“If my relationships with the women I date were as good as my relationship with April, I’d be married by now,” quipped Ken Friedman, crossing Allen Street on a recent drizzly Sunday, seeking brunch. He meant April Bloomfield, the British chef with whom he owns the Spotted Pig, the West Village “gastropub” with three successive Michelin stars and the most illustrious roster of investors and regulars in New York. “She does her thing, and I do my thing,” he said, finally settling in at Lower East Side Italian stalwart ’Inoteca (we’d tried Prune, but Mr. Friedman, whose restaurant boasts the longest waits in town, doesn’t like to wait). “Though one time I asked her to be the host one night, just to see what it’s like, and she did, and then she said, ‘I’m never doing this again!”
The story of how Ken met April is full of the sort of music and food industry heavy hitters that now frequent the duo’s perpetually packed pub. They were introduced in 2003 by Jamie Oliver, British superstar chef and a friend of Mr. Friedman’s. At the time, Ms. Bloomfield was working at London’s renowned River Café, but Mr. Friedman and Mario Batali, another friend and eventual Spotted Pig investor, lured her to New York without even tasting her food. (“Mario said, ‘Look at her arms. They’re all burnt, which means she has no fear. Plus, she has a sense of humor,’” recalled Mr. Friedman.) The Pig, as Mr. Friedman calls it, opened in 2004, and Ms. Bloomfield’s acclaimed pub fare quickly made it an international gastro-tourism destination as well as Manhattan’s premiere late-night chef hangout. It’s Mr. Friedman, though, a 6-foot-4 larger-than life former record-industry talent scout, who has stocked it full of the beautiful and the famous, maintaining for three years the kind of cachet that eludes even newer, more upscale restaurants, with their “soft openings” and unlisted phone numbers.
It’s a feat he’s quick to brush off. “Any one of us could open a place and have our friends come check it out, but the reason people come back so much is because of the food,” he said. “So I feel a little bit odd doing this”—this interview—“without April.” He consented, he said, only because Ms. Bloomfield, who is shy by nature and regularly doted on by the press, agreed that he should perhaps take a turn.
“We’re completely opposite, but it works,” said Ms. Bloomfield by phone the other day. “We balance each other. I’m very focused, and he’s always looking to progress. And he lets me do my thing and doesn’t interfere, which is nice.”
Mr. Friedman accumulated most of his well-placed friends and acquaintances during his 25 years in the music industry, first as a concert promoter in San Francisco after he dropped out of UC Berkeley, and later in New York under Clive Davis at Arista, managing bands like the Smiths and UB40 (he got to know Mr. Batali, he explained, because he’d been taking musicians to his restaurants for years). “I turned 40 and I had an identity crisis,” he recalled (he’s now in his “mid-to-late 40’s”). His friends, “most of them music-related people who have disposable incomes,” suggested Mr. Friedman open a restaurant, because he had always been a foodie. “They said, ‘We’ll get our clients to invest in it. They’d been saying this for, like, 10 years.” They being, most notably, Paul McGuinness, U2’s manager, whom Mr. Friedman met in 1981 when he promoted the band’s first show in San Francisco, and Michael Guido, a prominent music-industry lawyer who represents Jay-Z (and now Ms. Bloomfield). Mr. Friedman ran the idea by Mr. Batali, who agreed to help, and the Pig’s investors eventually came to include Jay-Z, Michael Stipe and Norman Cook—a.k.a. Fatboy Slim, in whose wedding Mr. Friedman was best man—all of whom helped turn the Pig into a sort of “cafeteria for the music industry,” said Mr. Friedman, genuinely pleased.
Most of the original eight investors are also on board for the John Dory, a new British seafood restaurant Mr. Friedman and Ms. Bloomfield will open in early spring of 2008. “It’s not something I thought I’d ever do in my life, but Ken is a good friend,” said Mr. Cook. “I never dreamt [the Pig] would be so successful. And I sort of fell in love with it.”
“The vibe is a testament to Ken,” said Mr. Guido, who has known Mr. Friedman for about twenty years. (“I think I own a spoon and a coat hook,” he said, when asked if he is an investor.) “I tell everybody that he had more superficial relationships than anyone I knew, in terms of quantity. No matter where we were, he was the host.”
