There are two eras in modern New York City dining and nightlife — BC (before crisis), and AC (after crisis).
The “crisis”, naturally, refers to the financial crisis. The one that sucked money and life from the city just as it did the entire world.
Before the crisis, Wall Street enjoyed itself brashly and boldly, unapologetically spending more on a bottle of liquor than a layman might spend on a month’s rent. This was normal. So were lavish dinners at loud restaurants with 20-foot Buddha statues in the center. It was all normal.
But now it’s not.
In the after crisis era, Wall Street has become more conscious of how it is viewed by the outside world. After-crisis era dinners are quieter. There is less flash, less performance, less bottle service, less everything.
That isn’t to say that Wall Street no longer entertains luxuriously. It’s just that the type of luxury has changed.
In the era of relative understatement, one group of restaurants co-owned by a celebrity chef and former master of the universe has become to go-to for Wall Street’s elite: Altamarea Group.
On any given day for lunch or dinner at Altamarea’s flagship Italian restaurant on Central Park South, Marea, hedge fund billionaire Dan Loeb will entertain guests in the private room.
Pershing Square’s Bill Ackman will avoid billionaire frenemy Carl Icahn of Icahn Associates. Film and music industry mogul David Geffen will have his corner table.
There will be deal closings, and client meetings, and birthday celebrations. There will be Goldman Sachs’ COO Gary Cohn and CEO Lloyd Blankfein.
None of it will appear in the New York Post’s gossip column.
This arrangement was put together, in part, by a man who walked away from Wall Street just before it was brought to its knees.
Ahmass Fakahany was the president of Merrill Lynch until February of 2007, just before the world was about to implode. He, along with chef Michael White, own all of Altamarea Group — a rare situation in an industry where dozens of investors can own slivers of this place and that.
They started it right when everything was burning down too. Marea opened in 2009.
“I thought, you do something clean and honest and not too pretentious and it will work,” Fakahany told Business Insider over lunch at another Altamarea property, Ai Fiore in the Langham Hotel.
It was, he said, “a gut-wrenching” gamble, he said.
“It was a bet on New Yorkers.”
This fall, Fakahany and White will take on their biggest bet yet.
They’re opening their biggest restaurant yet, Vaucluse, on Friday August 28 in the Upper East Side space once occupied by Park Avenue Summer (or Winter, or Fall, or Spring).
It is the first opening of New York City’s busy fall restaurant opening season, and it has set the city’s restaurant scene abuzz.
Here’s why: If you’ve never heard of Park Avenue, you should know that it was largely dependent on excellent theatre.
Every season the menu, interior and exterior of what came to be something of an iconic restaurant would change. It was an expensive, high drama concept from a bygone (BC) era.
What Fakahany and White are creating in the space promises to be something very different. It that reflects New York’s after-crisis period of elegant, simple dining with special attention on each and every client.
Ahmass Fakahany was born in Egypt, raised in London and Switzerland, and worked at Merrill Lynch offices all over the world. Throughout that time, though, he always wanted to be in the hospitality business. He never shook that.
Fakahany was the man who started the Merrill Lynch wine collection. He was the one who set the standard for entertaining and dining and drinking at the bank’s board meetings and client dinners. This is an important role. On Wall Street, cues about everything — dressing, dining, even speaking — are given from on-high.
Fakahany met his soon-to-be business partner Chef Michael White over a decade ago at Fiamma, a Soho restaurant inside a three story townhouse that is now occupied by Altamarea’s steakhouse, Costata.
During the BC era, Wall Street banks and hedge funds would entertain clients in the private room on the third floor. It is there that Fakahany realised Michael White was the kind of man he wanted to go into business with.
“He is a business junky, he just wanted to know about the markets,” Fakahany said of White.
So when White said he wanted to start a restaurant in New Jersey, and that he had collected a group of investors to make his dream a reality, Fakahany said he would contribute on the condition that White return the money he had raised. Fakahany didn’t want partners.
And after a while, he didn’t want to be a master of the universe either.
“You’re never bored on Wall Street, but when you make it to the very top you become everyone’s therapist,” Fakahany said.
During the tumultuous time before the crisis, Fakahany was known for being a sounding board — the kind of person who got along with everyone. He had always been a mentor to junior bankers, and what was about to happen to Wall Street was enough to make everyone feel small.
So he left.
Costata’s 44 oz Tomahawk Ribeye
Altamarea Group now includes 16 restaurants across the world. Some are high-end like Costata, the sumptuous steakhouse in the heart of one of New York City’s most glamourous neighbourhoods. Others are casual, like Niccoletta, a spot for jeans and pizza and a mid-priced glass of red wine.
