Drew Nieporent May Be the Last Old-School Restaurateur Standing

He never hired a public relations firm, preferring personal contact. He remains the best resource for those who know him, have his phone number and need a last-minute reservation at any restaurant in town.

“If you’re a friend of Drew, you get in any door,” said the comedian and actor Paul Reiser, who took a photography class with Mr. Nieporent at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. “The whole point of getting famous is to hope for a good table, but you can end that heartache with a shortcut, just by knowing Drew. I once wanted to go to Rubicon in San Francisco while he was in Japan. He got me in. He’s hospitable from 5,000 miles away.”

Wherever Mr. Nieporent (NEE-pour-rent) appears — and he seems to be everywhere — he is a commanding figure, never content to hover in the background. He lights up a room like a bottle rocket on a birthday cake. He greets everyone he knows (and he knows everyone) in a voice that booms like a bugle call at sunrise or a ram’s horn on the Jewish High Holy Days.

“Taking care of people separates him,” said Marty Shapiro, a Myriad partner. “Others feel that way, but it’s in his soul.”

As everyone knows, attention from Mr. Nieporent can come at a price. “He will say anything that comes to mind,” his daughter, Gabrielle, pointed out. “He has no filter.”

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Mr. Nieporent overseeing his staff at Nobu in downtown Manhattan.

Credit
Cole Wilson for The New York Times

He does it for love of a punch line, and perhaps from a certain cantankerousness that comes from knowing that what he set out to become — the Manhattan restaurateur as arbiter of everything culinary — has diminished drastically with the rise of the superstar chef.

“He loves to tell you to your face what he thought of your cooking,” said Eric Ripert, the chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin. “Mostly, it’s a compliment. He once said to me: ‘You’re the best seafood chef on the planet. Do you remember 30 years ago when you were at a charity event in New Jersey and you burned the tuna?’”

Growing Up, Eating Out

He was always going to become a restaurateur, even before he knew what the word meant. Mr. Reiser wrote in Mr. Nieporent’s high school yearbook, “Good luck with your restaurant.” As Mr. Reiser explained recently, “He was the only guy our age who knew exactly what he wanted to be when he was 17 or 18.”

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Mr. Nieporent with his father, Andrew Nieporent, in 1967 at St. George’s camp in Saugerties, N.Y.

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Nieporent Family Photo

Mr. Nieporent’s father, who worked for the New York State Liquor Authority, received limitless invitations to dine on the house from owners hoping for an easy passage through bureaucratic channels. Such questionable largess was less scrutinized back then, although Mr. Nieporent recalls that Irwin Dubrow of Dubrow’s Cafeteria in the garment district — a restaurant he loved — would tape a $20 bill under the toilet for the health inspector, “until the wrong inspector showed up and blew the whistle.”

Mr. Nieporent said he remembers every restaurant he visited and everything he learned.

His mother taught him (wrongly, he points out) to twirl spaghetti with a fork, then capture it on a spoon, when the family was dining at San Marino. He was eating egg rolls and sweet-and-sour pork at China Song, next to the Ed Sullivan Theater, the night in 1964 when the Beatles first performed there. He learned the difference between Wiener schnitzel and schnitzel à la Holstein (which is about anchovies and capers) at Janssen’s. He sighs when recollecting his first chicken Kiev and the thrill of its bursting butter, at Two Guitars, a Russian nightclub in a basement on 14th Street.

“Eating out in the ’60s was for the privileged and the wealthy,” Mr. Nieporent said. “We were neither, but we were treated so well that I wanted to be a part of it. We’d sit at the table with the old-school guys who ran the restaurants. They’d ask my father, ‘What does he want to be?’ He’d say, ‘He wants to be in the restaurant business.’ They’d reply, ‘It’s getting terrible.’ They’d moan and bellyache. They were always crabby, always in a bad mood. But I would feel the aura.”

He graduated from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, and worked on the cruise ships Vistafjord and Sagafjord during summer vacations, carrying trays of food up escalators from the kitchen. “You had to know the proper names of six kinds of potatoes, all the different soups,” he said. “And if you dropped a platter, which I once did, the other waiters were pissed at you.”

After graduation, he recalled, “I worked all the La’s and the Le’s: Le Périgord, Le Regence, La Grenouille, La Reserve.” He was assistant restaurant director at Warner LeRoy’s celebrated Maxwell’s Plum and later restaurant director at Mr. LeRoy’s Tavern on the Green.

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Mr. Nieporent with a mentor, the restaurateur Joe Baum, as Mr. Baum was honored at Tavern on the Green in 1994.

Credit
Richard Lobell

Mr. Nieporent eventually caught the eye of Mr. Baum, the man he calls his idol. Mr. Baum brought him in for a job interview and remarked, not speaking of himself, “There are two people in this room, and one of them thinks he’s Jesus Christ.” They never did work together, but Mr. Nieporent loved the compliment. (Yes, he considered it that.)

He became general manager of the restaurant 24 Fifth Avenue, where he made an executive decision that would forever influence his professional life: He hired Leslie Revsin, an exceptional but difficult chef. Mr. Nieporent always sought talent, ignoring the potential for anxiety. Decades later he would hire the gifted, mercurial Paul Liebrandt as chef at Corton, which received two stars from Michelin and three from The New York Times but brought Mr. Nieporent no peace.

“I wanted roast chicken on the menu,” Mr. Nieporent recalled. “He experimented. After a week, he brought me roast chicken ice cream.”

Mr. Nieporent’s signature squabble occurred not long after he left 24 Fifth Avenue to open Montrachet in TriBeCa, where only one restaurant thrived at the time, Mr. McNally’s Odeon. Mr. Nieporent and his partners hired David Bouley, then an unknown chef working in San Francisco. It would become the most memorable move of Mr. Nieporent’s career, but by no means the most triumphant.

‘A Risky Venture’

The year was 1985, and TriBeCa was unfamiliar territory for many New Yorkers. So, too, was the notion of the celebrity chef. The food world was just learning about Jonathan Waxman, Larry Forgione and Wolfgang Puck.

“Back then, the chef was anonymous unless he had named the restaurant for himself,” Mr. Nieporent said. “Today, chefs are all Clint Eastwoods. They consider themselves directors/restaurateurs. They don’t want to take direction from people like me.”

Montrachet eliminated stuffiness and initiated casual elegance. “We didn’t need the bowing and the tuxedos,” he said. The location below Canal Street was considered so remote by some diners that Mr. Nieporent recalled “having to run out of the restaurant and up to Broadway to find customers when they got lost.” And while he is known these days for his girth, he could really run back then, having completed the New York City Marathon in 1983.

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