Location: Last August, just before the world crumbled, you said you catered to a clientele that ‘wanted a more sophisticated experience than dribbling beer on their running shoes.’ Has the recession changed your outlook at all? Do you aim for less snobbery?
Mr. Grossich: Well, it’s not so much snobbery. At the end of the day, I’m a marketing guy, and marketing is all about selling and finding a niche that you can own and cultivating that niche. … If you want to wear shorts and a ripped T-shirt and go have a drink somewhere, there are plenty of places you can go.
The Campbell Apartment’s dress code says: ‘Proper Attire Required. Absolutely No Athletic Shoes, T-Shirts, Sweatshirts, Baseball Caps, Shorts or Torn Jeans.’ Did you write that?
We started off with the simple ‘Proper Attire Required,’ but it was too open-ended. … I must say I appreciate your respect for our dress code, because there are journalists out there, who will remain unnamed, who have almost a vendetta against us because they were turned away at the door when they felt that because they were journalists that should somehow make a difference.
I assume you mean Times’ restaurant critic Frank Bruni, who wrote last year about being turned away from Campbell for wearing ‘a pair of very, very expensive Tod’s shoes’ that your doorman mistook for sneakers. Did you apologize to him afterward?
That wasn’t the person I had in mind, but certainly to start apologizing for our dress code starts to challenge why we have a dress code. Honestly, I can’t recall what we did, but we try to train our hostesses as best we possibly can, because it’s a very touchy subject. You walk in and, you know, I understand it, people take it very personally. It’s like—‘Max, I don’t think you’re worthy. Get the hell out of here!’
Your company describes its lounges as the city’s ‘most refreshingly civilized places.’ Isn’t poshness and civility out of vogue?
With all that’s going on in the world, and all the issues with people losing their fortunes or not being able to get a job or make any more money, it’s a relatively small expense to treat yourself to a plush environment, a well-made drink.
Does your World Bar in the Trump World Tower still have a $50 drink with drops of liquid gold?
Yes, we do.
Isn’t it a precarious time to be a king of the New York cocktail lounge—sort of like being a top Hummer salesman?
Overall, it’s a very sophisticated city that’s been at the center of this kind of lifestyle situation forever.
Lifestyle marketing seems dead: People aren’t buying something because it taps into what they want to be; they’re buying it because it’s a bargain or will really help.
It depends on what you’re selling! We’re selling ambiance, we’re not selling Chevrolets.
But isn’t the fancy, cigarette-holder, horn-rimmed era gone? The days of the big swinging dick, as Michael Lewis called the Alpha Male trader, were declared dead in September.
Goldman would argue differently, I think! That’s another story.
You opened New York’s first cigar lounge, the Cigar Bar, but now people can’t smoke in your places (except the Carnegie Club). You openly hated the ban when it was created, but what about now that it’s been awhile?
I still think it was somewhat arbitrary. We are living in a society that has particular freedoms. … The flip side for me is obviously I’ve saved an awful lot of money reupholstering.
You recently leased a former post office on the ground floor of the iconic Empire State Building for the Empire Room, which opens in the autumn. Its style harks back to the 1920s?
People, particularly in times when things are difficult, want to hang on to something. I think, universally, people continue to think that the past is somehow better than the future.
Eater.com made fun of the chandelier and dotted carpet: ‘It’s like being on a third tier cruise line or maybe a Marriott Renaissance.’
Obviously, they’re not our customers, are they?
Your places have gobs of nostalgic, Old World glamour, but one thing they don’t have is youth. Are you envious of hip but gourmet downtown places like Death & Co or Milk & Honey?
Not really. We get those people, but it’s a different experience. We don’t shun youth, but we certainly have a franchise that I guess one could consider a little more—I don’t want to say adult—but a little more sophisticated in that respect. I’m sure we have plenty of customers that enjoy both.
Are you dismissive of the gourmet, organic cocktail movement?
I respect it, but there’s a point where, in my mind, it becomes almost too precious. If you’ve got 150 people and the bar is three-deep, there’s not a lot of time to make a drink with an eye-dropper.
Graydon Carter’s mural-covered Monkey Bar and Waverly Inn both want to be versions of the Chrysler Building’s vintage, gilded Cloud Club. Have you been?
I’ve been to Monkey, not to Waverly. … He’s had great success. Granted, you can’t overlook the fact that he’s the editor in chief of a very popular global magazine, and I’m sure that has something to do with it. But still.
You owned a modeling agency, among other things, before going into cocktail lounges. Do you miss it?
We had some success. It was called Punch Models, we were a boutique modeling agency just before boutique modeling became very in vogue. The thing I can say I’m most proud of is I didn’t lose my shirt. Didn’t get rich, didn’t lose my shirt.
Tishman Speyer basically evicted the Ciprianis from the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Plaza earlier this year. Would you be interested in it?
We’ve been approached about it. … It would certainly be possible to take over the Rainbow bar, but to take over the food service? No.
You were reportedly sued for discrimination last year after hiring only women for hostess jobs. The Equal Rights Commission apparently fined you $15,000, but you appealed. How did it turn out?
It was ridiculous, frankly. As I understand it, what happened was, there was a gentleman who came in, we were interviewing for hostesses. There were other men there, he wasn’t the only man. It wasn’t that it was a man or a woman—we didn’t choose him! I really felt like we were set up a little bit, and I was really put off by all that. And if my memory serves—it’s been a while—I think we settled for far less than that.
You filed suit in State Supreme Court three years ago after the Parks Department replaced your Patio Café with the New York Milkshake Company in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. What happened?
On the surface, we were simply outbid. … As the judge in our case continued to say to us when we were presenting our side of the argument, his refrain was, ‘Why would anyone want to do business with the City of New York?’ And perhaps he was right.