October 10, 1989 | Vintage Insatiable
Hotter Than Hot: Why They Kill To Get Into
Saturday afternoon: 150 Wooster hides behind garbage, graffiti, and corrugated steel, the chic-est little body shop in town stripped of its evening jewelry: people. Phone lights flash. The reservationist listens to the outpourings of emotion serenely, jotting notes, making no commitments. No table gets leased for the night without a nod from the boss. ("You have to be a good liar," she confides.)
"It's Mickey Rourke's agent," she says. "He wants a table tonight, whenever."
"I'm Mickey Rourke's agent and I want to dance with the prince of Wales," chants Brian McNally with a knowing chortle.
"He might bring Mickey."
"Oh yes?" Might, indeed. McNally's come from lunch with his aristocratic wife, Anne, and the kids and the nanny, carrying Jessica, six, whose feet hurt from being a flower girl at Carolina Herrera's daughter's wedding the day before. He's sent them off in a taxi and is drafting tonight's war plan "because the house was a mess yesterday. I was at the wedding and no one thought to keep watch on the new reservations girl."
So that's why he was uncharacteristically scarce at dinner last night. "I was pissed," he says. "If you have no-shows at 6:30 you can't seat walk-ins at 7:30 and expect to have tables for your 8:30 people. Look who we didn't accommodate. Paul Simon. Bret Easton Ellis. Jay McInerney." Dear me. Mercury. Apollo. Pan.
Never mind the doubling of limousines, the cops narrowing the nighttime desolation of Wooster Street to guard the Italian foreign minister. Never mind Al Taubman introducing his daughter to Mary McFadden (chalk-pale, all in black) and her new baby husband (brava!). Never mind the scatterings of Gwathmeys, Joan Micklin Silver, Ian Schrager with his niece and Steve Rubell's nephew, plus the usual art-world suspects (the sizzlers, the soon-to-bes, the Ladies Gotrocks). "The evening was lost as far as I was concerned," says Brian. "If I'd stayed, I might have screamed at everyone." So he went off for dinner to his Canal Bar, last year's frenzied mecca now settles into humming domesticity.
Friday night. Mary Boone, tanned, in white. Behind me, I hear Time's art guru, Robert Hughes, explaining the barley dish. "It's halfway between a risotto and a couscous." And it's good (though it was better before the chef decided to smithereen the sausage). "It's a bar, and you don't expect to eat as well as you do," notes restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. "The food's fabulous," says publicity tigress Peggy Siegal. "Surprisingly good," says Billy Norwich. And it is good, though chef Ali Barker, whose concoctions were hyperactive at the Union Square Café, still gets carried away. Rack of lamb is lost in eggplant sludge. His gnocchi, celestial in cognac cream, are less blessed in Portobello-mushroom sauce. The tuna fish in one big chunk was bold. Sliced, it's a compromise. I miss the beer nuts in his sublime chocolate-caramel sundae. He needs an editor, and Brian, he laments, is too busy to sit down and talk.
The battle to be in the right boite at a status table before Calvin and Bianca move on never ends. Scarred and smartened by tabletop power struggles, we hungry New Yorkers will try anything. "But that's impossible," Brian says into the phone. "Your secretary couldn't have reserved two weeks ago because we never book more than three days in advance." He studies the Saturday-night lineup. Zubin Mehta. Charlie Sheen. Rusty Staub. "Rusty Staub?" Bret Easton Ellis. Griffin Dunne and his fiancée. Carey Lowell, "the new Bond girl." Inevitably, Prince Michael of Greece. Art dealer Tony Shafrazi, a party of twenty at 9:30. McNally grants entrepreneur Stephen Swid his table for seven. "What shall I do about John Clavini?" he muses. "He's so nice. He's just a real nice guy, another one of those you have to resent because he comes with such wonderful girls. Tell him yes," he instructs, then turns to me: "Don't think we just book by whim."
Whim. Savvy. Loyalty. Witchcraft. Hormones. (Brian's heaven is a room criss-crossed by dazzling women, long-haired wraiths in clingy bits of cloth, saucy, pouty buds of ancient civilizations.) From afar, you could say Brian McNally has rubbed a few sticks together, scattered some tile and planted a palm tree in the shell of an old SoHo body shop, and for now…he has the hottest destination in town. Again. Forget about fusion in a coffee cup. Every autumn, Vermont has leaves that fall. And Manhattan has a spontaneous combustion. That ridiculous, outrageous, irresistible heat - a new territorial imperative for the nocturnal nomads.
