Downtown hospitality entrepreneur, Matthew Levine, has, in a very short time, solidified himself as a major player in the Lower East Side nightlife scene. As the owner of The Eldridge, he took marketing tactics to the next level, making it a point to open over Fashion Week and close during summer weekend months, which created endless chatter around his diminutive spot ($29 drinks and all). He then ventured over a few blocks to help revamp THOR by throwing penthouse parties in the boutique hotel before opening up a club, Georgica, in the Hamptons. Earlier this year Levine sold The Eldridge to open his latest venture, Sons of Essex, which has already become a staple spot for the likes of Padma Lakshmi and the cast of Twilight. We spoke with the restaurateur about what it's like to work in such a fickle industry, how important it is to be part of the New York Fashion Week conversation, and more.
The Fashion Spot: Did running a nightclub/lounge prepare you for the challenges of running a restaurant or is it a completely different beast?
Matthew Levine: There are many more moving parts with a restaurant; you are continuously balancing many more factors that affect the guest experience.
tFS: How did you decide on the style of food? One would think that a spot with a good chunk of its menu dedicated to grilled cheese and mac & cheese wouldn't be a popular choice among those in the fashion industry, but yours is…are media people secretly carb addicts!?
ML: Although we do have a selection of grilled cheeses and mac & cheeses, our menu has something for everybody. We decided to create a menu that truly represented the culture and history of the Lower East Side. Our menu is a melting pot of traditional American comfort food, pulling from the cultures and spices of immigrants that have gentrified the Lower East Side throughout the years.
tFS: Can you talk about how the challenges of running a spot in NYC are different/the same from the Hamptons?
ML: Aside from the seasonality of the Hamptons, running a restaurant has the same challenge regardless of its location: balancing and controlling your bottom line. At the end of the day, it isn't about being "hot"… it's about being consistent and watching your expenses and overhead.
tFS: How important is it for a restaurant/club to be part of the NYFW conversation?
ML: It's humbling for any restaurant to be a part of not only the NYFW conversation, but any conversation, from Tompkins Square Park to Lincoln Center.
tFS: At one point you owned a high end men's clothing line, Steelo, so what are your dressing tips for men and women looking to impress when they're going out in Manhattan?
ML: Wow, you did your research, that was a past life! My dressing tips for men and women, just be confident and creative, showcase your personality through your style.
tFS: What do you wear when you go out?
ML: I keep it simple…always matching my flannel or plaids to my air force ones…
tFS: What are some of your favorite places to shop in NYC?
ML: Assembly, Paul Smith, Prohibit, and Reed Space.
tFS: What are some of your favorite dining spots in NYC?
ML: Essex Street Market, Hester Street Fair (summertime), anything and everything Lower East Side.
tFS: The Eldridge received as much praise as it did flack for its stringent door policy. Have you been making an effort to be more inclusive with Sons of Essex?
ML: The Eldridge was intimate, we had no choice, with Sons of Essex, we are a restaurant, all about feeding the neighborhood, the Lower East Side.
tFS: Is there a marked difference if you were to go to one of the city's hot spots during NYFW vs. any other week?
ML: I just think under NYFW there is a spotlight on certain restaurants, which helps introduce you to a clientele you may have not have been exposed to otherwise… but while it's great to embrace Fashion Week, it will come and go while your address stays the same, so it's important to plan past it as well.
tFS: Your spots have had sizeable celebrity following — any secrets for making that happen?
ML: Celebrities, at the end of the day, are human… they just happen to be under a microscope in the public eye. Like you and I, they just want to dine and hang out with their friends, family, and loved ones. It's important not to highlight the fact that they are "celebrity," just let them feel comfortable and treat them as any other guest or regular.
tFS: What are some of the key factors that have helped your spots attract influential fashion types? Is it more about the decor? The food? Getting a celebrity?
ML: We live in a social media world where information travels fast and experiences are lived and re-lived quickly. You are only as good as your last meal served, so it's important to always keep the customer service and quality of product consistent. I think the more engaged we are with our guests, the more exposure we get naturally. The atmosphere, the customer service, the decor, and most importantly the food, are all key factors to gaining a customer base… regardless of their influence.
tFS: Any tips for someone with zero connections to make it into one of the city's hotspots?
ML: I think everyone defines "hotspots" differently; just be yourself! Whether it’s at the dive bar on the corner, or velvet roped spot down the block, be confident, be yourself. At the end of the day, you are drawn to places that you feel comfortable at, so there shouldn’t be pressure to be somewhere that makes you feel out of place.