Above Allen, a Down-to-Earth New Lounge

Above Allen, or AA, had its soft opening on Friday — but since it’s a terrace where being outside is most important, don’t expect things to completely pop for a couple of months. The first thing that struck me was the couches with their Stephen Sprouse print. I did a triple-take and caught up to my friend Jim Walrod, the designer, and asked him about them. Med Abrous is putting this insanely downtown chic joint on the map. I know Med from the Mark Ronson days of Life, and after an hour of catching up, I asked him a few questions to clarify what’s going to happen here.

The Thompson LES Hotel looms large over the still-vibrant-in-this-recession Lower East Side with a smart, hip staff and the belief that it will be a part of the neighborhood. Embracing those values instead of being above it all seems to be the right path. There was an old movie called Dead End which starred Sylvia Sydney, Joel McCrea, a young Humphrey Bogart, and the Dead End Kids (Bernard Punsley, one of the Dead End Kids was a great-great uncle of mine). Anyway, in the movie an incredible new ivory tower looms over the Lower East Side, and all the people in the 1937 Depression-era slums look up at the swells partying like its 1924 above them. I asked Med about the similarities — was this going to be a ritzy place in a hood slipping into economic misery? But he seemed dedicated to embracing the LES and its artistic/hipster side, especially by keeping drink and food prices relatively low. Designer Jim Walrod’s use of the Stephen Sprouse fabric in the décor sends that signal. Jim said, “There was nobody more downtown than Stephen,” and we exchanged personal stories of our interactions with him. All agreed that despite his brilliance, Stephen was always accessible — and so they say, will be AA.

Jim, is this fabric really … JW:… Steven Sprouse? Yes, It’s the last fabric that exists.

This really is the original fabric? JW: Yes, they didn’t even have enough of it to finish the seats, so we reduced the amount of furniture.

So instead of just knocking it off and reprinting, this is the original. Many people still don’t know who Sprouse is, but he’s getting a lot of press now. His work is finally being recognized by huge groups of people. So Jim, what’s the design idea here? JW:The building is on the LES, and there’s nobody I can associate more with the LES than Stephen Sprouse. When I was young, Sprouse sort of stood as the icon of this part of town. When I used to go to clubs, him and Terri Toy would be sitting there, and they were almost unapproachable, until you did finally meet them, and they were the nicest people you could imagine.

Terri Toy was a transgendered friend who broke out and did YSL fashion shows before retiring to Iowa as a housewife — a great LES story. JW: Stephen was always one of those people who represented something. When rockers wanted to look like rockers, they went to Stephen. When Axl Rose wanted to look like a rocker, he went to Stephen, and Stephen designed everything for him. He was also the curator of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. So when I decided to do this room, Stephen Sprouse was very much a part of it.

So it’s not the ghost of Stephen Sprouse, it is the inspiration of his life that is teaching us how we can be. The fact that there’s a commitment to this excellence, to bring this LES icon into this new kind of environment is very important I think. JW: Absolutely, I think what we’re really trying to do here is to keep in line with the Thompson brand, which is a luxury boutique hotel brand, but not take away from the LES and what it is. Marrying the two in such a way that we still have an authentic LES vibe, while maintaining the kind of expectations of great service that the Thompson been known for.

What’s the name of this place? Med Abrous: It’s called Above Allen. So it’s AA, which is a funny name for a bar.

The views are incredible, I see the Empire State Building, the Chrysler building, and downtown, and the LES stretching before us. MA: Yeah, we’re actually hanging off the seventh floor of the building over Allen Street, and the reason for naming it Above Allen is to be consistent. We’re branding these terraces or bars as above whatever hotel they’re in. A60 is the bar on top of 60 Thompson, and the bar that I’m involved with in the Thompson Beverley Hills has an amazing roof deck called ABH, which means Above Beverly Hills. So it’s trying to incorporate this brand in different properties around the US. One of the things I think the Thompson does well is that each hotel they build is really reflective of the neighborhood. There’s always the consistency of luxury and service, but they really go out of their way to try and make it part of the neighborhood and really create something unique.

