New York Classics: Pre-Nell’s to the Darby

Damn Monday nights. A little while ago I’d use Monday nights to get rid of the idea that the weekend was over, and the next one so far away, by promptly leaving work and tossing back copious amounts of open-bar booze at some after-work affair. This would be promptly followed by a barrage of whiskey on the rocks at Lit Lounge, until I would promptly go to bed around 5 a.m. It made me feel better about participating in the workforce. These days, I’m a bit gun-shy about pulling the trigger on a Monday night. It’s dangerous when you’ve got some real responsibility, but I still get a little antsy. So I’m home in my gym clothes, still trying to look cute for my bf, who is clearly more interested in whatever spread sheet he’s glued to. Could be work, could be some kind of fantasy football thing, could be some kind of elaborate date plan he’s mapping out. Right. I pour myself a monster glass of wine and think about the fun things I could be doing if it wasn’t 10:45 already, and I wasn’t an hour away from looking decent.

The list, just to prove how strong my willpower is these days: Eric Richman’s game night at Soho House with a bunch of swells and tarts; The Swarovski Elements 22 Ways To Say Black Charity Auction, held at Phillips de Pury & Company, my invitation to which, judging by the guests who did attend (Halle Berry, Sofia Vergara, Julianna Margulies), I’m quite certain was a mistake in the first place; Women: Inspiration and Enterprise cocktail party hosted by Sarah Brown, Donna Karan, and Arianna Huffington, an event I’m not sure I was actually invited to, but rather a party-crashing friend bribed his way in somehow.

Instead, I’m sitting on the couch with the aforementioned monster Rueda, reading a book set in the ’80s where all these little party girls overrun Nell’s, and I’m thinking about how every generation of partiers is basically the same. Only the sets change. I’m sort of tired of old writers talking about “the good old days” of nightlife, without actually telling me what made the old days that good, so I decided to find out myself. What was Nell’s will soon be The Darby, with owners Scott and Richie, who are about to be as famous as Steve Rubell himself. (Don’t tell any of the older writers I said that, because until there is a movie made, that statement can’t be totally true.)

Part of the fun of sitting at any bar in the city is the realization that someone sat there before you. I’m talking about a hundred years before you. One of my favorite places to sit around and contemplate this is anywhere on the Bowery, with its flea-ridden tramps and easy women. There’s the Mike Lyons Restaurant that shuttered in 1910, which brought together politicians and musicians and people from all walks of life around the Bowery’s dance-hall days, before the Bowery was punk rock alley. The space that was Nell’s must be just as rich in sordid history. So this is becomes my Monday night: replacing uncomfortable shoes and cab fare with a quick history lesson near the eve of the opening of The Darby.

Birthdate: Nell’s opened in 1986, and the 246 West 14th Street spot was run by Rocky Horror actress Nell Campbell, presiding in see-through shirts and wacky Rocky outfits, though it was actually Keith McNally and then-wife Lynn Wagenknecht, who were probably responsible for the daily grunt-work of the operation. Before it was known as Patrick Bateman’s favorite spot, it was known for transforming nightlife. It was the trend that lead A-listers and other New Yorkers away from the giant discos popular at the time. It was also known as one of those places that actually turned away celebs. In the ’90s it had a rebirth as a rapper’s haven. Biggie Smalls shot “Big Poppa” there, and Tupac was a fixture.

image Nell Campbell

Neighborhood: 14th Street between 7th and 9th Avenues was once a community that housed mostly Spanish immigrants. Across the street from Nell’s was a famous speakeasy that thrived during prohibition called the Tammany Tough Club. Next to that was the Andrew Norwood House, an esteemed mansion built in 1847, whose exterior is a designated landmark. The mansion was sold after Raf Borello, the owner of the house, died in February 2005 after lovingly maintaining the estate for 29 years. What you see now is the members-only club, Norwood. Signatures: $200 black membership key rings given out to a lucky few, shabby-chic gentleman’s club interior, peep-hole door. Famous Patrons: Calvin Klein, Bono, Warren Beatty. Vibe: From the New York Times article “Glitz, Funk, and Victoriana Enliven New York’s Discos” published in 1987: “As if emerging from a Ralph Lauren ad, many here seem to inhabit a world blending bored detachment and grand theatricality. Black taffeta regularly appears next to faded denim, and English accents – both real and fostered – abound. An artist from New Zealand, lounging on a sofa with a cigarette, mused as to why he was admitted: ‘They go for people who look like they don’t care whether they get in.'”

Post Nell’s

NA Birthdate: Noel Ashman’s baby (and for who the club was so-named) opened the Bungalow-esque NA in 2004. Damon Dash and Chris Noth were some of the high-profile investors involved. Signatures: Resident DJ Mark Ronson spun, $1,086.25 membership fee, palm fronds. Famous Patrons: Ivanka Trump, Puff Daddy, Mischa Barton.

image Noel Ashman

Plumm Birthdate: In 2006, after a nasty investor battle, Noel reopens the spot with Michael Ault, who was known for Spy Bar. It was co-owned by Chris Noth, Samantha Ronson, Joey McIntyre, Damon Dash, Jesse Bradford, and Simon Rex, to name a few. Signatures: Purple, no membership fees, Lindsay Lohan, Agyness Deyn, and Joel Madden guest DJed, Tommy Hilfiger and Axl Rose got into a famous fight. Famous Patrons: See investor list. Vibe: Fashionable, purple, “My ideal mix would be an underground kid from Williamsburg, some models, a few European aristocrats, socialites, and a hip-hop mogul or two,” says Ashman.

The Darby Birthdate: Set to open, um, soon? It’s missed all of its perceived opening dates, no doubt because of the city and her licensing ways. Should be ready next month. Signatures: Butter/1Oak‘s Dream Team, Butter’s chef Alexandra Guarnaschelli Famous Patrons: So far Jay-Z threw Beyonce’s birthday party here, so there’s that. Vibe: “I want to bring back an old-fashioned sense of class from the ’50’s and ’60’s, like El Morocco, a place where you can dress up, have an amazing dinner and some music and entertainment,” Akiva told the Times.

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