On the first warm day of spring, Michael Chow, the restaurateur, was walking up Madison Avenue when he was stopped by the son of a friend, who said to him, “Mr. Chow, the last time we met, you told me something. I still repeat it all the time. You told me that whatever is difficult, heavy, and expensive must be good. And you told me that whatever comes to the senses quickly goes quickly.”
Mr. Chow is retelling the story a day later over many courses at Nobu, where he is settled into a booth wearing a pin-striped, bespoke Hermès suit. He looks far younger than his 67 years, particularly when he smiles and crinkles his nose, which lifts his round glasses past the tops of his neatly trimmed eyebrows.
The lessons Mr. Chow shared with the young man are two favorites in a vocabulary heavy on koans. (The first is his own, the second he regularly borrows from Rothko.)
“I say, ‘Very good,’ ” he continues. “ ‘Now I have another. It’s quite deep, but someday you will get it. Whatever is true, opposite truer.’ ”
And then Chow left the boy and walked on toward the Whitney, where the Biennial would strike him as very “whatever.” Later, he went to an auction of contemporary Chinese art.
“China,” he says with a smile, pointing a chopstick for emphasis, “no longer in decline.”
Michael Chow is an artist, this is for certain, but exactly what kind is harder to ascertain. He was trained as both an architect and a painter, yet he has not, for most of his adult life, painted. “It is too painful,” he explains. “Too much emotion. There is a hierarchy in art. Poetry, music, and painting are high art. Below this is architecture and everything else where you are governed by function.”
Instead of painting, he has created a world around him, full of ideas, people, spaces, all safely reined in by function, and also by his elaborate philosophies on life. For Chow, restaurants are complex and long-running installations set in theaters of his own careful design. The movements of his waiters—filling glasses, changing tablecloths, delicately deboning rare, fresh pieces of fish—are parts in an elaborate symphony of which he is, ultimately, the conductor.
Chow is in New York to expand. On May 4, he opens a new restaurant in Tribeca with a party for 400 of his closest friends. It’s Chow’s first major opening in almost 30 years, and he is calm about the whole thing. “There is always one way, only way.”
To eat at a Mr. Chow restaurant is to participate in a roving party, one that has migrated through four decades, three continents, and an awful lot of soup dumplings. It is to acknowledge that the rich and famous will get better tables than the rest of us, and everyone will have a better time for it. In his L.A. restaurant, Mae West got a standing ovation just for finishing her dinner. And it was at Mr. Chow on 57th Street that John Lennon took his last meal before walking home across the park. It was the center of London’s swinging sixties, L.A.’s silky seventies, and the glamorous debauch of the Manhattan art world, circa 1984. Mr. Chow on 57th Street is still a party—now starring Lenny Kravitz or Jay-Z—seven nights a week.
“It was like a car crash, our growing up there,” says Julian Schnabel, who set a crucial scene from his film Basquiat on the restaurant’s balcony. “I remember feeling sometimes like we’d been at someone’s parents’ house and we’d wrecked the place.”
For multiple generations, a visit to Mr. Chow was a kind of celebrity bar mitzvah. “The first time I went, I’m sitting there and right next to me you’ve got David Bowie,” says the director and producer Brett Ratner. “Sitting across from me is Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring. Madonna, too, and Francesco Clemente. It instantly became my favorite restaurant in the whole entire world.”
Mr. Chow is like a surfer, catching whatever cultural wave happens to be breaking. “Every city has a time,” Chow explains one morning in a high-floor suite at the Four Seasons. “The twenties was Berlin, the thirties was Paris and Shanghai. And then in the fifties, everything is Rome. And then in the sixties, it’s London. Then seventies in L.A., with Bob Evans, and then eighties art-world New York. We are always in the happening city.”
But there is not one happening city right now; rather, there are many—it’s a mobile culture where glamour shuttles constantly about—and so Chow will be on hand wherever the party lands (after opening in Tribeca, Chow will turn his attention to Miami and Las Vegas), serving up terribly expensive noodles on beautiful china with heavy silver and soft linen napkins like little blankets for your lap.