The first time Tina Brown promised to swing by, Lotus wasn’t ready. Seventeen days remained before the pre-opening party for 600 celebrities and TV executives Brown was throwing at the new lounge-restaurant-bar-dance hall- live-music venue with L.A. talent agency Endeavor and Silicon Valley player Excite. The invitations may have been in the mail, but the club was a work-in-progress: The chestnut floors had been installed, but not a banquette was in evidence, the elaborate bamboo entrance on 14th Street between Ninth and Tenth had yet to materialize, and the only sign of the three mahogany bars was a couple of two-by-fours and some sawdust. “If Tina has vision,” sighed Lotus’s co-owner David Rabin, “she’ll see that it’s almost there.” Luckily, she canceled.
Lotus, a three-floor entertainment emporium a year in the making, is the pet project of a quartet of clubland’s most seasoned players – Jeffrey Jah, Will Regen, Mark Baker, and Rabin. Constructions and renovations have so far cost $3 million and counting. “See this bubinga wood?” says Regen, running a finger down a column. “That costs as much as a car.”
Jah, a handsome and amiable 31-year-old, describes the new club this way: “sexy lighting, all about lounge, Asian sensibility meets European luxury, downstairs a chic version of CBGB, in the cocktail lounge 21-year-old NYU student rubbing elbows with a major fashion designer, Joe Nobody with $300,000 from Petfoods.com rubbing elbows with Mr. and Mrs. Somebody who read about it in Italian Vogue.”
Even more ambitiously: “Zero attitude, zero pretension, no VIP room, no bracelets, no stamps. Every table in every club in the city now is reserved, and it’s like, Duh, I just waited outside for half an hour and paid a big cover and now I can’t sit unless I buy a bottle?”
But even a club with zero attitude requires banquettes, and every day there is the threat of Tina “swinging by” to see the club she has booked – she canceled and postponed at least a half-dozen times, to the relief of the anxious owners, before squeezing in a ten-minute visit last week. Even for these hip impresarios, who between them have directed, managed, and promoted some of the best-known nightclubs of the past two decades, the past few months have been intense. There is a staff to hire, computer training to complete, Balinese artifacts to procure, and an untold number of models to invite. Not to mention napkins and the like. “I saw the coolest cutlery at Moss on Greene Street yesterday,” says Rabin. “But it’s $30 for a fork! We’ll be furnishing everyone in the city’s apartment.” It’s a life of crisscrossing the city on a bike or by cab, strapped into a sleek backpack that functions as a mobile office. “Man,” says Regen, talking on his cell phone to Con Ed about the fact that they don’t have gas, while inspecting the mounting of the bar’s beverage guns. “Thank God for the Palm.”
Ten days before it opens, Lotus is a wasteland, but to its owners, it’s Oz. “Here is a waterfall, a reflecting pool, beautiful people,” says Jeffrey Jah. “But not too many – we want diversity.”
In a city where clubowners have a briefer shelf life than teenage tennis stars, the men behind Lotus are trying to keep it real. “Look, we have eighteen months for this place to be hot; even if we do everything right, the beautiful people always move on,” says Rabin, a married Upper West Sider. He and Regen were classmates at Tufts (’79) and met again at Nell’s when Regen was living with Iman and Rabin was a young lawyer representing Al B. Sure. “The meatpacking district is going to become like Union Square or SoHo in a few years,” says Rabin. “Hopefully, we’ll be one of fifteen places here six years from now.”
“I was a VP in interest-rate swaps at NatWest at 26,” says Regen. “I did the whole Master of the Universe thing – work hard, play hard. Then my father told me he had five months to live. I quit and played golf with him for the summer – 63 years old and a two handicap; you couldn’t believe something bad was coming. After he died, I couldn’t go back. And this is what I decided that I wanted to do.”
As many times as they’ve caught a break – “Hugo Boss agreed to outfit our staff,” exults Regen – there are other times when things haven’t gone quite right. “Yesterday, I went by the club with some friends late-night and the stench from those meatpacking compactors next door was so bad I nearly yakked in the street,” explains the Brighton-accented Baker, a long blond ponytail cascading down his back, the tattoo on one of his toes made to look like a ring. “I wouldn’t wait one second out there in the summertime with those cans next to me.”
“Yeah, well, they’ve been getting rid of their blood and guts that way for years,” says Rabin. “I don’t know if they’re going to change it for us.”
