“You have to dream big if you’re gonna win.”
Sound advice from America’s legendary restaurateur, Drew Nieporent. As founder of Myriad Restaurant Group (which operates Tribecca Grill, Nobu New York City, Nobu Fifty Seven, Nobu London, Nobu Next Door, Bâtard, and Crush Wine & Spirits), Nieporent is no stranger to winning. With 35 restaurants worldwide under the Myriad umbrella—most recently The Daily Burger at Madison Square Gardens—the celebrated restaurateur has learned that the key to success in the biz is to stay true to your vision.
Born and raised in New York City, Nieporent started his love affair with food early on. He has fond memories of eating his Jewish grandmother’s “amazing matzo ball soup.” And at the apron strings of older generations, he came to realize that food—making it, eating it, talking about it—was his passion.
Growing up surrounded in a community of sports-lovers, Nieporent was also inspired by the confidence of big-name athletes—including greats like Muhammad Ali. But it was Joe Namath making it into the Super Bowl in 1969 that got Nieporent’s wheels turning. If these sports heroes could fulfill their dreams, why couldn’t he?
At the time, Nieporent’s father worked as a restaurant monitor for the New York State Liquor Authority and exposed his son to countless concepts. “He showed me Chinese, French, and Italian places, and I took to the business right away,” says Nieporent. “I knew I wanted to open restaurants.”
Casting off into an early career, Nieporent worked on cruise ships during his 20s, eventually migrating to the role of manager at New York City’s Maxwell’s Plum and Tavern on the Green. At this point, success was practically in hand; he went on to work at renowned French restaurants Le Périgold, La Grenouille, and Plaza Athenee’s Le Regence in short order.
By the 1980s, Nieporent had amassed enough experience to seriously entertain opening his own restaurant. He took the plunge in 1985, opening The Montrachet in New York. It wasn’t long before The New York Times bestowed three stars on the relative newcomer, and with the added benefit of top Sommelier Daniel Johnnes crafting a buzz-worthy wine list, The Montrachet was quickly thrust into spotlight. It even attracted celebrities like Robert De Niro, who landed at The Montrachet one night as a guest. Awed by the quality and creativity of the restaurant, De Niro asked Nieporent if he wanted to open another restaurant in Tribecca.
In 1990, Nieporent and De Niro opened up Tribecca Grill. The concept had unquestionably sound backing; investors included the likes of Bill Murray, Sean Penn, and Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.
To some, Nieporent had already achieved success: two world-class restaurants opened in less than 10 years with investment from international celebrities. But he wasn’t finished. Four years later, spurred by the success of Tribecca Grill, Nieporent opened Nobu New York City with Japanese celebrity chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa as chef and co-owner. Matsuhisa was known for his fusion cuisine, blending traditional Japanese dishes with South American ingredients.
“His flavors are amazing,” says Nieporent. “Nobody really puts out the food in the unique fashion that Nobu does.” Cases in point: Matsuhisa’s Yellowtail with jalapeño, and Tiradito made with tropical citrus.
The series of successes in Nieporent’s portfolio has only grown since then. In 1994, in collaboration with De Niro, Robin Williams, and Francis Ford Coppola, Nieporent became one of the first restaurateurs to own restaurants on both coasts, opening Rubicon in San Francisco.
Amid the success, however, Nieporent has endured his share of hardship. The most difficult moment in the restaurateur’s otherwise shimmering career was the closing of his flagship restaurant, The Montrachet, in 2007. Wine writer Eric Asimov of The New York Times wrote ruefully of the restaurant’s shuttering that year, and though Nieporent continues to thrive in the restaurant business, the end of The Montrachet chapter reminded New Yorkers, somewhat sadly, of the days that used to be.
Sparked by a combination of this struggle shared with 30 years of evident success, Nieperont offers few words of caution to would-be restaurateurs: “Think long and hard about doing it. Today, the odds are stacked against you. Costs are up, payroll is a headache, you have to dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘T’—it’s always a challenge.”
When asked if he has plans for opening a new restaurant, Nieporent demurs. “I take new opportunities as they come,” he says. “The reality is, I’m content with what Myriad has built. In the restaurant business, you have to keep an eye on what you have. The most important thing is that we are standing the test of time. I think that’s really important. When we look back over the years, we can see that we’ve kept the restaurants strong and vibrant.”
With his empire sailing on its own these days, Nieporent has time—finally—to relax. So what does the esteemed restaurateur do in his down time? Cook, of course. “I love barbecuing pork chops on the grill,” he grins, though he also savors the warm, cozy meals of winter.
“Nothing’s more delicious than a chile-rich beef stew, or just a good chili. My wife makes a delicious Texas-style chili that I love.”
And when Nieporent has the chance to sit down for a meal at one of his own concepts, he definitely has some go-to dishes. “We do an onion soup with a melted cheese at Tribecca Grill that’s very comforting,” he says.
Though a veteran of fine dining, the restaurant mogul still appreciates simplicity in food—as authentic and lovingly crafted as his grandmother’s matzo ball soup. And much like that soup, Nieporent’s myriad concepts will undoubtedly stand the test of time.
By Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta