Jimmy’s Downtown

Photo: Matthew Salacuse

Jimmy Rodriguez strides through the front door of his Harlem restaurant, Jimmy’s Uptown, a duplex with an onyx bar, soft golden light, and an R&B soundtrack. Men in crisp suits and women with ziggurats of teased hair grab at his hand, begging for attention. “Hey Jimmy, how are you, my brother?” “Hey Jimmy, I really need to talk to you.” Rodriguez brushes them off in a polite rasp. He glances at his watch, fiddles with his cell phone. “She’s late,” he says, impatiently waiting for his girlfriend to arrive. “She’ll just have to eat on the way.”

The maître d’ brings him a vodka tonic. His chef comes out of the kitchen with a tower of grilled shrimp and avocado salad. “Can I get one of these in a container to go?” Rodriguez asks. Al Sharpton is standing at the bar; a line of cars is clogging the street outside. “We gotta get moving,” Rodriguez says.

The 23-year-old he’s been dating for the past seven months has just pulled up and is waiting in the driver’s seat of his pearl-white Cadillac SUV. “She’s one year younger than me,” he says, with a mischievous grin. “Well, so what if I can’t count?”

Jimmy Rodriguez is 39 years old. He is six feet three inches tall and an imposing 230 pounds. He hooked up with Carrie (he refuses to divulge her last name, perhaps in deference to his wife, from whom he has been separated for almost a decade but never divorced) after running into her one night at the China Club. “I had met her like five different times,” he says. “She says that each time I’d see her I’d reintroduce myself.” The China Club is a favorite haunt of the athletes who cram Jimmy’s Bronx Café, the Knicks and Yankees and ballplayers from out of town who – along with local pols and Manhattan celebrities – helped turn it into that borough’s most high-profile nightspot. In the early days, the papers anointed him the Latin Toots Shor. The label is outdated – Toots, after all, had only one place. Rodriguez is building an empire.

“I don’t want to be a multi-millionaire,” he says. “I’d be happy if at the end of twenty years I’ve built maybe 50 places, am building another five every year, and have got like a million dollars in the bank.” For a high-school dropout who started off selling seafood from an ice-filled trash can under the Bronx River Parkway, his confidence is boundless. He’s preparing for the opening this month – with a party thrown by Governor Pataki to celebrate Women’s History Month – of his third space, a sleek SoHo-style bar and restaurant on 57th Street that he’s coyly dubbed Jimmy’s Downtown. “Where is downtown anyway?” he asks. “When you live in the Bronx, this is downtown.”

“I think it’s great that Jimmy’s opening in midtown,” says his friend Norma Kamali later that evening in the VIP balcony at the Apollo. “Jimmy’s like a magnet. He draws people to himself. He’s just responding to demand.” Rodriguez and Kamali have been friends ever since event planner Robert Isabell first dragged her up to the Bronx Café, an enormous complex on Fordham Road, in the early nineties. During baseball season, the three of them sit together in the best seats at Yankee Stadium.

The new place (all Jimmy’s, with no investors, he claims) is set to be as visually dramatic as his Harlem outpost; Ilan Waisbrod, the designer behind BondSt and Eugene, plans to put suede on one wall, big red roses on another, and a giant red pillar in the center of the dining room. Rodriguez says he nixed a proposal to put flat-screen TVs on the ceiling in the men’s room. “When a big game is on, nobody would ever leave the bathroom,” he says with a grin. Despite the new restaurant’s somewhat sleepy location – on a residential block on the far eastern end of 57th Street – Rodriguez is showing plenty of his signature confidence. “How many places do you go where you find Latinos, African-Americans, Caucasians, people from all over breaking bread, listening to jazz and R&B and old school and a little salsa and a little merengue and a little cha-cha-cha?” Of course some of the “people from all over” are drawn by the prospect of seeing one of Jimmy’s boldface friends in a front-room banquette: Spike Lee, Venus Williams. Even Ian Schrager, the nightlife arbiter of a different decade, has checked out the scene. “Schrager came up to the Bronx a couple of times,” says Rodriguez. “He told me, ‘You’ve done what I did in my time without the drugs.’ “

But although he surrounds himself with cops and politicians, Rodriguez’s image isn’t quite squeaky clean. Growing up in the Bronx, he got into his share of trouble – a lot of which he terms being in the wrong place at the wrong time – and even spent a week in jail. Mariscos del Caribe, the seafood restaurant he opened with his father before striking out on his own with the Bronx Café, was investigated for drug dealing. And the Bronx Café has had its problems – gunshots on the sidewalk, alleged drug dealers inside – enough to have sparked a temporary ban of the place by Major League Baseball in 1995. More trouble followed that same year, when Rodriguez hosted a reception for Fidel Castro and furious demonstrators lined the blocks around the Café.

Still, Rodriguez’s brushes with controversy have only added to his mystique; he’s at once charming and slightly sinister, Frank Sinatra with cappuccino skin. When Rodriguez swings over to the parking garage across 57th Street to grab his white Jaguar convertible, the owner throws up his hands and insists, “For you, Jimmy, no charge.” Late one Thursday night, Rodriguez and Carrie pass a glamorous mob gathered on the sidewalk outside the Mercer Hotel. “Hey, it’s the Post fashion party,” says Carrie. “Did you get an invite?” “I don’t need one,” says Rodriguez. A few minutes later, he’s shaking hands and chatting with the burly men guarding the door.

With Rodriguez, even the smallest favors aren’t easily forgotten. “Jimmy’s heavy on the issue of loyalty,” says Congressman José Serrano. “No matter how successful he is, he never forgets that he comes from the streets.”

Late afternoon, the day before the Bronx Café will celebrate its ninth anniversary, Rodriguez is in Katz’s Deli on Houston Street, wearing a dark-blue Versace suit and eating a hot pastrami sandwich. “I have so much going on, I have to be focused, to be a little bit smarter for the next couple of months,” he says. “I can’t be going to bed at five in the morning anymore.” He wipes the mustard from the side of his mouth and waves across the room, acknowledging a stout black guy in a World Series Yankees jacket – “one of the guys who rakes the field in the fifth inning.” Rodriguez pauses. “I can’t wait for the new place to open,” he says. “I’m going to target everyone and everywhere. It’s close to the U.N. – why can’t I have a couple of heads of state there once a month? Why not? It’s nice enough. I can make it happen.”

Jimmy’s Downtown