in a small apartment in Peter Cooper Village on Manhattan's East Side. As an attorney for the state liquor authority, Andrew Nieporent got to know restaurateurs who needed help with their liquor licenses. This made him--and Drew--frequent guests at places such as Lutèce. "It was a conflict of interest, but that's the way business was done in those days," Drew says.

TV chef Graham Kerr's "Galloping Gourmet" persona was a major influence on Nieporent as a teenager. "I used to come home from school for lunch and watch him on television. He really inspired me," he says. He may also have gotten a sense of show biz from his mother. As Sybil Trent, she was a child radio actress; she still does voice-overs on radio and television. "It's weird to listen to a commercial and hear your mother's voice," he says. Sybil Nieporent can also be heard answering the phone at Montrachet.

Armed with a desire to learn and a love for the food industry, Nieporent entered Cornell University's Hotel and Restaurant School. While he learned a lot in the classroom, it was what he did outside of school that gave him his best career preparation. Toward the end of his freshman year, Norwegian-American Cruise Lines posted a notice at Nieporent's school seeking experienced waiters for a first-class cruise to major European ports. Nieporent jumped at the chance, even though he had no experience. "I was never a waiter, though I once worked at McDonald's. But I had a book that explained everything," he says. "Unfortunately, I didn't have a white shirt. So 60 other waiters in the dining room laughed at me every night for wearing a blue shirt."

Undeterred, Nieporent worked most holidays and summers on cruise liners. One summer, he worked as a manager at Maxwell's Plum in New York, which became his first job after he graduated in 1977. Subsequently, owner Warner LeRoy hired him as restaurant director at his other establishment, Tavern on the Green. Both experiences influenced the young Nieporent enormously.

"Maxwell's captured both interior excitement and culinary excitement like Spago," he says. "Warner wanted to do [legendary Swiss chef] Freddie Girardet food for 1,000." While the food wasn't quite up to those standards, Maxwell's Plum did receive a three-star review from The New York Times. It convinced Nieporent that he could serve good food to a lot of people.

At Tavern on the Green, the number of diners served was even more impressive. "The volume was relentless. We'd feed fifteen hundred people at dinner on Saturday night, then turn around and do the same number for brunch the next day," he says.

By managing more than 200 employees, and with sales that increased from $10 million to $24 million at Tavern on the Green during his five-year stint (he left in 1982), Nieporent learned what he calls "efficiencies." He broke down that invisible but all too real wall between the kitchen and dining room and worked closely with chefs. He encouraged busboys to become waiters and waiters to become captains, thus instilling a sense of upward mobility and ownership in employees. "When waiters become captains, it's like they now own their own little restaurant," he says.

This sense of empowerment has carried over to his senior staff, which includes Daniel Johnnes, the chief Myriad sommelier and partner in Montrachet; Michael Bonadies, who handles Myriad's consulting arm; and Shapiro. "Drew is a peer," says Shapiro. "He has such a thorough knowledge of the business from every end that he understands what you're going through on a day-to-day basis. He just lays back and lets you do what you have to do. He's not always second-guessing you."

Even with the security of having a loyal and well-trained staff, Nieporent oversees a restaurant empire that would make most people's heads spin. But it is this intense activity and constant stimulation that turns him on. "People criticize me for traveling--I try to go somewhere once a month--but for me it's a learning process. I want to learn something every day, whether it's a wine, a food or a cigar. That's what I learn from travel," he says.

Besides, Nieporent says, there is always "reportability." He's in touch with his restaurants almost daily, making sure they are running smoothly. But he doesn't concentrate solely on sales. "I used to work at places where they asked, 'How much money did we make?' " he says. "I ask, 'Did the food come out hot? Was there a minimum of confrontation? Was the morale good?' When things are going well, the dollars will fall into place."

And indeed they have. Tribeca Grill and Nobu are almost neck-and-neck in annual revenues at about $8 million each. In addition to treating his people well, Nieporent attributes his restaurants' success to a very conservative approach. "We don't shoot our bolt in the beginning and try to get back our investment in the first six months," he says. A new restaurant builds the old-fashioned way: gradually. First it opens only for dinner, then lunch, then seven days a week.

"A huge majority of restaurateurs lack the discipline the craft requires," say Café des Artistes' Lang. "Drew is one of the few in this age of star restaurateurs and star chefs who are much better than the older restaurateurs of my generation."

Only one Myriad restaurant, Zeppole, a casual Neapolitan eatery located at the TriBakery, has been unsuccessful. But even this restaurant isn't a failure, according to Nieporent. "Zeppole was really 'retired,' not closed," he says. "It wasn't working as well as we would have liked, even though we got two stars from The Times. But even if you consider it a failure, don't judge me on only one effort; judge me by my body of work, like an actor."

Sam Gugino is a food and wine writer based in New York City.

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