And Brian McNally does it as if he isn't doing it at all, with an artful air of improvisation. Pretty good food. Pretty fair prices. "I can't think wot to caw it. We'll name it later." Nothing fancy. No serious architecture. No art. Just that recessed-triptych jungle scene across from the bar. A vague blur in the nighttime vortex, the jungle becomes alarmingly visible by daylight. "For God's sake, Brian,what are those people doing?"
"Oh you mean the penis picture?"
"Well actually I mean the lady with the severed hand who's carrying kindling in her, um…"
"Well, you know, they're Amazonian Indians. They're cannibals. From a book by an English artist who was there. Nineteenth-century English people had a lot of problems.
It's been quite a week," says Brian. The holidays. The Rolling Stones. Only Bess Myerson, six feet in heels, slim and more beautiful than anyone remembers. Abe Rosenthal and Shirley Lord and the Arthur Gelb in a power booth on the right, vacating for the late show, A&M Record's Jerry Moss and Jellybean Benitez. Diane Von Furstenberg. A Barneys outing: Gene Pressman with Pino Luongo. Between flicks: Brian DePalma. Bob Rafelson. Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (Flashdance, Top Gun). The L.A. team- David Geffen, Barry Diller, Sandy Gallin. Michael Douglas gets off the plane from Japan, makes three phone calls, and checks in at 150.
Patty and Marty Raynes with writer Richard Price (Color of Money, Sea of Love), John Patrick Shanley (an Oscar for the script of Moonstruck, now directing Joe Versus the Volcano), and Peggy Siegal. Dianne Brill, of course. Beverly Johnson just one flash of beauty you recognize. Eyes blinking as if in a supermarket trance. Trying not to stare. Head swiveling beyond control. Tom and Meredith Brokaw. Carl Bernstein working the room. The Zubin Mehtas with Prentis and Denise Hale (department-store zillions). Calvin and Kelly with filmmaker Howard Rosenman. A swirl of orange as Bianca is embraced. We sit shivering and giggling while our butter sauce congeals.
"That's Prince Michael of Greece in a booth with five women," I tell my friends, who do not track dynasties that came before Dynasty. "Actually, one of those women is a man." My friend corrects me: "Two of those women are men."
Of course, Brian is wowed. That’s one of his charms. All those garmentos and lawyers and real estaters who open restaurants with fantasies of an endless house party envy Brian. His is an endless house party, which is why you won't get a table between 8 and 10:30 - "It wouldn't be fun if I came in and didn't know anyone in the room," McNally says.
And he can be as starstruck as anyone. Like the night he has Robin Williams, Bruce Willis, Paul Simon, and Steve Martin at one station, Madonna across the room. Or the time De Niro was in the first right-hand booth, Isabella Rosellini at the adjoining post. Arnold Schwarzennegger and Maria Shriver in the left corner booth. Claudia Cohen and Ronald Perelman with Carolina Herrera front and center. Siegal, who sees more of 150 Wooster than her own living room, was in that night with Jon and Laura Tisch, a couple of the Steinberg clan and the Gwathmeys in tow. "Well, of course they went crazy," says Siegal. "And when Brian came over, Jon gave him his card and invited him to breakfast at the Regency. He said, 'I'm sure you eat breakfast.'"
It's Siegal's theory that 150 Wooster was born at Odeon, when Brian and Keith McNally (who began as a waiter and bartender at One Fifth) created the first hangout to compete with Elaine's - "who didn't welcome the young writers, was too expensive, and didn't like women." Odeon's eclectic chic (downtown punksters, migrating art-world powers, the kindergarten lit set, Hollywood squares and hipsters) followers the McNallys everywhere, even after the brothers fought and split - with Keith creating Luxembourg, on the Upper West Side, and Nell's (Lucky Strike upcoming), Brian launching Indochine, Canal Bar, and Jerry's.
As for this contagion on Wooster Street, McNally never actually meant to spend so much time here. The "club" germinated as a longing of his partners, journalist Nessia Pope and artist Sylvia Martins, both Brazilians, for good home cooking. Then while it was fitfully coming together, it became celebrated as "Brian's place." Along the way, it lost its Brazilian accent. And from the moment the door opened, it seemed as if Calvin and Bianca were glued to the service plates.