When are you opening? MA: In early March. There have been previews, like a little something for New Years’ Eve, but our strategy is not just to do a big grand opening and burn too brightly too quickly.

Well, this is a terrace, and opening a terrace is the winter is kind of strange isn’t it? MA: It is strange … there could definitely be better times to do it, but what we’re trying to do is see how the room moves, make sure the staff is well-trained and that we’re providing great service.

Some people believe that this is a recession-proof neighborhood because these kids have a way of making money — they’re young, they’re hustlers. Do you think you can you make money here? MA: I absolutely think so. What’s great about this neighborhood is that people who come down here and open something are really looking to run a marathon. They’re not looking to be the hottest club on the planet for three months then die out and struggle to keep business alive. I think people come in here with a longsighted vision, and we’re very much of that same thought. I think we’re going to have a very long life and really become a destination place so you always know that you can come to Above Allen and there will always be good people, a great setting and good design. Our goal is to meld all of those things, including great music and great vibe into a harmonious experience always.

What are your price points? MA: Our prices are actually really competitive for the neighborhood. They’re not extravagant at all, although hotels generally are more expensive than other bars. It’s about $11 for a drink, and specialty cocktails are $14, whereas more places it would be $16 or $18.

Is that because of the neighborhood, or is it the neighborhood meeting the recession? MA: I think it’s both. We don’t want to alienate ourselves from people in the neighborhood. It’s an extremely artistic, driven community, and people don’t want to just spend $15 on a drink or $10 on a beer. It’s not that crowd — we’re not trying to bring Cipriani’s to the LES.

What kind of music are you going to play? JW: We’re going to have really eclectic music. It’s not a dance club, so in choosing my DJs, I’m much more interested in track selection rather than turntablist ability. We’re not going to have A-Trak or a real turntablist cutting up. We’re in the process of programming different nights, but anywhere from soul to a lot of rock ‘n’ roll, to indie rock, since we’re on the LES.

When can my readers come here to imbibe? MA: We’re going to start off opening about three nights a week, Thursday through Saturday, just to get to operations down smoothly. It’s going to be very friends and family in the beginning. With all our Above properties, we do special membership cards. They don’t cost anything, there’s no membership fee, but if you’re special enough, you’ll receive one in the mail so you can just go right up into the elevator and you’re not dealing with a myriad of door people or security, and that’s kind of the vibe here. But we want it to be a really cool group of people — everyone who’s bringing something to the table vs. just large bank accounts — so we’re also not really planning on doing lots of bottle service up here. We just want to have really great crowds.

What’s the door policy? MA: Well, there will be a doorperson at the bottom of the elevator, and they’ll be keying people up. We’re talking about having a dedicated elevator, but since this is a brand new construction our elevators work damn well. I’m really excited about this property … I think it comes at a difficult time, but we’re all excited about this particular bar, and I think we will have a great time. We have a lot of the right pieces in place.

You’re in a hotel, so is there an amount of money that the hotel requires you to generate? Is there less pressure than a normal bar wouldn’t have to deal with to generate revenue, as the bar also services the hotel guests — do you have a certain rent to cover each month? MA: In operating any venue in a hotel, there are lots of advantages especially that in a hotel most of the revenue is generated by rooms. So, yes, there is a dedicated amount going to rent, but the pressures of being overly profitable are not the same.

Are you serving food here? MA: Yes, we’re going to have a menu with small plates from Shang until 2 a.m. through April. That’s another thing — we’re more interested in the crowd that goes out between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. We don’t want to be a place where people get here at 2 and become that late-night place.

But a place will evolve it’s own identity. If at 2 a.m. you’re packed with a good crowd, you’re not closing the door. MA: Exactly, but really what we’re aiming towards is to have an earlier place where people can come and have cocktails and maybe start their night if they’re going to have a late one — or, just be a destination, like, hey you know what? I’ve got to work tomorrow. I’m going to be done by one or two.

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