Kings of Clubs

The coke-drenched era of nightclubs is over, but now a new group of entrepreneurs is ready to reinvent the scene

Simon insists he isn't interested in building true nightclubs. Instead, his aim is to create "residential lounges," places where people can congregate after dinner, preferably one purchased in one of his restaurants. Sense was originally designed to serve as a digestive respite for his yet-to-open restaurant Hibiscus, a spot that will showcase the work of his chef Nick Badovinus and whose guests will automatically be admitted to Sense. This symbiosis is replicated with Candle Room, his new private club just off Henderson geared for the 21- to 35-year-old denizens channeled from Cuba Libre.

This low-key club concept is not lost on other operators, whether they came upon the idea concurrently with Simon or were inspired by it. Nikita in the West Village incorporates some of the elements of Sense, as does Umlaut, The Sellar, Black's Blue with its various VIP levels and the loungey bars in restaurants such as Dragonfly, Drálion, Paris Vendome and Samba Room. But none has unraveled the essential elements that make this concept tick with Simon's precision.

"Privacy is a necessary commitment," Simon insists. "I'm not interested in doing stand-alone bar work that isn't private, because you can't control your clientele. In the bar business the customer is your product. Everything else--the music, the décor, the drinks themselves--are just a backdrop to the customer as product. I want to control my product."

Blue will be a flurry of adult distractions including belly dancers, VIP lounges, aerialists, a huge dance floor and a restaurant; below, club denizens plead to get past the doorman at the Starck Club, a 1980s den of sex and drugs.
Mark Graham
Blue will be a flurry of adult distractions including belly dancers, VIP lounges, aerialists, a huge dance floor and a restaurant; below, club denizens plead to get past the doorman at the Starck Club, a 1980s den of sex and drugs.
"People had drugs and people were attractive and people had martinis and nobody slowed down," howls '80s club mogul Shannon Wynne, top. Now, says Wynne's one-time partner Matthew Mabel, below, clubs are run by geeks in lab coats.
Mark Graham
"People had drugs and people were attractive and people had martinis and nobody slowed down," howls '80s club mogul Shannon Wynne, top. Now, says Wynne's one-time partner Matthew Mabel, below, clubs are run by geeks in lab coats.

But already there are operators who believe they have spotted weak points in Simon's game plan. Sense, they say, is generating pockets of dissatisfied demand itself by wearying patrons with its $10 martinis and $12 glasses of chardonnay as well as creating discomfort levels by functioning as little more than a twentysomething pick-up joint for the middle-aged and well-heeled. Those are the discontented crowds Nick & Sam's managing partner Joe Palladino is hoping to exploit. Inspired by the success of Sense, Palladino, along with Nick & Sam's founder Phil Romano, is developing an upscale and private 4,000-square-foot nightclub. To feed the club, slated to open by September and tentatively called Opus Lounge, Palladino will generate a VIP list nightly from those who dine at Nick & Sam's in addition to a permanent list of Nick & Sam's regulars. He plans to shuttle them the few blocks to the club from Nick & Sam's via a standing fleet of limos. "I have four years of a high-end clientele here," the former New York City cop and Las Vegas restaurant operator boasts. "I want to make it an institution. I want to start creating my own personal niche in this city...I want people who live in the city, people who fly into the city, to say, 'You know what? I have to get into Opus Lounge.'"

Opus will have a dramatic entrance with an elevator that lifts patrons up and spills them into the middle of the club brimming with velvet draperies, wood appointments, cold seafood platters, a half moon bar and something Sense and other lounges in town don't offer: a dance floor.

Romano says he wants Opus to be an after-dinner respite that is couple-friendly, a place where a guest can feel comfortable bringing a date or spouse. "Sense is a meat market," Romano says. "Why would I take a date into Sense? It's like taking a ham sandwich to a banquet."

But such operator me-tooism only confirms for some the status of Simon as club innovator. "The Tristanization of Dallas is not dissimilar from the Shannonization of Dallas," says Wynne, drawing a comparison to the club boom he spearheaded in the '80s.

In one respect the comparison exposes more incongruities than similarities. The club boom in the '80s was in many respects a mass movement of large dance halls that fed off powerful impulses, such as the throngs of all ages that would eagerly lay in wait for Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" before swarming the dance floor. Today's clubs are smaller spaces with candles, soft furniture and draperies. "The culture is focused on more refined experiences, better design, better food, better flavors, better environments, new spirits, new wines...as opposed to the great big dumb experience," Mabel observes.

"It isn't as much socializing through dance as it is socializing through hanging out," Wynne says.


While others like Palladino, Romano and Brandon Barr--who claims in published reports that his multilevel restaurant-nightclub Purgatory scheduled to open this fall will be unlike anything in Dallas--are itching to elbow into the Dallas club scene, Keith Black is preparing an exit strategy. "I want to take this to the point where I don't want to be bothered doing clubs anymore," he says, sitting at a small desk among the dust and construction litter of Blue. Black laments the club business is distracting him from his 8-year-old daughter Kindal, to whom he is fiercely devoted, friends and colleagues say. "I'm trying to morph myself into the restaurant business," he says, adding his aim is to model himself after Black-eyed Pea founder Gene Street or Shannon Wynne. Named after his daughter, Black's restaurant, attached to Blue, will serve home-style Southern cuisine in a highly stylized, refined atmosphere. "Black-eyed Pea on steroids," he says. "There won't be any demi glace or arugula." Black says he wants to bring to the masses the kind of home-style Southern fare he enjoys regularly but most white people never experience because they're too skittish to venture into the neighborhoods where the restaurants serving this authentic cuisine thrive.
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