By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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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."
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.