The year was 1999, and a flamboyant Italian man dined night after night at Matsuhisa, chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s eponymous Beverly Hills sushi joint. He’d heard the restaurant was lucky: Eat here before the Academy Awards, and you’re guaranteed to take home the prize. The man in question was Roberto Benigni, who, sure enough, nabbed the Oscar for best actor in Life Is Beautiful. The recipe for success had proved effective the year before, too, when Robin Williams snacked on its signature yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño, then won the trophy for best supporting actor in Good Will Hunting. By then the establishment was swamped with A-listers. One such star was Robert De Niro, who spent four years convincing Nobu that an enterprise in the actor’s native New York City would be lucky, too.
Bob and Nobu-san, as they’re called, have expanded their restaurant business into a global brand that includes hotels and condos and forecasts revenue of more than $1 billion in the next five years. To understand the unflagging fervour for all things Nobu, I happily accepted an offer to maitre d’ at both New York locations: Nobu Fifty Seven in Midtown and Nobu Downtown in the Financial District. Here’s what I learned.
Nobu restaurants are designed for VIPs: During my 10-day stint, I recognised over 20 undisguised names on the reservations roster, including two Oscar-winning actors, an Emmy-winning showrunner, a Marvel Comics actress, several famous-for-being-famous socialites, a legendary singer-songwriter, a trending fashion designer, a Super Bowl winner, a rapper, and J-Lo and A-Rod on a date. “We fully appreciate that we’re a cafeteria for A-listers,” a manager says. Curtains can be drawn to section off areas, and both New York restaurants have secret entrances for VVIPs — Nobu Fifty Seven has no fewer than three. If you spot a notable patron at a Nobu, it’s because they want you to see them.
The seating chart is a game of risk: Manager Amanda Stymeist spends 45 minutes before each dinner “dressing the room” at Nobu Downtown — slotting movie stars into shaded corners where they won’t be gawked at, placing Wall Street guys at quiet positions to talk business. “Everyone wants one of our four booth tables-it’s like constructing a puzzle with 14 corner pieces,” says Johnny Hildreth, another Nobu Downtown manager. “We even have subscriptions to People and Us Weekly to read up on the latest who’s who-and who shouldn’t be seated near whom,” Hildreth says.
Take-away is delivered by private jet: Officially, Nobu doesn’t offer take-away — a decision made to safeguard quality-but there’s always an exception to the rule. The restaurants’ most common version of takeout arrives via personal plane. “We’ll do at least 20 orders a month and more during busier weeks like spring break,” says Anne Yamamoto, special events manager for the Nobus in New York.
There’s a limit to celebs’ special treatment: Surprisingly, celebrities don’t have access to a secret phone number: All bookings for the New York restaurants wind up with the centralised reservations team. VIPs are offered passwords to expedite bookings and to avoid fakers imitating them. Often it’s a first name and some numbers, but some codes-like “JuicyBooty” for a certain pop diva-are easier to remember.
Celebrities such as Drake, Martha Stewart and the Kardashian coven are wild cards.
They tend to book in the late afternoon on the day they dine to minimise the eyeballs on their reservation. If a guest is rude on the phone, it’s usually one who isn’t famous, says a reservationist: “We brace ourselves for three to four ‘Do you know who I am?!’ conversations a day.”
You’ll never score a 7.30 pm reservation: The reservations team creates two service cycles a night, one at about 6 pm, the other at about 8.30 pm. It’s simple math. Parties of two tend to take two hours to dine, and for groups of three to six, add an additional 30 minutes. Larger tables take about three hours. Guests then are seated every 15 minutes from 5.45 pm to 6.15 pm and from 8.15 pm to 9 pm, ensuring a steady flow of service for the 300 to 500 customers per evening. For non-VIPs, the best way to snag a table is to call the restaurant about 4 pm on the day before you want to dine-the sweet spot between last-minute cancellations and eleventh-hour bookings.
The sushi you’re eating was frozen: The US Food and Drug Administration strongly suggests all fish served raw should be frozen first, a practice that’s now law in New York City. Yes, you read that correctly: Almost every slice of sushi slung in the Big Apple has been freezer-treated, which means you’re never eating fish delivered that day. At Nobu, the soon-to-be sashimi goes into a medical-grade fridge that flash-freezes the product at -90C. “We’re using the same freezer hospitals have to keep blood, so the fish cells don’t break down upon defrosting,” says Matt Hoyle, executive chef at both New York Nobus.
Rich people will dine and dash, too: Some diners attempt to get away with not paying for their meal. “Oh, we’ve definitely had people who’ve tried,” says a manager. There are exceptions in the other direction. The Downtown service team still talks about a gratuity left by a high-profile chief executive who was out dining an A-list actress and a model. He left an extra $22,000 on an $8,000 bill. Everyone working that evening reaped the benefits of his drunken generosity/miscalculation.