NEW YORK — For every A-lister who dines at Nobu — Renée Zellweger, Jennifer Aniston, Beyoncé — there are dozens of C-listers trying to butter up Richard Notar for a table.
“The Gastineau girls? What do they do? Tara Reid? She parties for a living. But if you tell me you’re a brain surgeon, then you’re a VIP to me,” says Notar, general manager and managing partner of the 12 Nobu locations worldwide, plus a new one set to open at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas in December.
But it’s likely that even a brain surgeon or two here has heard a busy signal on the other end of the line when calling Nobu or the most recent outpost, Nobu 57, for a reservation. So what’s the trick to getting through? “Phone calls, patience, and I’m a big believer in frequent fliers,” Notar, 46, explains simply. “If you’ve been coming to our restaurant downtown for 10 years or I see you in London or Miami, I’m going to try to make it a lot easier for you.” So there’s no secret phone number? “If I have a relationship with you, you know how to reach me.” In other words, his cell phone is the secret number.
Notar started out in the hospitality business nearly 30 years ago, when Steve Rubell pulled him off of dish-washing duty at his restaurant Enchanted Garden and put him at the front of the house. “I like your smile, buddy,” Notar remembers him saying. When Rubell opened Studio 54, Notar became his personal assistant, driving Rubell around the city in a powder-blue Lincoln Continental and catering to the celebrities who frequented the legendary disco. “I think there was a charm in my naïveté,” says the Jamaica, Queens, native who once didn’t recognize David Bowie at the club.
Though he’s become more cognizant over the years, Notar isn’t entirely immune to the tricks people will play to get a reservation. “You take family people, good, God-loving people,” he says, “but when it comes to restaurants it’s OK to lie.” For instance, a man identifying himself as Steven Spielberg once called to request a table at Nobu in TriBeCa for 8 p.m. that same evening. “He was saying all the right things,” says Notar, who “moved heaven and earth” to accommodate the director. When the gentleman came in, Notar knew something was amiss. It wasn’t Spielberg after all. “So now I’m enraged,” Notar says. “Do I throw him out, do I call the police, what do I do to get back at this guy? He was spending a lot of money, so I thought, OK, I’m not going to make a scene, I’m just going to embarrass him. So as he’s walking out, the maître d’, two hostesses and I go like this,” he smiles and gives a golf clap. “We said, ‘Best imitation of Steven Spielberg we’ve ever seen.’ And he kind of put his head down and went out the door.”
Notar hasn’t been duped since that caper 10 years ago, but he’s been punched three times by Nobu customers (twice by women) and dealt with countless guests throwing temper tantrums for better tables. Fortunately, at Nobu there’s a simple solution to satisfy those types: Seat them next to a celebrity. “The black cod tastes better when you’re sitting next to Alec Baldwin,” he smiles.