Recession-Proof Retail! Sapphire Opens in Old Scores East Spot

"It’s like Yankee Stadium," Antony, a security guard, said over his shoulder, leading the way through the thumping entrance of what used to be the original East Side location of Scores strip club.

Scores lost its battle with the state over its liquor license last year. Since then, the Las Vegas-based empire, Sapphire Gentlemen’s Club, has moved in, and last night was their official opening in New York.

Sapphire made sure to bring yards of neon sapphire blue back-lighting, a fluorescent, engraved pompadour-shaped ice-sculpture, plushier (much plush-ier, according to the dancers) leather chairs, new carpeting, a concierge service, and a new chef–Jayson Margulies from Robert’s Steak House at the Penthouse Executive Club.

Antony, like other security guards on Thursday night, wore a dark suit with an aquarium blue skinny-tie.

"Yankee Stadium," he continued dreamily. "That’s what it’s like with this particular venue. This is the granddaddy of gentleman’s clubs, For years when I was growing up they were called strip bars or something else, some less politically correct kind of word, you know what I mean. But you walk in here and you are called ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am,’ and you get the white-glove treatment from the minute you walk in the door. That’s how this franchise does the thing."

Sapphire’s main room looks largely identical to the old Scores, largely because there were no actual construction renovations done. The layout, too, is similar: bar to the left, mirrored wall and couches on the right, the stage front and center.

But some change is apparent: the room is darker, has more club-lighting, lasers, and a new sound system–it’s now not unlike the inside of a limo. There’s new carpeting and all new furniture (a departure from Score’s more clubhouse style couches).

I sat down in one of the new leather horse-shoe chairs opposite Sapphire managing partner Peter Feinstein. A waitress wearing a black tube dress and garter-belt wrapped in $20 and $50 bills snaked between us every few seconds.

Mr. Feinstein wore a tailored suit and smiled. He greeted us warmly and started speaking about the franchise.

"In Vegas, we started the world’s largest gentleman’s club," he said. "The concept was really to make it much more high-end—make it what I call, an R-rated night club. What we ended up finding out is that we did the right thing."

I asked about the Scores acquisition. "Well, we were the first logical buyer," he said, referring to Sapphire’s Dec. 3 takeover of the East 60th Street club’s liquor license.

Any reticence to enter into a business venture with the economy as it is?

"Absolutely not," he said rocking back and forth in his (new) leather chair. "We have found in Vegas, our business has actually held its own–in fact it’s actually up a little bit. And I guess that’s the mentality of men, to be honest with you."

He continued: "And I think it’ll be the same in New York, especially with the men who are facing the stress of work every day, the change in the economy. Everybody needs a break."

He was speaking with his hands and looking at me gravely. "You know, although you can’t take a holiday weekend, you can at least spend two hours and kinda get away from the mess that you’re in. And we’re trying to make it so it’s very easy. We’ll help them with that; we have a concierge service, so if guys want to go to a restaurant in town before or after we’ll help them–we’ll help them with transportation to and from the club…

"We’re trying to make it as easy as possible so you get that two- to three-hour break that you are looking for in this whole economic environment… I think that there’s always room on a guy’s credit card for something like this."

"See, here’s Ross!" Mr. Feinstein looked across from himself and pointed. "He’s an owner of a hedge fund!"

Ross looked up from his glass surprised and tried ignoring us.

"This is a chance," Mr. Feinstein said, "for him to escape and get away for a few hours, and then go back home and be a dad and a good husband."

After Ross, Mr. Feinstein introduced me to a few of the dancers and then sent us on a tour of the club with a security guard. The highlights included the 15 or so back rooms, ranging in price from $500 to $700 an hour–but, "You still have to pay the girl," the security guard said; and the Howard Stern Room (they are still trying to figure out what to rename it), which smells somewhat of cigarettes and anything else I can think of that would stick to velour.

I pointed out the smells to our tour guide, he smiled. "Yeah, Howard used to get crazy here." He looked around the room at the red velvet walls and long black couch. "Tupac was in here, everybody was in here." He waved his hand and started to walk out of the room and down the stairs.

"But we’re trying to get away from that, bad image, bad for the customer… We’re trying to raise the bar, as we say."

He led me down the hall and introduced me to the new head chef of the restaraunt, Jayson Margulies. Mr. Margulies made the move to Sapphire from Penthouse’s Robert’s Steak House. We met him standing next to a cash register in his blue-jean chef’s smock. He shook my hand, made offers of food, and ushered me down the hallway and into his kitchen.

"They basically had me come to this project because of what my experience was opening the other project," Mr. Margulies said. "They said this is your baby, do what you want to do."

He started describing all of the amenities his kitchen will have when it opens in two weeks: his own combi burner to make deserts (he plans to specialize in 50s-style desserts), a pasta machine, a six burner, a double up-and-down steak burner (he plans to butcher all his own steaks).

So, I asked, why always the stripping and steak combination?

"Its a testosterone food," he said, pinching spices into a bowl of tuna.

Does he have any restaurant recession fears? Or can a place like Sapphire run on testosterone?

"I don’t feel that any industry is recession-proof," he said intently, holding up a muddy-tuna hand. "Obviously, everyone is feeling it. But we’re selling fantasy here. We’re the type of environment that it’s a clean environment, we’re selling the fantasy and the lore of a guy coming in here and being able to see beautiful women and fantasize about beautiful women; and when people are down and the economy is getting them upset, we’re basically offering them Disney World."

I left Mr. Margulies, wandered into the dining room, and ran into a customer at the bar trying to get a dancer’s attention: "Hey, tell her I’ll buy her a drink, the second one, in the green, on the right!"

His name was Tony and he was 44.

I went over to the woman he was pointing to, and pointed to Tony. "But the drinks are free!" (Sapphire was offering free drinks from 8 to 10 p.m. in honor of the opening). She laughed: "Oh well, he can buy me drinks all night if he wants."

She was sitting carefully on a bar stool surrounded by her friends. They were all draped in colorful chiffon-type, clingy dresses. I asked her if she felt like the business will be good this year.

"Well, everyone feels the pinch," she said, waving her hand. "But, look around there’s so many people here… But, then again, there’s free alcohol, check back with me at 10."

All the dancers sitting around her giggled, a woman holding a clutch stood from behind her to speak up: "It’s not hurting our pockets!" She waved her lip gloss at me and anyone else looking.

"It might hurt us a little," the woman in green gestured in my direction again, looking at me. "But at the end of the day, men are men–they’ll want to come here."