It’s a steaming afternoon in Manhattan’s meat-packing district, and the only sign of life is a waiflike woman in a baby-doll dress and Jackie O. shades, drifting like heat haze through the cobblestone streets. But come nightfall, the neighbourhood explodes into Manhattan’s epicentre of cool. This is where New York’s beautiful people party, and the rest of us come hoping to get in.
It’s not exactly, in other words, where you’d expect to find a bar soaked in Canadiana. Yet thanks to the entrepreneurial efforts of two Canadians at the centre of the New York scene, one of the draws is the Inn LW12 — where cocktails are spiked with maple syrup and poutine is the biggest seller. Set back from an open triangular area at the cross of 9th Avenue and Little West 12th Street, decked out in Algonquin artifacts and Group of Seven–style prints, this Canadian club is ready for its Manhattan close-up.
The Inn LW12 is one of the latest ventures for Jeffrey Jah and Lyman Carter, professional Manhattan scenesters and gatekeepers to the beau monde. Carter’s event promotion agency, Plug Consulting, counts fashion A-listers from Prada to Diesel as clients. His partner, Jah, has been involved in almost every Manhattan hot spot since 2000, including the storied Lotus — preferred hangout of such celebrities as Leonardo DiCaprio and Elle Macpherson — Life, and Double Seven. For those after “it” status — the elusive alchemy of cool that defines a successful night out in New York — Jah and Carter are the people to call.
A slight man with sandy hair and an intense gaze, Carter is seated at a low table on the second floor of the Inn. Across from him, Jah sprawls in an armchair, his chiselled features broken by a lazy smile. They’re talking about their restaurant, their partnership, and how they got to the heart of a celebrity-draped world most only read about in magazines.
The two officially joined forces in 2004, when Jah signed on with Carter’s event-production agency, Plug Consulting. But their collaboration actually dates back to 1995 and an event called LaChapelleLand, an extravagant half-a-million-dollar soiree at the Waldorf Astoria to launch a book by photographer David LaChapelle.
At the time, Carter had moved from Montreal to work as an event promoter for Details magazine. LaChapelle’s book launch was his first big break, and he wanted to do it right. “Jeffrey’s name was linked to all the really important event concepts. So I called him up,” Carter recalls. “We took over the hotel and created an entire cityscape in ice. It was like walking into one of David’s photographs.”
LaChapelleLand was a hit, and Carter and Jah decided to keep the party going. On and off, the two have been defining cool in the Manhattan scene for more than a decade. Most recently, during New York’s Fashion Week in September, they co-produced a party for Miuccia Prada that featured crystal disco balls in the shape of skulls, by U.K. art star Damien Hirst, and music from London-based indie-rock band the Hours. The bill for such events can run into the millions of dollars. But that’s just the price of getting noticed in the world’s most competitive city.
Carter tucks into a giant plate of pasta, and the conversation switches to Jah. For a mover and shaker in a world obsessed with image, he is surprisingly candid, offering up stories on everything from a month-long cruise he took with fashion designer Valentino, to the keep-’em-guessing management style of former boss and one-time club king Peter Gatien.
Jah hit Manhattan in 1989, after quitting high school in Toronto. “My mother was a real estate agent. I was breaking into her office and stealing the keys to warehouses in the King Street area, turning them into all-night booze cans,” he says. “I was coming to New York once a month to check out DJs.” Moving to the city seemed like the logical next step.
The first year was lean. Jah lived in Harlem, working odd jobs. “I was a bartender, a waiter, I was promoting. I’d work nights and sleep during the day,” he says. Then, in early 1990, a fashion designer Jah knew needed a creative event producer who could guarantee a launch draped with beautiful people. “I quoted them a ridiculous amount of money, and they went for it,” Jah says. “All of a sudden I was doing one or two fashion shows a week, meeting all these incredible people — Valentino, Calvin Klein.” Jah began to focus his career around the fashion industry. “And I started to date a lot of models. It had its perks,” he grins slyly.
It was a short step from producing fashion shows to running clubs. Jah started out in 1990 as a creative director at a small Manhattan spot called the Red Zone. His job? Hiring DJs, managing door policy, keeping what he calls “the flow of a party” going. He bounced between venues, spending a year at a place called Danceteria, then moving to another hot spot, Palladium, in 1993. Soon after, Peter Gatien bought Palladium, “and that’s how I ended up working for Peter.”At the time, Gatien reigned over New York nightlife. He knew a good thing when he saw it, and Jah was soon working his particular brand of magic on other venues in Gatien’s empire — Tunnel, Club U.S.A. “He was hands on, Peter, very savvy,” Jah recalls. “He’d watch every dollar spent on promotions, event spending, talent acquisition. At one point he employed 1,500 people in four venues. In Tunnel, we could fit 6,000 people, U.S.A. 4,500 people, Palladium 9,000 people, Limelight 2,800 people. It was on a different scale.” While running Tunnel, Jah claims to have introduced bottle service — in which bottles of hard liquor are delivered to a group for more than $80 a pop. “With 500 people crammed into a 2,000-square-foot space, getting to the bar took half an hour,” Jah says. This way, clubbers with cash to burn could stay put and focus on the party.
That party ended in 1996 when Michael Alig, one of Gatien’s star promoters, murdered another club kid. Then-mayor Rudy Giuliani cracked down on the club scene and in 1996 Gatien was charged with drug conspiracy (he was later acquitted). But Jah had already moved on, to the more intimate VIP-room scene at Life, another bar in the meat-packing district.
Later that year, New York restaurateurs Will Regan and David Rabin approached him with a new concept: a European-style supper club. In 2000, the partnership opened Lotus. With Jah’s star-pulling power, it quickly became legendary. Reglar clientele includes Naomi Campbell and Jennifer Lopez — even Salman Rushdie claims to have breathed its rarefied air. Jah has subsequently been involved with fifteen more clubs. He runs two venues in Brazil — “I went long on the real, and it paid off,” he says. Another club, featuring electronica-and-classic-rock-music mash-ups designed to appeal to a mixed-generation crowd, is slated to open later this fall.
So what’s Jah and Carter’s secret? To hear Carter tell it, success in this scene is about leaving nothing to chance. Every detail of a night or a venture is carefully scrutinized for its aesthetic fit: from the food, drinks and lighting, to who’s on the guest list — or rather lack thereof. (“Our doormen are trained to recognize guests,” says Carter — which, of course, makes it that much harder for everyone else to get in.)
As for Jah and Carter’s latest venture, it launched with considerable hype earlier this year, but it has endured a few knocks. Time Out New York found the food “most noteworthy for its high-end mediocrity,” and several bloggers have offered up less than glowing reviews. Yet the Inn LW12 has received just as much positive media feedback, including a lengthy interview with its chef Andy Bennett in New York Restaurant Insider.
Clearly, the stakes are high. One in every five new restaurant ventures fail in the first year, a statistic of which both Jah and Carter are acutely aware. Yet mixed press and serious risk aside, judging from the throng of immaculately groomed 20- and 30-somethings who pack its patio on a night in late August, this Inn appears to be here to stay. At one table, a group of stiletto-clad women order a second round of Maple Leaf martinis, blissfully unperturbed by the $16 price. At another, an American couple peering through the menu asks the waiter to explain “poutine.” “It’s a Quebec delicacy,” the waiter smoothly replies. “Fries, gravy and cheese curds in one delicious low-cal package. It’s the house specialty.” About ten minutes later, he returns with two heaping plates. The diners tuck in — and Jah and Carter chalk up another fat margin.