Toranosuke “Tora” Matsuoka looks like he just got off the Jitney.
Tall and handsome, with a slick of black curls, he glides through the dining room of his Flatiron restaurant, shirt over-unbuttoned in that Hamptons way.
Mr. Matsuoka, 32, co-owns Sen, the seven-month-old sushi den that has become the social center of Silicon Alley’s cool crowd. The son of a New York artist working for Vogue magazine in Japan and a sumo wrestler, you could call him a poster-boy for globalization.
He calls himself “Jew-panese.”
On any weeknight, Sen is a start-up-heavy blur of sleeve tattoos, plaid shirts and librarian glasses, disrupting each other over cocktails. Recent parties have been held for the tech incubator General Assembly, Buzzfeed and their fellow click hustlers the Daily Mail (they’re both on the block), the Webbies and the hot-ticket PR and media mixer, Newsmakers.
“We had looked around New York City for five years prior to committing to this area, not knowing it was Silicon Alley,” said Mr. Matsuoka. “After we opened, it became very clear very quickly that there were a lot of young people working at very big, up-and-coming tech companies. It’s very young, very bright, very fun crowd that sits in line with the restaurant. We’re about having fun, eating well and drinking well.”
New Yorkers tend to think that money and success flow east from the city to the Hamptons. But this hotspot was imported from Sag Harbor.
Mr. Matsuoka’s father, Kazutomo, was a top-ranked sumo wrestler in Japan before making his reputation as a chef in America. He acquired a half-stake in the original Sen in 1994, and Tora bought him out eight years ago, continuing the partnership with Jeff Resnick. Younger brother Ryunosuke “Jesse” Matsuoka, 27, serves as general manager of the Hamptons Sen and their other Sag Harbor restaurant, the Cuddy.
The brothers went to high school in Honolulu, but returned to Long Island in the summers to learn the business “not even from the ground, from the basement up,” says Mr. Matsuoka. “It was physically demanding, sweat-inducing and usually involved some form of bleeding.”
Still, it had its perks. All those years at Sen has put the ambitious restaurateur on friendly terms with a celebrity clientele including Kelly Rippa and Mark Consuleos, Andy Cohen and Jimmy Fallon. “Alec Baldwin has been dining with us since he came in with his wife, Kim Basinger,” recalls Mr. Matsuoaka.
Now, with the sort of good luck that sometimes follows 19 years of hard work, he finds himself the social chair of the hippest industry in New York.
Keoni DeFranco, founder and CEO of Lua Technologies (“we provide a communication platform for a mobile workforce”) regularly drops into the scene at the restaurant. He said he has “met future clients and potential investors” at Sen.
“The location is great. It’s across the street from Tumblr and Union Square Ventures is around the corner, and it has the sort of vibe you want to take investors to,” said Mr. DeFranco.
“There’s not that much great Japanese in the area, and they use unique ingredients or ingredients that are unusual in this country,” he said. “Even the way they create drinks is in direct parallel with how we’re utilizing technology. They’re always trying to develop something that no-one’s thought of before.”
On a recent evening, as the front of Sen was occupied by a large group from block start-up Noise New York (“we invent new ways for brands to grow business among young adults”) Mr. Matsuoka explained the evolution of his 12. W. 21st St space, which in previous lives has been the Cheetah Club, Sound Factory Bar and Private Eye’s.
“This was nightclub row,” he said. “When I went for the liquor license, they showed me all of the information that lead up to the code change, including bullet holes in windows on second floors.”
“People have been killed on the street, old-timers in this area would remind me that only ten years ago [the police] would shut it down and ride horseback because there was so many people emptying out all of the nightclubs.”
“You just didn’t come here,” he said. “I wish I was smart enough to have picked it, but the Flatiron area has gentrified over the past ten years. Now you can’t touch an apartment here for a million dollars.”
And this summer, flush with success, Mr. Matsuoka and his brother are planning on getting around to having their bar mitzvahs.