Maintaining a successful venue in New York City amidst economic hardships and cranky neighbors is a challenge that can only be averted by following a strict business strategy. “I hire hot chicks with sandwich boards,” said Rob Shamlian, managing partner of four prosperous nightspots—Los Feliz, Fat Baby, Mason Dixon and Spitzer’s Corner—all located within the same hip couple of blocks on the Lower East Side.
Jokes aside, it’s still a wonder that Shamlian, trained in fashion photography, was able to put down his camera and easily pick up the rough NYC nightlife game as if he were picking up a shiny penny, heads up off the sidewalk. His brother, Will Shamlian (the LA restaurateur behind Library Bar), helped to pave the way for a smooth transition to nightlife; but it’s no doubt that Rob’s eye for style behind the lens (paired with a prime sense for choosing a location) made conquering Lower East Side nightlife a seemingly effortless feat.
“I think one’s background always plays into the way one sees things,” said Rob. “Photography specifically is a good springboard for anything design-oriented because it forces you to keep an eye on detail.”
Detail is the main draw at each of Rob’s venues—from the cavernous DJ booth and antique mirrors lining the lower level of Los Feliz, to the cinnamon whipped cream atop the pear-and-walnut-stuffed French toast at Spitzer’s Corner. Every aspect of Rob’s four venues fits snugly into the whole, without looking forced, as if each of their landscapes could have been dreamt up while Rob was taking a nap. Even with his first nightlife venture, a Manhattan bar by the name of Darkroom, back in 2004, Rob could tell that his natural sense for designing venues and catering to what the party people want was a natural ability.
“I really had no idea at that time how closely [photography and nightlife] were related and how prepared I was even though I was a total novice,” said Rob. “I only had one chance and I was hell-bent to not mess it up. I’m very grateful it actually worked out!”
Only months after Darkroom’s opening, Rob took the “go big or go home” mantra to heart, setting out to open a total of five venues (including Darkroom) within five years. Fat Baby was born along with Spitzer’s Corner, Mason Dixon and Los Feliz, all which have become nightlife staples of their own sort, linked by the ultra-cool LES vibe that Rob has grown to embrace and know inside and out.
“I spend about one hour a week out of the Lower East Side so you do the math on how much time I spend in it,” said Rob. “Your clientele becomes blatantly obvious and it makes it that much easier to cater to them.”
Catering to the music-lovers who want a little more than a bar and a little less than a club is Fat Baby. The tri-level bar boasting a bar, a lounge, and a live music venue is decorated in a grungy-glam fashion with minimal lighting, sexy velvet wallpaper, and black leather banquettes—upscale rock ‘n roll and fitting for music-lovers in the LES.
For the beer drinkers, the noshers, and the nine-to-fivers looking for a casual and comfortable spot to people watch and chat during happy hour, there’s Spitzer’s Corner. With a list of 80 international and craft beers and long wooden picnic tables spanning the width of the space, it feels almost like a beer garden set inside of an industrial-looking space. It makes sense, since Spitzer’s Dress Shop occupied the gastro-pub’s location on Ludlow and Rivington for 50 years before it became a bar. (Rob named the bar after owner Ziggy Spitzer).
Catering to the southern bourbon-drinkin’ cowboys is Mason Dixon—a bar boasting one of the two only mechanical bulls in New York City. If you go to Fat Baby for music, and Spitzer’s Corner for happy hour, then Mason Dixon is the place to get DRUNK (and with more than 70 makes of bourbon on hand, that shouldn’t be too difficult). Wooden benches, wooden tables, and light fixtures made out of deer antlers and wagon wheels get a fun southern vibe running for Mason Dixon, pulling the reins before it feels dirty or divey.
And finally, there’s Los Feliz. With three different levels—the Taqueria, the Cobble Room, and the Lounge—there’s a little something for everyone. While the pink-coated, vintage-looking lounge can provide a caché space for a Saturday night drink, the Taqueria can cater to the brunchers and the Cobble Room to the romantic dinner-daters… as long as everyone visiting this venue has a palette for tequila. With over 150 different makes, Los Feliz has bragging rights over the most impressive tequila list in New York City.
Rob’s four venues are well crafted, well executed and located in a prime area for nightlife, but in New York City, that’s a given in order to survive. At a time when people are cutting corners and spending less, it takes more than a cool venue and hot waitresses to keep a venue in the limelight.
“The economy makes it a bit more challenging. Everything has to be a bit tighter—better staff, costs in line, more PR, etc.,” said Rob. “I think it’s not any one thing, it’s just making sure you run leaner and keep a closer eye on what people want.”
With four established venues that have all done well, New Yorkers want what they always want: something new. Rob is opening a place in Williamsburg and said he would be “down for Vegas” although two kids and a name for himself in the states is enough to prevent him from venturing overseas. For the time being we will just have to revisit Rob’s four LES staples, revel in the careful design of each of these spaces, and wait for the Monopoly Man to put another piece on the board.
Photos (from top to bottom): Spitzer's Corner, Los Feliz, Fat Baby. Header Image: Mason Dixon.