By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The scrappy and furtive Corcoran has navigated the treacherous Dallas nightlife climate of the post-'80s 12-step-condom-think-when-you-drink era since 1994, when he opened Sipango in the space that was once Shannon Wynne's Nostromo. Deriving the name from the old Turtle Creek private club Cipango whose heyday spanned the '40s, '50s and '60s (the club closed in 1986 and the building was later razed), Sipango was the precursor of the modern Dallas club incarnation, which jettisons huge dance floors and flickering lights for haute grub and sultry lounges. The restaurant-club featured Cal-Ital cuisine complete with wood-fired pizzas, live music in the bar and in 1995, added the revived Rio Room discothèque.
"The key with Sipango is a combination of very strong components: location, management, menu, live music and the willingness of Ron to change," says Brandt Wood, president of the Entertainment Collaborative, whose Jeroboam Brasserie and club Umlaut downtown capitalized early on the current lounge craze. "He has got a great finger on the pulse, and he stays with it."
Opening with some 42 limited partners, Corcoran cashed out his partners in 1997 after Wichita, Kansas-based Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon Inc. purchased half interest in the restaurant-club for $1 million. "My way is not to go head-to-head," Corcoran says, shrugging off the barrenness of his cave club. "My way is to let it blow out. We change. We look at what the future is bringing, and if a lot of people are doing what we're doing, then what we want to do is something different. I always want to stay ahead of the curve. We know how to ride the bottom."
Though Sipango has never realized the revenues it captured in its first couple of years in operation when it generated some $4 million per year, it has bounded back from the slump it slipped into during the Central Expressway construction when revenues were sliced in half. Today Sipango pulls in roughly $3 million per year, and Corcoran has some ambitious changes in the offing. Not only is he talking about buying back Lone Star's stake, he's looking to lease the restaurant to a marquee chef and focus his attention on the bar and nightclub side of the business, completely revamping The Sellar, stripping it of its exclusivity. "Sense has basically taken a lot of wind out of the VIP market," he concedes.
The current climate demands precise execution. Tristan Simon, 30, doesn't wear a lab coat, or even a sport coat. In fact, most of the time he looks like a bleary-eyed, cram-crazed dorm rat, humming not from illicit substances but from profit and loss figures, market data and heady articles from Foreign Affairs, which is stacked on his desk near the spot where he parks his feet. Even when shoulder-rubbing with the designer-thread crowd that swarms his offices and his upscale club Sense, Simon flaunts baggy jeans, rumpled shirts, disheveled blond locks and chin stubble.
Yet he almost single-handedly reinvented the highly tailored VIP nightlife in Dallas with his Henderson Avenue venue, a small members-only nightclub with a gurgling fountain, cozy cushioned privacy enclaves, gauzy curtains, travertine appointments and a restrained sound system that doesn't war with conversation. And he didn't do it by falling in love with a cool concept and crunching some numbers into submission. He did it by analyzing Dallas' cultural personality with the intensity of a psychotherapist and then scrubbing the market to expose ways to indulge its disorders.
"It's a culture of conspicuous consumption," he says dryly. "We're not competing with mountains or water sports or a particularly vibrant cultural scene...It's a money town. Fancy cars. Pretty women. Big houses. That's about what you have."
While this observation may be trite, Simon is genuinely amused with the perception--not to mention fascinated by the prospect of twisting these cultural threads to his advantage. "People use their consumption to burnish their self-image here," he says. "We are in the business of manufacturing mirrors that reflect the preferred self-image of our customers...If you flatter their self-image, you'll be successful. That's hard work because you are dealing with people who are in many cases fundamentally insecure; otherwise they wouldn't be so self-conscious, so self-aware. It's innately fickle work." Club development has never worn a crisper lab coat.
Simon says the idea for Sense surfaced while he was lounging in the bar at Bob's Steak and Chop House. It was codified in his own Henderson Avenue restaurant and bar Cuba Libre, where he noticed many 35-plus adults uncomfortably mingling with the twentysomethings after hours. "Before Sense, there simply wasn't a nightclub or lounge for older affluent people in Dallas to go to after dinner," he says. "I'm 50 years old," declares a Dallas advertising executive at Sense. "I go to most places and I feel really fucking old. It's nice to go out to a place where you can hear yourself think."