Last November, nightlife heavyweights Scott Sartiano and Richie Akiva opened their supper club-themed restaurant The Darby in the old Nell's space on 14th Street. Celebrity chef Alex Guarnaschelli is in charge of the food there, but the restaurant is perhaps most famous for the performances that happen on its bandstand. Over the last year, Prince, Bruno Mars, Wyclef, Leann Rimes, Taylor Swift, and other music A-listers have all jumped up on stage and performed surprise sets. We recently chatted with Sartiano about how it all came together, and where he plans to take The Darby next.
How did this project come together? Scott Sartiano, Owner: So, the first thing is we find a space that we like, then we start throwing ideas around ourselves and mention it to a couple of important people and see what they think. The cool thing about this place was that so many people talked about Nell's like it was the most amazing place they ever went to. Older people that are really important to me, like a couple of guys who are like mentors to me, they were like, "Nell's was the greatest place ever. What you should do is reopen Nell's." That's how it sort of came about, and my partner had the same idea and said, "Why don't we do an updated version of what Nell's was. Our version of a modern day supper club." So with this place, there's the idea of Nell's and that kind of influence, but there's also a big demographic that we're falling into now — I'm 37 — that's kind of a mature crowd that wants a sophisticated-but-sexy night out that doesn't go until four in the morning. So, all of those things together led us to this concept.
Was it hard to get Alex Guarnaschelli to come on board? No, because we've had a long relationship with her. She's been with us at Butter for seven or eight years now. It's kind of funny, you meet people and your careers grow parallel, and she's obviously doing great, but we have a different kind of relationship because of what we've been through and where we come from. It's almost like a little family. So, we talked to her about it, and we have a lot of faith in her not just as a cook, but as a person and as someone who's involved in our business for so long. I think our dysfunctional relationship is very functional, if that makes sense.
How did you approach Steve Lewis about the design? You know, Steve designed Butter — it's the first place he ever designed. I think that it was just the time to talk to him again. I used to work with him a very long time ago, before he designed Butter, and I said, "Hey, why don't we talk with him and see what ideas he has for this space, because he's very familiar with Nell's." So, we met with him and we liked his ideas. I couldn't envision some of them actually, like this cage. I was very nervous about it, but it came out amazing. The idea of the cage is that on the other side of the cage is kind of the old version of Nell's, the old supper club — the past. And the cage separates the old with the new, if that makes sense. There's only one thing in this entire space that was here when it was Nell's, and that's the staircase over there, and there's a phone booth downstairs. Everything else is new, every single thing. We wanted to keep the floor and the woodwork and the columns, but we just couldn't. When something's old and the codes change, that's when you make changes, and you have to change everything.
How'd you put together the band? The Darby Band was a long process. We consulted with a few different people — Andre Harrell helped us — and we found a few key musicians like Lady Rizo and Ron Grant. Once we found them and loved what they did, we just kind of worked around that and just had tons and tons of auditions, and worked with them and Andre to kind of form the band. We wanted to get it right at the beginning, and it's hard to get it right at the beginning.
How did the opening go? We did a lot of soft openings, a lot of small events. We did some small private dinners with our friends here, and then we kept it really light because we wanted to give the kitchen a feel for what was going on, because it's not like you order a steak, and here's your steak. You're dealing with the band and volume and song selection. Are people going to get up and dance, or are they going to sit down? We had a vision of what we wanted, but a little bit of it was trial and error and seeing how people reacted to what was going on.
Do you want people to get up and dance? Not really, but we're not against it. We wanted to see how people were going to react. Now, it depends on what's going on here. Two weeks ago, Wyclef got up here and performed for two hours. Three days before that, Leann Rimes. Before that it was Taylor Swift. It's on a case-by-case basis, and we're not against people getting up and dancing — we want people to have fun.
