Butter, which Akiva and Sartiano have since started franchising—first to Charlotte, North Carolina, with a Boston offshoot in the works—may have been one of the first to package the contemporary nightclub experience with dinner, but the restaurant-as-nightlife-hub dates back even further. Keith McNally, along with his brother Brian, elevated it to an art form in the early eighties with his lively, immaculately designed late-night eateries, beginning with the Odeon in Tribeca, a favorite hangout of Jay McInerney's during his Bolivian-marching-powder days. Brian also opened Indochine in NoHo, which has long been a favorite with the fashion set and is in many ways a predecessor to Kenmare. A couple of generations before the brothers McNally, the Stork Club defined the idea of dinner as nightlife in New York. On the opposite coast, the L.A. scene was built on the back of restaurants like the Ivy and the venerable Musso & Frank, where the show matters as much as the food.
Now, as the late-night pendulum swings back to restaurants once again, Akiva and Sartiano are seeking to incorporate elements of all of those places in their newest venture, the Darby, which will be housed in the old Nell's space. Their inspiration is the epic tracking shot in Goodfellas in which Ray Liotta guides a dazzled Lorraine Bracco through the kitchen of the Copacabana, then up the stairs and into the club to a table next to the stage. Akiva and Sartiano say they also want to pay tribute to Nell's, which was opened in 1986 by Keith McNally with Wagenknecht, his wife at the time, as an intimate alternative to cavernous megaclubs like Limelight. "It was a lot of people's 'first' place, which made them fall in love with nightlife," says Akiva, who used to sneak into Nell's as a teen to gawk at the likes of Eddie Murphy and David Bowie. "What we're trying to do is bring back a culture that's been lost."
"We're trying to preserve an era," Sartiano avers. And with it, a modicum of egalitarianism.
At the Darby, every table will have a prime view of a small stage: In addition to a house band that will play three times a night, there will be "periodic surprises" when the duo's famous friends—like, say...Jay-Z and Beyoncé—get up from their table to perform without advance notice, the way Frank Sinatra might have done half a century ago. The entrepreneurs refuse to call the Darby a supper club, believing the term has been poisoned by venues they don't respect. But it will be a club that serves supper. Old-fashioned dinner theater seems a rather sedate next step for these former club kids, but that's the point: "We want to get away from the nightlife circle," Akiva explains. It's a common sentiment among operators, many of whom cheer the decline of the traditional club scene, or at least the bottle-service element. "As I got older, I realized that restaurants are the new clubs," says Breslin owner Ken Friedman, who was forced to become a club expert during a previous career as a record-label A&R guy. "After hours of sitting in a club or lounge, one is tempted to do bad things. After hours of eating in a restaurant, one is tempted to order dessert."
This newfound gentility is not without its discontents. "Nightlife has gotten a little boring," says Carlos Quirarte, who co-owns the café/clubhouse/retail destination the Smile and throws events at the Jane, a trendy West Village hotel. "When I party, that's not how I want to party. I don't think that's how anybody wants to party. But I don't think people have a choice."
Fight For Your Right to Pâté: While eating out has supplanted ostentatious excess on both coasts, it has also become the perfect complement and gateway to discreet debauchery.
That doesn't mean there's no party to be found. Back at Kenmare, it's after 10 and things are beginning to heat up. There's a burst of flashbulbs on the sidewalk, then a trio of guys with gelled hair and polo shirts, their collars upturned, march stiffly inside. One of them is the soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, in town after Portugal's World Cup elimination. Soon he's perusing the menu in a corner booth with his girlfriend, the bronzed Russian model Irina Shayk. Moments later, Keith Richards wanders in, looking confused and slightly constipated. Conversation has picked up. And yet the more Kenmare feels like the place to be, the more empty tables start to dot around the room as fashionable diners finish their meals and begin the next chapter of their evenings. Perhaps the real place to be is downstairs?
On my way out, I ask the hostess if I can venture down to the lounge. She directs me to a catalog-model type standing guard atop the staircase. A heavy bass line and the laughs of revelers waft up from below. "I'm sorry," she says, brandishing her clipboard. "We're closed for a private event."Read More:
The Age of Underground Decadence
The Diet Wars