Mr. Friedman doesn’t like to talk about his pub’s well-documented star wattage. “Do you know about my famous disdain for journalists?” he said (Mr. Batali once referenced it on Charlie Rose). “InStyle magazine will call us up and try to trick us, like, ‘Oh, we’re doing a story about food,’ but it’s really about ‘What does Heath Ledger eat?’” he said. The idea behind the Pig, he explained, was a modest one: install a great chef in an old New York tavern, thereby creating the kind of place that Mr. Friedman himself—who doesn’t like to dress up and who often forgets to shave—would feel comfortable.
It’s a vision that, for all its blockbuster popularity, has occasionally been misunderstood by critics, who don’t know what to make of a world-class chef serving up burgers and shoestring fries to a cramped clientele teetering on bar stools. And here, as he often does, Mr. Friedman offers a rock analogy. “I think that if [Frank Bruni, the Times critic who gave the Pig just one star] were a rock critic, he would have realized that the Sex Pistols are in the rock ’n’ roll hall of fame not because they’re the best guitar players or wrote the best songs, but because they did something new that other bands copied, and they inspired a whole generation,” said Mr. Friedman. “We kind of did the same thing. Everybody’s opening bars now— pubs, casual. Even Daniel Boulud. We didn’t invent that, but we happened to be the first ones in New York who did it right.”
The Pig’s famed late-night scene often includes investors and friends like Jay-Z and Mr. Stipe, along with New York chefs like Tom Colicchio and Mr. Batali, who flock to the pub because it serves a full menu until 2 a.m., long after most other kitchens close. Mr. Friedman likes to save “the lounge,” a round enclave separated from the rest of the second floor by a curtain, for friends and neighbors, he said, but not necessarily V.I.P.’s. “We don’t use that word,” he said. “Pub means public house. In England, it was where the poor people went, and the animal hanging outside the door [as it does at the Spotted Pig, in place of an actual sign] was because they couldn’t read. It was literally, ‘Meet me at the pig at eight!’ Our V.I.P.’s are regulars. Famous people, if they come a lot, then they’re V.I.P.’s.”
Such populist underpinnings are removed from the restaurant’s third floor, which opened after Jay-Z helped Mr. Friedman buy the building in August 2005 rather than risk a new, Pig-unfriendly landlord. Mr. Friedman said it’s used by the staff to count money most nights, but it occasionally hosts private dinners and gatherings for regulars or friends, with Ms. Bloomfield manning a separate kitchen (it’s zoned as a residential space, so it can’t just serve as additional seating for the restaurant). Mr. Cook said he recently attended a
birthday party for Joaquin Phoenix there. “It’s like the inner sanctum,” added David Lynch, a regular and longtime Babbo sommelier and General Manager who is now consulting with Mr. Friedman on the Pig’s wine list. “[Ken] really knows how to cater to that crowd. He’s a great example of the force of personality.”
Mr. Friedman himself does not quite project the image of new New York nightlife impresario. On Sunday after brunch (’Inoteca’s owners, more friends, sent over free dessert), he wandered through the Lower East Side in camouflage pants, hoodie sweatshirt and day-old scruff, pointing out food landmarks like Katz’s Deli on Houston Street. “April and I are obsessed with this place,” said Mr. Friedman. “Maybe we’ll do a place like that someday. Can you imagine it with booze? With tattooed bartenders serving all night?” He had less kind words for Chickie Pig’s, a pizza place on Ludlow with a suspiciously familiar-looking large wooden porcine hanging above the door. He wandered into Spitzer’s Corner, a new bar-slash-restaurant on Rivington. “This was my fear, doing a bar with good food—that the bar would be empty,” he said. “Luckily, that’s never been the case.” At the Tuck Shop, a slip of a restaurant near Prune that serves Australian meat pies, he popped in to say hello to the owner, Niall Grant, who was the Pig’s first bartender. “You should do an article on him,” he said. He says this often, each time with renewed enthusiasm, about the various employees and former employees who move in his large orbit.