Working the room every night soon took the starch out of Sylvia. Now she stays home and paints, stopping by as often as she can. But Nessia Pope, pencil-thin in a leopard-spotted velour mini, guards the flock. She can remember only one moment of silence, a communal intake of breath for Elizabeth Taylor. "That was thrilling."
What incandescence! But fireflies glow too - oh so briefly. Joanna's was an endlessly amusing zoo ("dead of its own hubris," says public-relations man Ed Gifford), La Colonna (a money machine with no follow-through - R.I.P.). The magic glue shimmered and clotted at Caffe Roma (defunct with scarcely a whimper). Torrid zones for fifteen minutes. Seiyoken is gone. Its inheritor, Il Palazzo, crumbled. Seven minutes was all destiny allotted to Il Bianco. La Coupole sued its press agent for getting it too much attention (giddy from instant "success," its owners flew off to the Caribbean, leaving a couple of busboys to go down with the ship).
But McNally ventures seem to have a built-in bounce. Like McMullen's, Elaine's, Le Cirque, Mortimer's the ever-resilient Canastel's, and the never-chic, always-hot Iguana, they cater to a clientele. And Brian McNally has infallible timing, a gift for momentum, observes Hal Rubenstein, Details restaurant chronicler and editor of the imminent Egg. "Other restaurateurs think of opening something new when the first goes down. Brian rides the wave's crest and its ready with the next place before it falls.
"People used to drink and drug," says Rubenstein. "Now they're sober and sane. Their septums have been fixed. They go to their AA meetings and they want to go out to eat. It's a slightly different crowd here, older, more sure of themselves. At Canal Bar, they table-hopped. Here, they walk. And we're all such media junkies, we hate to miss anything."
So here we are. Saturday night. Bret Easton Ellis and his chums in the prime power booth part their vintage fifties hair. Anthony Haden-guest - whose in-progress saga of the art world lets him hagd out where he'd hagd out anyway- is a guide to the Shafrazi conclave: The absolute roots, trunk, and tendrils of the art world, darling, but faceless troops to a superficial-celebrity bunny like me, who couldn't even put a name to John Lurie, Lounge Lizards saxophonist and a familiar face from Down By Law.
Carina Courtwright Quasha (Hollywood royalty through Daddy's Beverly Wilshire Hotel) and Barcelona's hot architect Ricardo Bofill are sardined into the Swids' coveted booth. The McNallys come in latish from Orpheus Descending (earlyish for the ultra-swank crush). Anne slips into a booth with Prince Michael as Brian strokes the room. Barbara de Portago, feeling the jacket of a departing man ("No, it’s not denim, it's bleached suede," she reports), compliments McNally on his art-free walls- "so diplomatic in this neighborhood."
Haden-Guest introduces his date, a born-yesterday beauty with a skimpily bandeau'd shelf above an expanse of perfect midriff. "Lisa Gaye stars in Toxic Avenger 2 and Toxic Avenger 3, but that's not why I brought her here," he tells Brian.
"It's about a monster evolved from garbage," says Lisa, lending me her glasses so I can case the room. The right lens blurs. But the left really works, just as a magnificence of Euros swaggers in. A small Almanach de Gotha. What do we know, we who read People in the supermarket checkout line? The one who looks like a sexy Robert Redford is Eric Wachtmeister (son of the retired Swedish ambassador).
"Eric Von Masterrace, we call him," says Haden-Guest, as the crowd gives way to late-late look-alikes. That's either Nell Campbell's sister or Anna Wintour's cousin, we decide, focused on a red Dutch bob.
Meanwhile, Anne and the prince have gathered an entourage, his sister Princess Marina and Heather Watts in a ninesome that leaves no room for Brian. He settles at the momentarily abandoned power station nearby, eating soup and squab at the same time till the shifting tides gather the debris of other tables and he is wedged in, too.
Haden-Guest is explaining the appeal of 150's unfinished state. "Americans reject perfection. They like things unfinished. All these done-up postmodern restaurants closed because they were too finished. You felt like an extra. Here you feel you're part of the action. That's why people prefer the sketch to the painting."
"Do you think that's why men prefer young girls?" someone asks.
Anthony clutches Lisa Gaye's hand. "Perhaps. Perhaps."
