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Nightlife Vet David Rabin on His New Restaurant and Averting Disaster

BFA_2990_324049.jpgHospitality and nightlife veteran David Rabin is a partner behind the week-old Cole's Greenwich Village, taking over the space formerly occupied by Lyon. Before his daily lunch at the Lambs Club, his swanky theater district restaurant, he talked to us about the gray hairs he got as president of the NY Nightlife Association, noisy restaurants and Manti Te'o.

I didn't even know Lyon closed.
I don't know what happened to them. A friend introduced me to Penny Bradley, who's still the owner, and I put together a little team of people [Johnny Swet, Larry Poston, Kyle Hotchkiss Carone], the same guys I brought in to do Jimmy, the rooftop lounge at the James Hotel. We work very well together.

Is it loungey?
No. It's a full-on restaurant. Our chef Daniel [Eardley] is a star. We're not playing music loud. It's a mix of old school rock, neo soul, r&b, nothing you'd ever hear in a nightclub.

So many restaurants play music too loud.
That is the 100 percent primary complaint. It's mindboggling how some restaurants think it's part of the atmosphere to have people yelling and pretending to hear as opposed to being able to have a conversation. In the main dining room at Cole's we put in a padded ceiling and covered it with fabric, very good with sound absorption. Half the success of Jimmy is that we keep the sound level pretty conversational.

I see more people not having conversations at restaurants, looking at their phones instead of talking to each other. It's sad.
It's amazing to me. I don't see it so much at Jimmy, but if you're four seats away from someone at a pounding nightclub you might as well check Twitter or your Facebook page or send a text. I hate to get too profound or philosophical but this Manti Te'o story, falling in love through the Internet? I can see it happening. At Lambs I looked at this table of four good looking guys and four good looking girls and they were all on their phones. I wanted to say, 'What are you doing?'

You're not into big nightclubs anymore?
I'm not as enamored of that as I was. It's partly generational. I don't want to work until 3 a.m. anymore. When we had Lotus it didn't start getting busy until 1:30. I like going to Lambs Club every day for lunch, seeing everybody who's there. It's very media and fashion heavy, primarily Conde Nast, HBO and Viacom people. Cole's is the evening answer for our customers. Now I have a place to point them to for dinner. I live on the Upper West Side and I'm going to all three spots every day, luckily all on the 1-2-3 line. I have a monthly pass so the MTA is making no money on me.

Restaurants are a tough business, right?
Money wasn't the driving force behind my decision to enter the hospitality business -- I hoped to make money but also wanted to change my life. I was a lawyer a long time ago, 28 years old and I hated my life. My friend Will Regan was working in finance and felt the same way. We quit and became partners. We didn't know what we were doing. At times things have been really rough and I've said, 'what was I thinking?'

Did you take a hit when the bubble burst in 2008?
Things were awful. We sold Los Dados basically at cost. It wasn't just the economy. We took Los Dados because the High Line was going to open but the project was stalled for two years. That was a very painful period, 2008 to 2010. The Lambs Club was also delayed. But that was probably a good thing because by the time we opened, in 2010, the economy was starting to come back.

You were the president of the NY Nightlife Association for a long time.
For nine gray hair-inducing years, until 2009. I would have been happy to stop earlier but finally a guy came along, Paul Seres, who was smart enough and energetic enough to sit in a room with politicians and win their respect.

You were there when the smoking ban took effect.
That was our first battle and we lost. We had no idea that would be Bloomberg's first initiative in office. I hate cigarettes, but what I tried to tell the city is we're arguing for quality of life. The ban worked in California because most nightlife places are not in residential areas, they're in strip malls. I said, 'Guys, do you understand what you're doing? At 2 a.m. there are going to be 20 or 30 people standing outside smoking and talking on their cell phones.'  What we argued for and thought was fair was that smoking could be allowed only after midnight in places that sold liquor and there would be a hospital grade filtration system. There could also be no-smoking bars, give people a choice. We predicted that quiet streets were going to have all this noise. It's why the pendulum has swung so far in favor of community boards in impacting liquor licenses.

Do you think it will ever change, that smoking after midnight could be implemented?
It's never going to change. The good thing that may come of it is that fewer and fewer people smoke. But the answer wasn't to dump them on residential streets and make the neighbors suffer.

Nightlife is always embattled.
It's an easy target. Christine Quinn and the mayor's office have done a great job of coming around to understanding how important nightlife is to New York City's economy, how it's a huge draw for tourists. Nightlife employs 20,000 people.

Was the smoking ban your biggest battle?
No. There was one nobody really knew was happening, the 'bad bar' bill. It was really a hammer to close any bar they wanted to at 1 a.m. to clamp down on noise. We do most of our business after 1 a.m. so it would have been a disaster. This is the city that never sleeps! The law had no provision for objective standards, a noise meter to measure the sound level. Any cop would have been able to walk in and say it's too loud and fine us or shut us down. The biggest players in nightlife and the restaurant industry came together in a unified voice to fight it. Restaurateurs realized what would happen if they couldn't do later seatings, especially if people couldn't go out for drinks afterwards.

What else?
Two times the city tried to ban bottle service. I'm not a huge fan as a customer but these days, when no one has a cover charge, you have to do it to stay alive financially. The days of charging $25 at the door are long gone. Everyone's on someone's list. We had to make the city council understand why it was important to put a cost on prime real estate. If you want X table you must purchase two bottles for your group.  

Do you read Yelp reviews and make adjustments?
Yes, Yelp and Open Table reviews. We try to decipher which ones are just angry people dropping hate bombs as opposed to those who have given a lot of thought to what they're saying.

When there's bad spelling it's hard to take them seriously.
Bad spelling is a credibility factor. You also can't trust someone who has only done one Yelp review. It might be the chef's girlfriend or the waiter's ex-girlfriend. I try to elicit honest feedback from my friends. We want Cole's to have a slow build, go for longevity. It's not meant to be a white hot star that burns out in a year and a half.

Photo: Neil Rasmus/BFAnyc.com

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