Small Hours: Come one, come all — but up to a point


LOS ANGELES TIMES

May 3, 2006

By James Verini

The defining question in Los Angeles nightlife these days: Is it better to be big and inclusive or small and exclusive? Sprawling and democratic or intimate and refined? Tonight, when the first stage of the 40,000-square-foot nightlife megaplex Social Hollywood opens on Sunset, the distinction may become moot. Jeffrey Chodorow and Peter Famulari, the men behind the hubristic project, believe they can be both massive and refined. The owners of Asia de Cuba and SkyBar, the power pair on that glitzier stretch of Sunset to the west, Chodorow and Famulari intend the Social complex — even the name conjures up an idea, a desire — to change the dynamics of postmeridian L.A. in one fell swoop, not to mention revitalizing the somewhat ramshackle corner of Hollywood they’ve chosen.

Occupying the space of the old Hollywood Athletic Club, Social Hollywood contains a North African-themed restaurant, a large adjoining bar and a screening room. In the back is a 500-person ballroom and event space. (Social’s first event, a party for Paper magazine, was held in the ballroom last week.) At 25,000 square feet, the Social space can hold 1,300 people. That’s Chodorow’s domain.

Next door is Boulevard 3, Famulari’s charge, a 15,000-square-foot club capable of fitting in 900 sweaty, writhing bodies that is set to open in July. It will consist of a voluminous indoor space with a dance floor where the Athletic Club’s pool used to be, a fireplace-outfitted foyer and a huge garden outside.

That’s the inclusive side.

Then there’s the private side. Upstairs from the Social restaurant will be a members-only club. Would-be members cannot apply. They must be invited. (They won’t have to pay any annual dues.) The balcony level of Boulevard, meanwhile, will be made up of private mini-suites, outfitted with couches and plasma screens. They will be rented to a select group of “friends of the club” for about $5,000 per month.

Going big and bold

Chodorow and Famulari want — with $12.5 million already invested, “pray” might be a better word — to strike a balance between the fabulous crowd and the merely fun-loving crowd that’s just novel enough to keep both coming back.

In some ways they are swimming against the tide. With the exception of Sam Nazarian, owner of the clubs Privilege and Lobby, nightlife entrepreneurs these days are shying away from size.

“In the environment in L.A. today, large and exclusive is getting more and more difficult,” said Josh Woodward, owner of Table 8, Rokbar and the recently opened L Scorpion. “There are a dozen options with enough A-level promoters to have at least a few options on a given night. I like working with a small to moderate size venue, rather than stress over finding 500 bodies just to make my payroll.”

Many in the business open with the intention of multiplying their initial investments and then selling out as soon as possible, but with costs for Social Hollywood likely to reach $15 million by the end of construction, that simply cannot be Chodorow and Famulari’s plan. They have a 20-year lease.

No need to barhop

The place could turn into Hollywood’s one-stop shop for conspicuous nightlife consumption, negating the need for a show or a bar or a cab, or anything save a nearby parking spot. This is nightlife as theater. Nay, nightlife as life.

Or the whole thing could be a fiasco.

For one thing, the sheer volume is daunting. How do you fill a 2,200-person space? Fewer people than that attend some Clippers games. Then there is the Hollywood competition, stiff even if it is usually unimaginative. L.A.’s roving hordes are fickle. And in a club environment driven by promoters, Famulari plans to hire none.

But then again, Chodorow is one of the most consistently successful, if predictable, restaurateurs in the Western Hemisphere. His China Grill Management — named for his first big hit, China Grill, which opened in midtown Manhattan in 1986 — claims 26 establishments in New York, London and Miami, among other cities. This year, he opened Social Miami. His premise has always been that what interests people when they go out to dinner is not so much the food as the event: an awing space (the ubiquitous designer Philippe Starck is a frequent collaborator); a crowd (his dining rooms always seat several hundred); and most important, a kind of ersatz international glamour (“China,” “Asia,” “Cuba” and “Tuscan” dominate his signs).

Famulari is a disciple of Rande Gerber, the Ray Kroc of the bar business. For the last decade he has run SkyBar, the only place in L.A. that does a volume trade while maintaining a reputation for exclusivity.

For the last several months, Chodorow and Famulari have been positioning Social as Hollywood execs might set up a blockbuster premiere. They’ve sent out cute Fellini-esque online trailers hyping the spot to prospective clientele. They’ve landed pieces in Vanity Fair and Los Angeles magazine. They are assembling a list of several hundred “eclectic” VIPs who will be invited to join the members’ club and rent the balcony suites. BWR Public Relations is handling the publicity. There’s even a longer Social Hollywood promotional movie in the works.

The space is an inspired choice. In its halcyon days a gymnasium and playground for Hollywood’s golden-era male stars — John Barrymore’s corpse was allegedly brought in to the barroom for a last drink on the way to his funeral — it later became a seedy nightclub with pool tables. It’s been sitting dormant for eight years.

Figuring that aesthetics are what keep everyone, the tony and hoi polloi alike, coming back, Chodorow and Famulari have designed meticulously. Restorers have spent the last 4 1/2 months brushing away the plaster to get to the club’s original Moroccan-style ceiling. The immense wooden bar was brought piece by piece from Brooklyn. The rooms in the private club are done up in black rattan and green silk. Chodorow said he’s spent $600,000 on furniture and decor alone.

At Boulevard, Famulari is installing a reflecting pool in the garden area and putting a dozen 13-foot ficus trees on the dance floor. The doormen will be outfitted with wireless Microsoft tablets (no more messy paper lists) and the private suites with computers linked to the bar and valet booth.

Between the floor and the suites, it will be a tenuous balance of democracy and plutocracy. But he insists that everyone will feel special.

“This is going to be in the mold of Studio 54,” he said. “There’s no socioeconomic differentiation. Just different people. I don’t like this ‘You matter, you don’t’ thing that happens at clubs.”

(Famulari apparently forgot that Studio 54 was nearly impossible to get into and that the bouncers there perfected the plucking of beautiful people from the line at the door. Perhaps the fact that hotelier Ian Schrager, who started his career with 54, was Famulari’s boss for years at SkyBar clouded his memory.)

An unlikely pair

Chodorow and Famulari are as different as the spaces and their Russian-Jewish and Italian backgrounds would imply. Chodorow, 56, is a large, frenetic man who likes to tell stories about haggling for rugs and planning menus. An entrepreneur since birth, he started in real estate in his native Philadelphia, then got into restaurants. He even made a foray into the discount airline business, which landed him a two-month stint in prison on charges of obstructing a federal investigation.

Famulari, 44, came from the bottom up, tending bar in New York at clubs such as the Tunnel. Slicker than Chodorow, he is also more contemplative. In a business that thrives on impulsiveness, he’s been debating his first post-SkyBar move for years. He takes a practical view of his profession, openly discussing the ways his club could falter.

“But if I’m going to fail,” he said, “it’s got to be like ‘Ishtar.’ ”