Two years ago, Benjamin Shih, who owns the retro-cool Williamsburg bars Sweet Up’s and the Royal Oak, broke his ribs and tore muscles in his groin when he fell off an obstacle-course tower. It turned out to be a lucky accident. He had joined the National Guard in 2005; the wipeout happened during a training program. At the veterans hospital on East 23rd Street, he overheard staffers discussing the Patriot Express business-loan program for military personnel. “I had to jump through about 50 hoops,” he says. “But eventually I got a loan for $150,000.” The money helped Shih, 36, secure the lease on a space at Ludlow and Delancey, where next month he plans to open Hotel Chantelle, a two-floor restaurant he says will look like “what a tasteful Chinese businessman living in Paris would have built in the 1910s, but then aged to 1940.” Underneath, there’s a basement bar called, appropriately enough, SGT’S.
“People are always asking me, how can someone with graduate degrees and who is a liberal go into the service?” Shih says. “This is a question I never get in the Midwest or the South. My response is, you and I are on a social-contract credit card. So why in other parts of the country do we try to pay down that debt? For you, it’s something incomprehensible. For me, it’s something I was raised with.” Shih’s family arrived from Taipei in 1968. “It was the American Dream,” he says. Shih went on to get both a law degree and tattoos, and then worked for Lexis-Nexis. He wanted to be his own boss, and in 2002, he used his savings to open Sweet Up’s. But he always wanted to be in the military, too; he identifies with his fellow soldiers. “They’re often poor, they value education, obligation—the social contract,” he says. “I have a foot in both worlds.” Sometimes uncomfortably. His girlfriend of four years broke up with him when he enlisted. It’s led to fights with customers. Still, when told their host is handy with an M16, most Royal Oak customers seem okay with it. One girl remarks, “That’s almost honorable.” Another young man says, “At least he’s not like, ‘I’m going to fuck up some Afghanis.’ ” Lance, the towering, stone-faced doorman and a fellow Guardsman, has Shih’s back. “Most of these kids are hipsters,” he says. “Unless you’ve been there going against hajji, you don’t understand. But we do this”—he paused to request I.D.’s from a group of girls—“so they don’t have to.”
Shih is less dramatic. “I use the 5-year-old test. What would my 5-year-old self think of me? I don’t think we have a better idea of what we want to be than when we’re 5. And I always knew I wanted to serve.” According to his platoon sergeant, Shih will likely be shipping out, probably to Afghanistan, next year.