Good Night Mr. Lewis: Lesly Bernard, Yakitori, and the Penguin Joke
Lesly Bernard (see part one of interview) and I once opened a place called Peace down on Bleecker Street. There were a few investors, and we didn’t see any money, as it was short-lived. The whole buildout cost about fifty grand. Hell — I think we painted vinyl furniture we found on the street. Walter Vee was our DJ, and he promoted a little too — and as my old pal Arthur would say, “It was a hit!” Everybody came, and in its brief run, it was the best joint in town. As I said, it didn’t last long. I think the landlord had other plans for the space, but what we did impressed him, so later on he hired me to run the new club he built in that space. It was called Life, but anyway, back to Peace. I came in late one Saturday night as I still had obligations over at the Palladium, and Walter Vee introduced me to a pretty blonde gal at the bar. He asked me to tell her my famous penguin joke, and so I did. The small crowd lost it at the punchline, and she begged me to tell it again to her boyfriend John. I agreed, and John was brought over, and I started to tell my joke, but after the second or third line I realized that John was John John Kennedy, and the pretty blonde gal was Darryl Hannah, and I became a babbling idiot.
Even a guy who hung regularly with uber-celebs was stunned by the kid I saw saluting the coffin of his father. A few weeks later I noticed the couple waiting on line with the crowd at coat check at the Palladium. I checked their coats for them (the only coats I’ve ever checked). They thanked me quietly — either they didn’t recognize me or were maybe afraid I’d tell another joke. If you see me around. ask me. and I’ll tell you the world-famous penguin joke … or not. Meanwhile, back to my interview with Lesley Bernard.
You made a transition. You were this great promoter — my right hand at Palladium. Do you consider yourself a promoter now? I call myself a producer.
And you decided to get into restaurants. Was it an age thing? I decided I didn’t want to promote anymore. I was tired; it was a combination of that and the lack of creativity that I could put into it.
Thursday is my favorite night, and you’ve always had a lot of success with that night. What does Thursday mean? Why Thursday? Actually, in those days I was doing a party almost every night, but Thursday was the anchor. On Thursday night in those days, people went out; people went out every night of the week, but Thursday was the hottest night because anyone who was worth their salt was probably doing something entrepreneurial. In those days, the guys that filled the clubs were the artists, writers, and photographers; it wasn’t the yuppies that clubs are full of now. So on Friday they weren’t working. You were your own boss; nobody was looking over your shoulder, so Friday if you went in hungover, who gave a shit?
So one day you woke up and nightclubs weren’t filling you anymore, so you decided to be a restaurateur? I didn’t know what I was going to do.
So how you became a restaurateur? I stopped doing promotions and nightclubs, which was my second life. My first life had been finance, after I graduated from Georgetown, then I did the whole promotions thing. After awhile, I realized that I didn’t want to promote anymore, and I didn’t want to go back to banking, so I lived in San Francisco for awhile until I got a call from one of my idols, Keith McNally. He said, “Hey Lesly, I’m opening up a couple of places and I’d love for you to come back and do them for me.” So I came back, and he had just signed the lease for Pravda, and he was thinking about signing the lease on Balthazar.
You made Pravda hot. Yeah, Pravda’s still running, and Clementine ran for seven years. The places that I do stick around, they don’t disappear. Clementine was sort of a knee-jerk reaction to all the French bistros; there’s more French bistros here than in all of Paris. As a Haitian guy I love Americana — it’s so sexy to me — so Clementine was my homage to Americana. This is what I love now, maybe because I’m older, but sometimes I don’t want to be in a restaurant — most of my place are not restaurants, they are places with great food, great service, great ambiance, but they’re not restaurants.
So your work with Keith led you to open your own places? Yes, I came back and worked with Keith, and he’s a genius. I can talk to him for ten minutes on the phone, and I’m going to learn something for nine of those minutes. When he’s snoring, I’m taking notes! I learned so much from him, and after I worked with him, I decided that I could do this — I couldn’t do Keith, but I could do Lesly Bernard. So now I have Tillman’s and Mr. Jones, and I’m opening up three more places in New York. The Village Tart will open in about four weeks on Mulberry, and it’s going to be an adult desert café lounge: frozen yogurt, gelatos, great savory tarts, and other deserts. Then Premier Brunch will be on First Avenue later on.
Tell me about Tillman’s. Tillman’s is a sort of slice as Harlem; it’s my love of Americana, and what’s more American than Harlem or jazz? What I love about the Black-American culture is the richness and the soul. Its sort of gotten usurped by the T.I.’s and that whole crowd, but there’s so much more to it. I wanted to build this soulful little piece of Harlem, and as a result, when you come to Tillman’s, you’re going to see a crowd that you don’t see in New York anymore; a real mix. Even on Mondays, I have cool, funky, live music playing.
I have this theory that places don’t get tired; I think that the energies of the people who run them get tired. I think that a place can run forever. The new guys, they don’t know what work is. They think work is to surround themselves with girls and sit at a table. You will never catch me doing that. You’ll never catch me in my restaurant sitting down. I’m always working, and I tell this to my staff also — it’s a service industry, whether it’s a nightclub or a restaurant. They’re the waiters, but I’m the headwaiter. I’m there to cater to my clientele, so you’ll never see me sitting down with a bottle like a big shot. I have to make sure that my guests are taken care of … I’m just a glorified waiter, and that’s what’s lost in our industry now. Take bottle service for example — the one thing wrong with bottle service is that there’s no service. They slap the thing down, and then they walk away.
The not-so-great model drops the bottle, and that’s called service. And then they want 20 percent tip!
So I’m having dinner with you here at Mr. Jones, and I love the food. Can you explain what it is? I’m proud of this place. The funny thing is that in Japan, yakitori is very commonplace; it’s on every street corner; but in New York, most people only know sushi. In Japan, yakitori is street food, and I fell in love with it. The thing about yakitori is that the Japanese love their cocktails, so it’s basically drinking food. They have these light portions so they can drink more.
And you have two of the best bartenders in the city. They’re the sickest guys in New York. When I built Pravda with Keith, originally it was going to be a vodka bar, but I pushed for this cocktail thing. At the time, in downtown New York, in any club you went to, the fight was whether you were going to have an Absolut and tonic or a Stoli and tonic. That’s what people drank, but I thought we needed something softer, more feminine, because I was always more about the ladies. So I started doing cocktails at Pravda with Keith, and when I opened up Clemetine I created a whole other slew of cocktails: sidecars, mojitos etc. I sort of made mojito a word in Manhattan. If you look at old articles about Clementine, they would say, “They served this Cuban drink called mojito.” Pravda and Clementine spearheaded the whole downtown cocktail culture.