In the Raw: Where the Art World Eats Its Sushi

Artists and the people who make their living off of them love to eat sushi. The reasons why are intuitive enough: it comes in pretty colors, it keeps them slender, and it doesn’t slosh around in their stomachs afterward so they can go to parties after dinner and not feel gross. Don’t expect to catch the biggest fish among these pescaterians dining at Blue Ribbon or Nobu, though: They have their favored spots and they go there in schools, night after night.

‘If I walk in Omen, I’ll know half of the crowd, sometimes the whole restaurant,’ said Olivier Zahm, the bearded French photographer. ‘I went today. I went yesterday. I’m going tonight.’

In the deep end, there’s 15 East off Union Square, popular with fashion designers and folks from Sotheby’s and Christie’s, as well as a dinner destination for art critic John Richardson, who lives upstairs. Then there’s Omen on Thompson Street, which has been teeming with art-world types since the 1980s and remains a favorite among the species — hello Adam McEwen, Richard Phillips and Rachel Feinstein!— even though the center of the art world has long since shifted from Soho to the warmer waters of Chelsea.

“If I walk in Omen, I’ll know half of the crowd, sometimes the whole restaurant,” said Olivier Zahm, the bearded French photographer and art critic, by phone a few weeks ago. “I went today. I went yesterday. I’m going tonight. Don’t write too much about it, because we don’t want the place to be invaded by strangers.”

Mr. Zahm, who posts pictures on his blog of pals like Chloë Sevigny, Paz de la Huerta and Terry Richardson hanging out in the dimly lit, brick-lined dining room at Omen, said the appeal of the restaurant comes from its understated décor—something he also likes about the monochromatic 15 East, where he goes when he’s in the mood for a longer, more sophisticated dinner.

“15 East is for more special occasions,” Mr. Zahm said. “It’s an intellectual place. You know that the people around you have been reading more than one book in their life.”

He compared both restaurants—and fine sushi restaurants in general—to old, empty churches: quiet places where people whose lives are ruled by what’s new and what’s hot can retreat into timelessness. “You eat food that people used to eat 200 years ago, 500 years ago,” Mr. Zahm said. “This is relaxing, see what I mean?”

The unspoken rules at Omen and 15 East for what to do when one spots a friend or a business associate are, by all accounts, rigid. In most circumstances one is expected to extend a quick greeting and move along.

“You see people that you know at Omen, but when you go there, there’s this understanding that’s like, ‘Oh hi! But I’m here to keep to myself,'” said the interior designer Ryan Korban. “This is not like Indochine.”

According to Mr. Korban, Omen is somewhat counterintuitively one of the last places in New York where you can talk confidential business and not worry about the wrong person overhearing it.

“It’s really hard to have a private conversation in New York, especially since the city’s so small and everyone’s industries always overlap,” he said. “What I’ve discovered in my circle of friends — and we’ve learned this the hard way — is even if you think you’re in a remote restaurant, like a Chinese restaurant somewhere in the East Village, there’s inevitably somebody there that’s going to overhear.”

It doesn’t come cheap: A meal at Omen, especially if you’re drinking sake, can easily run more than $100 per person. John Currin and Cindy Sherman are said to be regulars, as are designers Zac Posen and Marc Jacobs, critic-curators RoseLee Goldberg and Neville Wakefield. Last Friday, the veteran minimalist artist Jo Baer ate dinner there while in New York for a show at the Matthew Marks Gallery. “It’s authentic, genuine,” Ms. Baer said. “They don’t put much sugar in the food — that’s a relief!”

“It’s not for the young hipsters,” said art dealer Michele Maccarone, who started eating at Omen when she was working at Luhring Augustine years ago and now goes there with artists and art advisers. “It’s a more established crowd of artists and curators and critics.”

For the kids—the cool kids at least—there’s Takahachi in the East Village, which attracts young artists like Dan Colen and Ryan McGinley, as well as downtowny actor types like Kirsten Dunst and Emile Hirsch.

“It’s the Max’s Kansas City of sushi,” Mr. McGinley said recently. “I used to go there with Dash Snow a lot before he passed. I just went there with Michael Stipe the other night. I usually eat there with a friend but sometimes I’ll go alone.”

Mr. McGinley estimated that he has spent more than $50,000 there since he started coming 12 years ago; at this point he’s close with the wait staff and the chefs, who know his work and attend his shows. It’s an addiction, he said—one that started in the late ’90s, when he and Mr. Colen had a weed dealer for a roommate who would treat them to frequent dinners there.

“He would always have this extra cash that he couldn’t put in the bank, so he’d always take me and Dan there every night,” Mr. McGinley said. “That’s how I ended up eating so much sushi. I never ate sushi before I ate at Takahachi. I was raised on hot dogs and hamburgers and pork chops and stuff.”


With additional reporting by Sam Levin and Michael Gonda

In the Raw: Where the Art World Eats Its Sushi