Food Arts presents the January/February 1998 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Drew Nieporent, godfather of his downtown dining and larger-than-life restaurant impresario. The self-professed bad boy of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Management (’77) co-owns and/or operates nine critically acclaimed restaurants in New York City, California, and London; heads a high-profile consulting business; and stands as spiritual heir to the life of Joe Baum, George Lang, and Warner LeRoy and the vital restaurant magic they created over and over.
With the opening of Montrachet in the urban frontier of New York City’s TriBeCa in 1985, Nieporent successfully grafted outstanding food and wine to unceremonious service and ambience. He bet the ranch that his generation of baby boomers would willingly leave some of their growing incomes in restaurants offering the good stuff without the stuffy stuff, to paraphrase Nieporent. “What made Montrachet new was a style I’d call ‘ casual elegance,’” says the native New Yorker. “It was the first three-star in New York where you didn’t have to endure a captain in a tuxedo, an untranslated French menu, and a list with just French wines. We had no rules except to enjoy the wine and food.”
Nieporent had done his legwork in the business before risking $50,000 of his own money—plus $125,000 from other sources—on Montrachet. He had just come off the “le and la circuit,” as he calls it, having served as a captain at Le Régence (where Daniel Boulud was toquing), La Reserve, La Grenouille, and Le Perigord. There also were five impressionable post-grad years spend working at LeRoy’s seminal singles restaurant/bar, Maxwell’s Plum, and stage-lit Tavern on the Green. As a boy, he had inhaled the essence of New York dining life in the city’s finest restaurants, many of which were clients of his lawyer father. And there was a pilgrimage in the mid 1980s to the three-star gastronomic temples of France that he says inspired him to dream up Montrachet as a facsimile with lower prices.
The seismic buzz about Montrachet fueled a surge of restaurant openings in TriBeCa and spawned Nieporent’s empire. In 1990, he and actor Robert DeNiro, a Montrachet regular, formed a partnership (with other actors and celebs as investors) to open Tribeca Grill, which Nieporent based on the classic fish grills of San Francisco. “Grill” was a West Coast thing until we brought it here,” Nieporent remarks. “Now it’s almost a joke; everything is a ‘grill.’”
Not every grill, however, combined star power, worth-a-cab cuisine, and a pinch of the demimonde the way Nieporent did during Tribeca’s infancy. With his chef’s heft, beard, and spectacles, Nieporent was soon attracting as much press as his paparazzi-pursued patrons. With others seeking his magic touch, he formed Myriad Restaurant Group in 1993 as an umbrella for his varied restaurant projects.
These days, the 43-year-old Nieporent’s phones are always ringing. One line (“with call waiting”) jangles early in the morning in Ridgewood, New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and two kids. A cell’s his servant when this suburban non-driver hops a ride into the city, usually with his brother, Tracy. And when Drew (no on ever seems to use his last name) strolls Mr. Nieporent’s Neighborhood throughout the day—it now includes Nobu (1994), with superstar Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa; TriBakery (1995), a full-service bakery with the short-lived, Little Italy-styled Zeppole in park of the same space; Layla (1995), a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean spot complete with belly dancer, and City Wine & Cigar Co. (1997), a restaurant/club catering to millennial pleasures and vices—he’s fielding non-stop calls, beeps and faxes from somebodies and “friends” of somebodies for reservations.
Seats are equally hard to come by at Rubicon, his critical hit in San Francisco that lists DeNiro, Francis Ford Coppola, and Robin Williams as partners; at the new Freestyle (in Sonoma, California); and at Nobu London in the Metropolitan Hotel. Soon he’ll have to handle the demand for Minton’s Playhouse, a Harlem restaurant/jazz club scheduled to open later this year, and Nobu Next Door in TriBeCa.
In a business of transients, Nieporent has strong track record of retaining his chefs and key personnel. What draws people to him is his almost childlike delight in what he does. And although he wields self-deprecating humor to tame his ego, Nieporent doesn’t downplay his accomplishments.
“I hope that I’ve been able to gain respect for the industry, because I think foodservice has been looked at in a less than respectful light,” he says. “And I hope that I’ve enriched the dining scene. We’ve shown a great deal of honesty in our approach to the business. I hope people can appreciate the diversity of my body of work and the difficult of doing something like this.”