“What do you think of this ceiling?” asked Josh Boyd.
Overhead, a vaulted expanse of freshly coated silver paint was already peeling.
“I think we should all just scratch our initials into it,” he joked in a husky smoker’s voice. “We flew in a specialist from Canada and this is what we got. … You should write a story called ‘Hoodwinked by Canadians.’
“Where was she from, Toronto?” Mr. Boyd asked his partner, a tall, lanky fellow dressed in an untucked pink oxford shirt, jeans, and a pair of flip-flops emblazoned with the Brazilian flag, who was standing beside a nearby piano.
“Toronto, yeah,” replied Darin Rubell.
To veterans of the Manhattan nightlife scene, the surname should sound familiar.
“Obviously, my cousin Steve ran Studio 54,” Mr. Rubell said matter-of-factly.
He was referring, of course, to Steve Rubell, the legendary disco mogul who, in addition to founding the most iconic (and some might say notorious) nightclub of the 1970s, went on to convert the former Palladium concert hall into a flashy dance club adorned with artwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol.
Now, more than two decades later, the late impresario’s young cousin Darin prepares to hang two Warhol prints on the walls of his own forthcoming nightspot, Ella, scheduled to open Oct. 1 in the former Julep space at 9 Avenue A.
“I’ve been surrounded by the business my whole life,” said Mr. Rubell, 34, whose father once co-owned a chain of steakhouses with cousin Steve. “I bartended and bar-backed my way through high school and college,” he added. “I didn’t really know what my passion was.”
Armed with a communications degree from Marymount Manhattan College, Mr. Rubell spent a few years working for various Internet companies, including DoubleClick and Yahoo!, before ultimately deciding to get back into the restaurant business, helping to open the former Chango eatery on Park Avenue—where he met his future partner, Mr. Boyd, also 34—and later Mercadito in the East Village.
Yet, as he carries on the family legacy in hospitality, the saloon scion also seems wary to not follow in his cousin’s footsteps too closely.
Mr. Rubell and Mr. Boyd, who also co-own the artsy GalleryBar on Orchard Street, try to style themselves less in the mold of the old Studio 54 tandem of cousin Steve and Ian Schrager, who both spent time in jail for tax violations, and more along the lines of current B Bar & Grill and Bowery Hotel honchos Eric Goode and Sean MacPherson.
“I think they do it right every time they do it,” Mr. Rubell said. “I love how they diversify themselves and immerse themselves into all their projects. It’s not just a restaurant. It’s not just a bar. It’s a bar, it’s a hotel. Their thought processes and business plans are much grander than just a small restaurant or bar operation. I admire that.”
Mr. Rubell and Mr. Boyd have their own grand schemes beyond the new Ella, including expanding their GalleryBar concept to other cities, probably starting with Los Angeles.
But first, something has to be done about that horrendous ceiling.
“Black and white stripes,” Mr. Rubell said. “A little better than that shitty silverleaf.”
ON SEPT. 3, the partners took The Observer on a tour of their yet unfinished, two-level, 2,200-square-foot piano lounge and cocktail bar, featuring an intimate downstairs performance space with seating for about 40 people.
The theme of the new club, like so many downtown bars these days, including Employees Only, Milk & Honey, and Death & Co., harks back to the Roaring Twenties—but, please, don’t call it a speakeasy.
“We were sick of speakeasies,” Mr. Rubell said, “and I think that there was another area in the 1920s …”
“And ’30s,” Mr. Boyd added.
“And ’30s,” Mr. Rubell continued, “where there was a very glamorous side—not this speakeasy, underground thing. There was this other side that people for some reason keep failing to capture.”
“Howard Hughes,” Mr. Boyd said.
“The Great Gatsby,” Mr. Rubell added. “Old Hollywood. Everyone misses that when they go to that era. They always do these underground speakeasy type places. And we wanted to do something within that era, but the glamour side of that era, not the hush-hush side of that era.”
Assisting in the glamification effort is Mr. Boyd’s uncle, famed interior decorator Carleton Varney, perhaps best known for his work at the Plaza Hotel and Waldorf Towers and currently president of New York-based Dorothy Draper & Co.
His design incorporates black-and-white-striped walls, massive mirrors, steely chandeliers, decorative perfume bottles, and images of the late actress Joan Crawford, whose homes Mr. Varney once decorated.
“These banquettes are from the Oscars,” Mr. Boyd added, pointing to two large red sofas wrapped in plastic near the back of the bar. “They were in the green room. … He gave us those.”
Mr. Boyd’s younger brother, Jordan, 30, is also a partner in Ella, charged with managing the staff; the elder Mr. Boyd handles bookings and talent, and Mr. Rubell oversees the bar.
Like Mr. Rubell, the Boyd brothers are also hospitality gentry; their parents once ran a restaurant at the Rocky Hill Inn near Princeton, N.J. “They lost their shirt,” said the elder Mr. Boyd, who took his parents’ struggles as an object lesson in Hospitality 101. “There were so many issues,” he said, “from management to location. … They spent, like, $300,000 and owned 20 percent of this failing restaurant. I mean, give us $300,000, we’ll build a bar and actually make money.”
The Ella team has also rather smartly enlisted its landlord, Robert Perl, as an additional partner in the project. “We get a below-market rent,” Mr. Boyd said—around $8,200 per month to start. “He knows in order for the business to make good money, you might as well give the guys a nice rent.”
“He’ll get it one way or the other,” Mr. Rubell added.
“For us,” Mr. Boyd said, “the formula is …”
“Make it in a night,” Mr. Rubell interjected.
“Make your rent in one night,” Mr. Boyd continued. “On a Friday or Saturday night, if you can make your entire rent, you’re going to do very well. At $8,200, it’s very feasible.”
The real estate component of the business is one issue the Ella guys take seriously, above and beyond their own bar spaces.
Quite literally, in fact; the Boyd brothers have leased an apartment directly above GalleryBar. The elder Mr. Boyd also previously lived above his other bar, Plan B on East 10th Street, which he opened in 2004.
The idea is more about job security than simply a quick commute. These days, after all, it takes only one annoyed upstairs neighbor to trigger a regulatory crackdown that can wreck a business. Just ask any downtown bar owner.
“All the landlords at all our bars, I ask them, as soon as an apartment’s up, let me know and I’ll rent it for you,” said the elder Mr. Boyd. “We’ll get a friendly in there, a friend or a friend of a friend that we know isn’t going to be killing us on Friday night.”
Improper operators, however, are as much to blame as their cranky neighbors for the current tumultuous climate, he argued: “The idiots who come down here and do bars … they don’t do their job, they don’t control their crowd, and they get violations and they make it bad for all of us.”
Yet, even with the growing anti-bar-sprawl sentiment now creeping throughout the neighborhood, the Ella crew still feels quite at home in the East Village and Lower East Side—explicitly expressing no interest in Brooklyn or any other part of the city—as they continue to expand their presence throughout the area.
Mr. Rubell and the Boyd brothers recently signed on with Ella landlord Mr. Perl, who is also an investor in the Two Boots pizza chain, to help open a new sports bar called Two Boots Tavern on Grand Street.
“The Lower East Side is an amazing, up-and-coming, and still really raw part of New York,” Mr. Rubell said, “but rapidly changing, obviously, into something more like Soho and meatpacking. But it still has this raw New York sense, whereas the meatpacking is almost like Times Square. Times Square is Times Square. The West Village is a little sleepy. There is something really alive about this neighborhood.”