There are a handful of restaurants in New York that are media hangouts, but Michael’s in Midtown is perhaps the king of them all. Celebrating its 25 years in Manhattan with a party at the restaurant on Wednesday night, Michael’s has played host to high-profile journalists, publishers, fashion executives, designers, gallerists, financiers and Hollywood stars.
Here, owner Michael McCarty and general manager and chief financial officer Steve Millington dish on the evolution of the power lunch and who’s who today.
WWD: How did Michael’s draw such a scene-y crowd when it first opened?
Michael McCarty: When I opened, it was 1989 — it’s exactly 25 years ago next week. I had been opened for 10 years in Santa Monica. [At the time] I knew I wanted to open a Michael’s in New York. It took me 10 years to get that [New York] address and negotiate with the former tenant who had been there. On the upside, for 10 years during the Eighties, anybody from New York who came to California ate at my Michael’s in Santa Monica. Ironically, in those days, fashion was a very big part — L.A. being L.A. and Hollywood and all the stars and everything. Fashion was a big deal out here.
For 10 years we developed a great relationship with people out here. In 1989, we opened it in New York, and it was very simple because we spoke to the 1,500 people who were my clients from New York. A lot of them were in fashion. Midtown was a weird little place, not like it is now. It was beginning to become a retail environment. That said, William Morris was on the corner, and ICM was around the corner, and CAA used the St. Regis as [its] offices at the time. It was that beautiful blend of fashion and Hollywood all wrapped into one.
WWD: How about media?
M.M.: The Eighties were an interesting time. Remember the word “synergy”? That was when the big conglomerates were being created. They owned film companies, they owned TV stations, they owned radio stations, they owned book-publishing companies, they got into the magazine business. The synergy idea was if someone wrote an article for Vanity Fair, that [article] could be turned into a TV show or a feature film. Then, the moguls wanted to own the whole thing. They wanted the empire. They wanted to control content and the distribution and the whole thing. It was a really fun time. It’s still a phenomenal time — it’s even wilder than it was then.
WWD: Why is it wilder?
M.M.: It’s been a real musical chairs in the past six years, since Lehman [Brothers] went under. That launched a crazy time.
WWD: How did it impact the restaurant world?
M.M.: A recession like that created a Brooklynization of restaurants all over the United States, like what I did 35 years ago with farm-to-table, local, regional American food. Now, it’s in every town, every state — [it] has four or five American chefs cooking their hearts out.
WWD: Who were some of the power brokers over the years at Michael’s in New York?
Steve Millington: Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, Oprah, Gayle King, Bonnie Fuller, Janice Min, Bonnie Hammer, Esther Newberg and her harpies, Cathy Black, Kate White, Joanna Coles, Susan Plagemann, Cindi Leive, Tina Brown, Anna Wintour, Jeff Bewkes, Les Moonves, David Zaslav, Dick Parsons, Vernon Jordan, Herb Allen, Barry Diller, Ron Meyer, Ron Perleman.
WWD: Whom do people turn to look at? Who has been the most impressive guest in the room?
M.M.: There are so many. This is our problem: We are so rich with people.
S.M.: Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Al Gore, Laura Bush, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Daphne Guinness, Charlie Rose, Warren Buffett, Jimmy Buffett, Christy Turlington, Petra Nemcova, Harvey Weinstein, Michael Douglas, Kirk and Ann Douglas, Jared Leto, Martin Scorsese, Hugh Jackman, Leo DiCaprio, Jimmy Iovine with Jay Z and Dr. Dre celebrating their Apple deal, James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Eric Idle, Michael Caine, Elvis Costello and Diana Krall.
WWD: Are there people who are reluctant to sit near other people? If so, who?
M.M.: We do seven drafts a day [among four or five people] of the seating, and I’m the final one [to decide]. I just go through them. A lot of that has to do with the business — so many West Coast people eat there every day. There are hundreds of those stories. Steve is the guy to ask.
S.M.: No, everyone loves each other at Michael’s.
WWD: Really, Steve? Are there any big arguments of note that you can share?
S.M.: Not really, but the reconciliation of George Stephanopoulos and Bill Clinton shortly after his presidency ended was quite a moment. It was in full view of the entire restaurant and a very public reconciliation.
WWD: Let’s go back to the seating. Where do the guests from different professions prefer to sit?
M.M.: All the media people talk about eating in the front room. The truth is, we have six industries that only eat in our garden, and that’s where they will always eat. It’s just different industries.
WWD: Who eats back there?
M.M.: All the hedge-fund guys, all the finance guys, all of the art world, the top lawyers who handle everybody’s work.
WWD: Why do you think the media people want to sit in the front? Is it vanity?
M.M.: Because it’s a traditional New York thing: The closer to the sidewalk, the more important you are, you know? We don’t even get into that. People who do not get with our program — we don’t give into that. We set the tone. The key to [our] customers’ success with us is that they are flexible.
WWD: Are you worried about other media-centric restaurants eating your market share?
M.M.: We have our own unique menu, our own unique physical place and history. Hospitality is a very big part of it. We call it a non-exclusive club. Anyone can be a regular customer, just don’t be an idiot.
WWD: Does Time Inc.’s and Condé Nast’s move downtown concern you at all?
M.M.: Not really. The mix [of clients from different industries] is the key to our success.
WWD: Talk about the importance of art in the restaurant.
S.M.: Michael’s wife, Kim, is an artist, and they have collected for over 40 years and made it a very simple rule to collect works of friends. All have become very good customers: John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Jasper Johns, David Hockney, Richard Diebenkorn, Frank Stella, Robert Graham, Helen Frankenthaler, John Cage, Kim Dingle, Laura Owens, Marina Abramovic, Vija Celmins and Dennis Hopper. Michael and Kim are actively involved in supporting MOCA, LACMA, Hammer Museum, SMMOA, MOMA, Whitney, New Museum, Guggenheim and DIA.
WWD: How does Michael’s in New York differ from Michael’s in L.A. in terms of clientele?
S.M.: Santa Monica: more Hollywood, more high tech, same high finance. New York: more media, more high fashion, same high finance.