For the most part, the people who make up Altamarea Group are young. Arthur Li, the group’s CFO, is a recovering Wall Streeter in his early 30s. He was at JP Morgan when it bought Bear Sterns .
“It was just blood shed everywhere,” he said.
Then he took a job at private equity firm Wasserstein & Co. None of it ever made him totally happy. So in 2011 he took a 70% pay cut to join Altamarea a year after reading a story about the group.
It was Fakahany’s journey in to the hospitality business that caught his eye.
“My struggle before I read the article was that no one would understand why I would leave my cushy private equity job for a small restaurant group.
“I thought: ‘This guy is just like me.'”
It’s likely that Fakahany thought the same thing. After Li submitted his resume and cover letter, Fakahany called him personally. After several interview rounds Li got the job in the fall of 2010, but Fakahany wouldn’t let him take it until he got his bonus from Wasserstein.
Fakahany was, after all, about to start Li as a bookkeeper at Ristoranti Morini in downtown Manhattan.
“I was making less than I made when I graduated from college,” Li said.
But it was worth it. What Fakahany promised Li — and what he promises his young staff in general — is that Altamarea will be run like an organised, professional business.
Staff are given performance bonuses, reports are turned in to Wells Fargo — the group’s sole bank — clean and on time. This is rare in the restaurant industry, where egos are big and budgeting is sometimes an after-thought.
“The James Gorman’s, Jamie Dimon’s… he’s like all these titans in finance,” Li said of Fakahany, “but he’s so entrepreneurial and laid back.”
Fakahany emphasises what he calls the “back of house” — the number-crunchers and model-makers who precisely calculate the cost of every luxury his restaurants may have.
If that sounds Wall Street, it’s because it is. Recession be damned. Altamarea has grown its annual revenue from $US3 million to over $US50 million since 2008.
Li is proud that his boss may ask him: “How do we maximise our valuation?”
He’s proud of how well Altamarea took advantage of the bottoming out of New York’s real estate during the crisis.
And if you talk to him, he still sounds a bit like a Wall Streeter.
“We like animals,” Li said of himself and Fakahany. “We like people who are relentless, but into the vision.”
It was Fakahany and White’s vision that drew Wall Street to Marea quickly after its opening. Early diners included investors and bankers like Lyor Cohen, Noam Gottesman, and David Solomon. They went for three things — killer Italian food, excellent service, and discretion.
“Keeping ahead of scandals is very important,” said Rocky Cirino, a “senior leader” at Altamarea Group. That title means he is a manager of managers, and he’s been with Altamarea since 2008.
Cirino is perfectly suited for the Altamarea vision. He is well-read and hard to read. He describes himself as a politician in a different kind of blood sport. The perfect man to keep a secret or deftly and quietly de-escalate a scene.
Clients having sex in the bathroom — he has seen it. Smoking marijuana — he has seen it. A Marea client somehow producing a dildo and throwing it across a room. He has seen that too.
“They can disrespect me, but it’s really about how they treat my staff,” said Cirino.
And of course, the kind of ruckus they make in the dining room matters too.
We we had to ask if the dildo-thrower was asked to leave Marea.
“No,” Cirino said. “They were in a private room.”
Their biggest joint yet
Vaucluse is a bit of a deviation from the norm. It is the remodel of an iconic NYC restaurant house in the biggest space Altamarea has taken on yet.
Li admits that he’s feeling the pressure. Instead of White’s famous Italian fare, the menu is French. Wall Street regulars are waiting expectantly.
“Well, he’s certainly mastered Italian, so I’m anxious to see what Michael can do with French cuisine,” said Jim Chanos, founder of short-biased hedge fund Kynikos Associates.
“Besides, it’s on the Upper East Side, where I live, so I’m guessing there will be an ‘Early-Bird Special.’ “
Chanos has known White since the Fiamma days. He was another one of the guys having dinner on the third floor.
Those less familiar with White and Altamarea Group have high expectations as well. The Vaucluse space is very different from its previous iteration. The colours are simpler, and the space seems more open. Neighbourhood residents have already started poking their heads in to see what changes have been made
“I think people are going to be shocked when they walk in,” said Jonna Gerlich, head of client events at Altamarea.
“They’re going to be looking for things that aren’t there.”
On Wednesday an elderly couple, casually but elegantly dressed, opened the Vaucluse door and stepped in to check out the menu. There they found Cirino, overseeing the finishing touches on the interior and preparing for a private dinner that evening.
“I’m in the neighbourhood,” said the woman.
He name was Helen and said Park Avenue had been tired and that it was time for a change. She liked the colour scheme and assured Cirino that Vaucluse would be excellent as her fedora-wearing husband exchanged his sunglasses for reading glasses to check out the menu.
“We hope to be excellent,” Cirino responded.
He had to be understated about it. Very on-vision.
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