“Then we’ll have to get, I don’t know, 150 incense sticks, light ‘em up in front of our door,” says Baker excitedly.
“Maybe,” says Rabin, with a sigh.
Ten days before Tina’s party, Lotus still doesn’t have gas or a single chair, but in the eyes of the owners, it is the land of Oz. “Here is a waterfall, a reflecting pool, a wall of limestone, a dance floor for all the beautiful people – but not too many beautiful people, because we want diversity,” says Jah dreamily, though all that is in front of him is empty space.
Then Jah gets into a cab and heads over to Regen and Rabin’s Union Bar, the site of a wine tasting for Lotus’s menu. This is a dream come true for Jah, who grew up in Toronto and followed a girlfriend to New York at 19. “Look, I’ve been barback, roadie, bartender, runner, bouncer, director, and now, for the first time, owner,” he says. “I’ve done Nell’s, MK, Red Zone, Mars and Quick, Michael Todd Room, Morrisey, Danceteria, U.S.A.”
“Aw, are you guys on the reds already?” he exclaims, smiling as benignly as Tobey Maguire as he sweeps in the door of Union Bar. He’s poured a glass of Chateau Frombrauge. “No matter how much you spit, you still get drunk at these things.”
This is the first club Jah has actually owned – he and Baker were directors at Life, responsible for the buzzed-about crowd and models galore, but he is quite resentful of Life executive director Steve Lewis (now at Spa), who conveniently dismissed him over the phone when he was due for a raise last July. Since then, Life has ended.
Seven days before Tina’s party, the owners attend their weekly P.R. meeting at KB Network News, a publicity firm for high-end restaurants. In addition to dancing, Lotus is hoping to score with a haute 90-seat restaurant that offers everything from a $15 “basket from the garden” to a $100 ounce of Beluga. To head up the kitchen they lured Richard Farnabe, the well-regarded toque who has worked for Daniel, Jean Georges, Mercer Kitchen, and, most recently, Tommy Hilfiger. “Jared Paul Stern called and said he wants to do a piece on our door policy,” Baker pipes up. “You know, a who-gets-in, who-gets-turned-away kind of story.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” says Rabin. “We’ve been killing ourselves to get the friendliest, most self-effacing people we can find for doormen. We need to be nice to potential customers.” He scans the club’s menu, which has just been priced by the chef. “Seventeen dollars for a hamburger?”
Baker nibbles on a sandwich proffered by a comely assistant, then turns his attention back to business. “These renderings of the space are ca-ca!” he exclaims to one of the publicists. “We can’t possibly send them to British Vogue.” A copy of Maxim is lying on the table – Baker picks it up and skims through this month’s quiz: “Are You a Bad Boy?” “I’m a good bad boy,” says Baker. His cell rings for the fourteenth time. “Hello, love. What do you need?”
After the meeting, he wheels his yellow mountain bike out of the Flatiron Building. “I bike everywhere, because it’s the best way to see the city,” says Baker. “Plus I see everyone I know that way. Especially the girls.” A former owner of Flowers, MetroCC, and Buddha Bar as well as a perennial promoter at hot clubs in the city and the Hamptons, Baker has had all manner of odd jobs. He left Brighton at 11 to join the circus. “I’d get up on the tops of buildings and yell, ‘The circus is coming to town,’ ” he says. “Thank God for the gorilla suit.” At 21, he took advantage of the low exchange rate to ship over and sell European cars in New York. When that didn’t work, he became a waiter at Café Pacifico – “I wore tight pink pants – no underwear!”
The afternoon Tina Brown finally swung by Lotus, the place was almost done. By then, the workers had become almost genial, happily pounding and drilling between bites of Indian food. There were still problems, of course: “Con Ed keeps blowing us off,” worried Regen, “and our chef needs gas to start producing Tina’s banquet for 600. We may have to talk to catering companies.” If that weren’t enough, a couple of juices on the beverage guns had to get “nuked” because of the plumbing, the staff was getting “hosed” because their lockers weren’t ready, and everyone fretted that no railing had been put in on the staircase to the second floor, though Regen insisted a little welding would take care of that. “There might be a problem if a fat guy yanks on the wall,” the foreman admitted. “But we’ll deal with that later.” Tina, too, was happy, making plans to set up a tent outside the club to provide café seating for her guests. What to do about the noisome carcasses next door? The boys will deal with that later.