Brian stops by again. He does have the distinct advantage of not being remarkably tall. He doesn't have to lean so far, double over, or crouch as he cruises, chatting with his friends, poking fun, laughing. Hilarious. Happy. "I just came from a table where everyone was talking Yiddish," he marvels.
"You know what they say," says Haden-Guest. "'Talk British. Think Yiddish.' A Brian place is like an Eagles song," Haden-Guest tells me. "Brand-new, it sounds like a standard."
"You're so lyrical," cries Brian. "You should be a writer. You should stop typing and start writing."
What are they doing here, the grown-ups, the billionaires, the proper-little Junior Leaguers with their velvet headbands? Looking to Brain McNally for affirmation, thrills, a fountain or youth. We were at Studio 54. We're where it’s happening now. Think of the street-smart people and peasants we've wooed for the right table. Henri Soulé. Elaine. Glenn Bernbaum. Brian McNally, self-taught son of a stevedore from London's South End. But then so many of us are peasants and street-smart too.
Now Brian sits talking politics, discussing Alexander Cockburn - "Truth is a bourgeois affectation"- a media critic, a philosopher, a reformed loveaholic remembering "that wonderful moment between the pill and herpes." Whose eyes trail after the elliptical blonde swinging her rump in a white elastic sling ("I won't even comment about that"). Whose art is the serving staff, the beautiful creatures with tawny skin. "I have a perfectly happy marriage and I can hire these girls; that's my fantasy.
He's sweet. See him touching the arm of a busboy ("how's it going?"), one of the boat people whose lives became his concern with Indochine. Yes, sweet - though he may not seem at all sweet to you if you're forced to wait an hour at the bar because all those tables are "reserved for specific people."
And his loyalty engenders loyalty. That’s why Anna Wintour is so often here. "Back when we were both struggling and starving, we shared an apartment," she says. ("She didn't approve of my life-style," says Brian. "I had to sneak girls in and out.") "I know how hard he works. Don't be deceived by that laid-back look." Wintour, a covey of Wintourettes from Vogue, and Billy Norwich are tucking into Ali Barker's slashed fist of tuna (sheer sashimi at the core).
"I try to come here at least once a week," says Norwich. "It's the complete antidote to everything I do. And it's young. I forget sometimes there are people still engaged in the creative process. The people I mostly see are living on the offshoots of their brute force. If you go to the Four Seasons for lunch, to Mortimer's, then 150 Wooster, you've seen New York." Norwich likes to tell about Spin publisher Bob Guggione Jr., at a lowly table, watching Jann and Jane Wenner sitting with Fran Lebowitz in a power booth. "When suddenly there's a vroom vroom, and the girls are all squealing, thinking it's Chuck Pfeiffer," the video/commercial/film producer Don Juan. "And in walks Malcolm Forbes in a gleaming white motorcycle helmet, unzipping leather to reveal pinstripes underneath. It's all about who has the ad pages," says Billy. And the fact that "150's door people didn't recognize Pat Buckley and Ashton Hawkins, the resident lawyer at Club Met, just adds to the charm. As Ashton says, 'I don't mind attitude as long as it's refined attitude.'"
McNally can't say for sure where he's headed next. He keeps projects constantly in turnaround. Thoughts of a Prague-style café downtown have been abandoned. Saturday, he was talking about revamping his new toy, Man Ray, into a 100-seat diner. "The diner is a great American tradition. It's just that somewhere along the way it got debased.
"What really excites me is Times Square. Even the worst restaurants make it in Times Square." He's meeting now on his off-again-on-again Century Paramount hotel deal. "The Oceanic Room. Times Square is glamorous. People pulling up in limos and piling out. All the neon. It's my image of New York when I was growing up."
But as Brian is just days away from his fortieth birthday, it's no shock to hear sounds of a mid-life crisis. Though he often looks around the brightish (high visibility), not-quite-finished 150 Wooster and sees every seat taken by someone he knows - "I'tiz sort of amaaaazing" - he feels confused. He feels weary. "It's a lot of fawning. Lots of groveling. Lots of pulling on the forelock. But only .0001 percent of people get paid to do what they want to do. I'm buying the time to do nothing. I want to travel. I like being bored on trains. Walking in Paris. Reading."
From somewhere in his peripheral vision, perhaps an eye in the back of his head, McNally spies an arrival across the room. He leaps twenty tables in a single bound. "John. It's you," he says.