Restaurateur Richie Notar hobnobs with the rich and famous in his worldwide sushi chain Nobu, but deep down he still feels at home with his roots in Jamaica, Queens. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.
As the restaurateur in charge of the high-profile sushi chain Nobu, Richie Notar has to be alert. But one time, he let a reservation from a phony Steven Spielberg slip by.
Notar got a casting agent friend of his to check on the impostor.
"So she sits down, goes like that, comes up and she says, 'It's not him.' Damn, this guy got me. It was an imposter," says Notar. "On the way out I figured I would embarrass him a little bit. So I had all my hostesses and managers, we all applauded him and he was confused. I was like 'Best impersonation of Steven Spielberg we've ever seen!' And he kind of shuttered out the door."
Notar oversees the three Nobu restaurants in the city and the 18 locations worldwide. He knows about people doing whatever they can to get into a hot place, from one of his first jobs in fabled disco club Studio 54.
"The Fire Department used to come in and be like, 'Oh, we are just checking,' you know. In their outfits, by the way. We just thought they were part of the night," says Notar. "It's a true story. They'd come in with their axes and helmets and be like, 'Wooo!' And they were flirting at the bar, it was great."
Nobu is known for its celebrity sightings, but Notar fights the notion that it's an exclusive place. He says the best parties have a mixture of all types of people, what his one-time Studio 54 mentor Steve Rubell used to call "a tossed salad."
"Sometimes we're a victim of our own success and people won't even call, because they'll say, 'Well, you'll never get in there.' So I want to be really user-friendly, so the sushi bar is first come, first serve," says Notar.
More than a few customers come in thinking that they are the celebrities.
"The hotter the restaurant, the more sometimes people feel that they have to prove that they belong," says Notar. "So they walk up those stairs like, you know, 'I know I'm not Harvey Keitel, but I'm someone too.' I mean, really. I hire based on people that can kind of work around that, because you know people need a lot of [pats on the shoulder]."
Sometimes more than a pat on the shoulder is required, especially when someone says they made a reservation that can't be found. Notar says he grills those people.
"When did you make the reservation? Now it becomes almost like the quiz. 'Two months ago.' Wrong! Because we only take one month in advance. So that's one mark," says Notar. And I'll say, 'Well, when did you reconfirm your reservation?' 'Oh well, they said we didn't have to reconfirm it.' Wrong!"
Notar often makes the connection between his methods at Nobu and the lessons he learned long ago watching Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager at Studio 54 and then in the hotel business.
At his West Side apartment, Notar showed NY1 some handwritten notes describing famous guests' eating preferences from one night at Studio 54. Now the desires of his diners are computerized.
"Let's say you like a corner table, we have that document. So that if I'm not here, or one of my managers aren't here, I call it 'idiot-proofing the door,'" says Notar. "And automatically a new person will know where you'd like to sit."
The Nobu staff knows what you ordered last time, in all their worldwide locations.
"I wanted the waiter to go up to her when he took the order and say, "Uh, I know that you're a vegan and we could prepare a menu for you if you'd like, or since you've been dining at Nobu for so many years, perhaps you know the menu better than me," he says. "That line alone makes that person who lives in New York, who's now in London feel that we're watching over them."
As managing partner of Nobu, Notar has flown with former President Bill Clinton, played golf with former basketball star Michael Jordan and traveled to Japan with Robert De Niro.
Growing up in Queens, Notar says if someone told him "seaweed and raw fish," he would have thought, "Jones Beach."
"Can you imagine eating raw fish? I mean, it makes no sense," he says.
Back then, Notar was an Italian kid growing up in Jamaica, Queens when he landed a job as a busboy at Studio 54.
"I was in high school, and I was working at 54. So, you know, scholastically, it wasn't very interesting for me to be in geometry when I could be hearing stories with [artist] Andy Warhol and [fashion designer] Halston," says Notar.
Studio 54 co-owner Steve Rubell liked Notar, and soon the busboy was able to do all sorts of errands and hang out with the club's many celebrities.
"It says 'Truman Capote with Mick Jagger,' but that was me," says Notar, looking through a book of pictures of Studio 54.
He says it created "a double life," a nightly "in" at the city's hottest club while trying to remain true to his friends and family back in Jamaica.
"I was very concerned about that. Not being the snob, 'Oh, you're going up to 54,'" he says. "So I downplayed everything and I would hang out with them as long as I could. It was like, '12 o'clock, I got to go."
It was fun and crazy. Once, Notar used his learner's permit and one of his boss's cars to drive celebrities like Grace Jones to the club.
"You have this woman, you know, jet black, flat-top, you know, Grace! Beautiful cheekbones and the whole thing, black glasses, and me," says Notar. "So here you have a kid, looks really young to be driving this car, brand-new, her next to me, and people would walk by. They're looking and [thinking] 'What? What?' Where do I start? 'He's too young to be driving, it's a great car, it's a convertible, what's she doing next to him?'"
Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager eventually went to prison on tax evasion charges, they sold Studio 54 and suddenly it was over.
"It was like leaving a hit TV show or a Broadway play, to the point where I was kind of depressed," says Notar. "I went from that to, 'What do I do?' Hanging out with Halston or Rod Stewart and all these people, to, you know, Joey Manzuno in my neighborhood. It wasn't the same, no disrespect to Joe."
Notar took some culinary classes and worked as a chef.
When Rubell got out of prison, he and Schrager started the first boutique hotel, Morgan's, and Notar decided to stop by to say hello.
"I'm in the lobby and they go, 'Oh, he'll be right down.' He comes running down, Steve was a very hyperactive guy, goes, 'Richie, hi! Work for me!'" says Notar.
So he did, learning the boutique hotel business. But he tired of the city, moved out to the Hamptons and ran a restaurant.
One of the partners eventually came back to New York, where plans were in the works for Nobu. So Notar returned, and his success with the restaurant opened doors for him all over the world.
Just as in the Studio 54 days, there was a balance - the joy of the new experience and the understanding that a part of him will always be "Richie from Queens."
"I think I prevented myself in growing in other areas because I didn't pursue it, based on some of those reasons, that's 'out of my realm,' or you know, 'I'm a pretty humble guy,'" says Notar. "And maybe it started 30 years ago, with 'I don't want to alienate my friends.'"
What has changed for Notar is the the pull between his professional and personal lives. He's married, and he and his wife Jane have a young daughter. He says he's eating better, running marathons and not living "quite as fast as he did in the old days."
Still, the restaurant has been his home for a long time. Watching him walk around in his white blazer, greeting guests, you might think of Monsieur Rick, the Humphrey Bogart character in Casablanca.
Notar good-naturedly likens himself to another film character, Woody Allen's Leonard Zelig, a human chameleon who manages to see and be seen with the high and mighty.
"I go to the Michael Jordan golf tournament and I have a picture of me, Michael Jordan and Clinton. I'm sitting with them playing cards thinking, you know, why me?" says Notar. "But I don't question it, I just go with the flow and I guess I hope that there's a likability that helps me do what I do and makes them feel comfortable."