So, about the famous musicians jumping up on stage. How does that happen? It's a multitude of things. A few weeks ago I had one of those moments where you realize that something is happening the way you want it to. I was eating dinner somewhere else, because I'm here every night, and my friend said, "Come on, let's go out to dinner. Let's go to try a new restaurant." And I kept getting all these reports that were like, "Bruno Mars is here. Bruno Mars is on stage. Bruno Mars is singing." And I was like, "Why am I not there? I'm sitting here at a restaurant that I don't think is a good restaurant, I'm paying for like 15 people, I'm missing my own place, and Bruno Mars is performing for free." We invested a lot of money here. This sound system is like having a Ferrari that doesn't leave the driveway, and the band is amazing. So, when someone is sitting there eating dinner and they hear the band and they're a music person, they respect it. Early on, we had Prince get up a couple of times, and John Mayer, and Babyface — we had a lot of people. Now I think they're coming here because they know it's place where they can eat dinner, and it's like a thing that musicians can get up on stage.
Does one of the managers go over and ask them if they want to perform? No, we never approach them. We have personal relationships with a lot of performers and artists, and obviously if they say they're coming and that they want to do it, that's great and we set up whatever they want. But first and foremost, we want them to come and eat here and have a good time. We definitely don't want them thinking, "No, I don't want to be hassled." The room is really nice, the food is great, it's got a great vibe, and it's got it going on. They come here, they have a good time, they get into it, and the band is great.
The critics didn't review The Darby. How did you feel about that? It's odd, I guess. I know that some of them came here. Sam Sifton was here and it seemed like he had a good time — he ate all his food. I don't know, I think some places push to get reviewed right away. My partner and I, we don't really care about it. I'm not saying that we don't care about reviews, but we're not pushing to get reviewed. We're in a different day and age now. Critics are there to be critical, but there's so much mass-messaging and social media out there that you're reviewed before you used to be reviewed. You're reviewed before you're even open. There are no secrets, there is no underground in New York anymore. The word just kind of spreads. We weren't really reviewed and it doesn't really matter so much to me why. I think eventually we'll get reviewed because we're not going anywhere for a long time. You know when something's working. We're going to expand The Darby to other places, we love the concept, and people really seem to love the concept too. So, we think it's something we're doing elsewhere, and I think you're going to see other people copy it.
Where else do you want to bring The Darby? I'm not sure yet. We're talking about it now. We're looking at things all over. But again, you've got to make sure that it works. New York has a lot of people to draw from. So, we're starting to ask around in LA, Las Vegas, Chicago, London, and Paris. We're starting to ask our network of people what they think. I think it would do well in London. I think in Vegas it would do well. LA, maybe. But we're cautious. The most important thing is The Darby New York.
Sort of an abstract question: How do you keep it hot after one year? That's a multi-layered question for a guy like me, because we don't just do restaurants, we do clubs. I think the place is hot. I think it's hotter now than it was before. I think it's going to be hot for a while. But the thing is that we don't do things to make them hot. That's one different thing about us, as opposed to other people. I think that there are people that open places and they want to make them hot. They hire a big PR firm, they do a big opening, and things like that. We don't really do things that way. People ask the same thing about clubs. 1 Oak is five years old and I still think it's the hottest club in New York — and I'm not just saying that because it's my place. We don't do things that are about being hot, we focus on what makes things good. It's really word of mouth. I think what makes the place hot is that this room is hot — it's a beautiful room. Come here and try the Tomahawk steak, try the branzino, try chef Alex's food, and that's what makes it hot. See the band, that's what makes it hot. And when you have Leann Rimes jump on stage while you're eating dinner, that makes it like...you're in another galaxy of hot.
How is the downstairs space doing? It's doing well. It's very different from up here, obviously. We totally encourage people to eat up here, then come downstairs, but we wanted it to be separate. It's like an upbeat kind of lounge with a great cocktail menu. And again, it's for a person who eats at a place like The Darby, and doesn't want to go home yet, but doesn't want to go to a club or the hotel bar and drink Scotch. We got a great crowd down there and it's got a cool vibe. It's a separate thing.
When is 1 OAK opening in Vegas? We'll definitely be open on New Year's. The space is coming together, I'll be there. I'm all over the place, I've never been busier, to be honest with you.
Does it feel like it's been a year? It doesn't. It feels like we opened this just yesterday.