TWO DAYS EARLIER, on a Friday, Mr. Friedman had been an hour late to meet The Observer at the Pig. “My friends think I started a restaurant to clean out my apartment,” he said, referring to the plentiful pig paraphernalia, much of which was once Mr. Friedman’s own. He sat at a corner table on the second floor, where he tapped a knife restlessly on the table and spoke in half-finished sentences, distracted by friends eating all around him and by Mr. Lynch, who was waiting downstairs to discuss the Pig’s wine list. Several times he hit The Observer’s tape recorder with his bouncing knife, after which he put his mouth up to the microphone and said, “Sorry.”
“We’re more like oysters and Guinness,” he said of the forthcoming John Dory, differentiating his new restaurant from the Balthazar school of seafood, which is more “oysters and champagne.” “That neighborhood [10th Avenue between 15th and 16th streets] has Del Posto, Morimoto, Craftsteak, all these fancy restaurants; there’s no late-night, fun hangout kind of bar-slash-restaurant. So we’ll end up being that.” Having Mr. Batali and his partner Joe Bastianich right next door at Del Posto will help keep the standards high, he said. “They don’t want to let a restaurant right next door, with their name also on it, be a mess. I think the three of them [Mr. Batali, Mr. Bastianich and Ms. Bloomfield] are going to be pushing for it to be more of an elegant fine-dining restaurant, and I’m going to be pushing for it to be more of a pub. Which is kind of what April and I always did.”
The John Dory’s name, Mr. Friedman added, was Mr. Bastianich’s idea. “I wanted to name it after an animal, so I came up with the Striped Marlin. And Mario said, ‘I like it but it sounds a little Key West.’” A sidewalk permit will allow for outdoor seating under the High Line, and Mr. Friedman is also planning a small adjacent wine bar with floor-to-ceiling views of the Hudson, where customers can wait for their tables.
There are other projects in the works, too, like the one with Freeman’s owner Taavo Somer, a friend; Mr. Friedman will not discuss it except to say it has a location, name and a “brand-new idea,” and Mr. Somer will be decorating. (Mr. Friedman is too busy decorating the John Dory, he said. Ms. Bloomfield predicts “fish pitchers and fish plaques.”) Mr. Friedman and Ms. Bloomfield have also recently been offered restaurants in Vegas and in various New York hotels, including, he hinted, the forthcoming Thompson hotel on Allen Street, all of which they’ve turned down. “I’m big-picture. I’m thinking about five years from now, when I wanna have a restaurant here and a restaurant here. [April’s] thinking about this plate,” Mr. Friedman said. That said, “I want to make money. I was always the talented and creative guy who never made any money. And I don’t wanna be that now.” The plan is to grow into an iconic New York brand like the Odeon or the Plaza, he said, by choosing projects carefully. Mr. Friedman would love to collaborate with British chef Fergus Henderson, for whom he recently threw a bash at the Pig, and he entertains fantasies of opening a place in San Diego, where his mother, the Pig’s “unpaid publicist,” lives, or in L.A., where he was born and raised, the oldest of four children (one brother, Doug, currently works at the Pig). What is certain is that all his ventures will involve Ms. Bloomfield, whether or not she is actually in the kitchen. “I’m not going to do any project involving food without April as my partner. It just doesn’t make sense. I want her to be my bullshit detector.” Besides, he said, “it’s much sexier to have Michelin stars.”
After retiring with Mr. Lynch to the second-floor “lounge” to discuss reinvigorating the wine list (“Sometimes people want to come in and have a $22 glass of wine,” said Mr. Friedman), it was up to the mysterious third floor, where tables and chairs were stacked in a corner. “This is Megan; she used to be the personal chef for Jimmy Buffet. And this is Astrid; she’s Brazilian,” said Mr. Friedman, motioning toward two women at computers in a cramped office.
Mr. Friedman’s Blackberry buzzed. Accommodating his pub’s prodigious number of friends, investors, regulars and the people they send over—which a few people, like his mother and Jay-Z, do “almost every day”—is occasionally challenging, but he calls it “good stress.” “It’s like, the guy down the street would love our problem,” said Mr. Friedman.
“When people say, ‘I’m so sorry, but can I have a table tonight?’, I’m like, ‘Sorry for what?’ Someone’s going to sit at that table, and it might as well be someone I know. That’s one of the perks of owning a restaurant. You get to take care of your friends and your mom.”