The Most Important People in Hospitality
The men and women on Observer’s 2023 Dining and Nightlife Power List are believers. They believe in the restorative power of hospitality and the tangible and intangible rewards that come with it. They believe that restaurants and nightclubs make people feel more alive. They are the most important people in the industry, with the greatest influence on the future of hospitality.Read More
Opening a restaurant or a nightclub in 2023 is an act of faith. The hospitality business is facing challenges, including rising costs, staffing issues, unforeseen delays and a world where everything from delivery apps to streaming entertainment makes staying home more exciting. Plus, workloads are often high, while margins are often low.
The men and women on Observer’s 2023 Dining and Nightlife Power List are believers. They believe in the restorative power of hospitality and in both the tangible and intangible rewards that come with that. They believe that restaurants and nightclubs can make guests feel more alive. They believe that hospitality can be a platform that leads to multiple venues and multiple revenue streams.
For the people on this list, it’s not enough to have just one restaurant or nightclub. It’s about a financial and cultural impact in multiple neighborhoods or cities (including New York City, the Hamptons, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami, Dallas and Aspen), or it’s about diversifying into products, media, events, technology and other businesses. It’s also about creating an ecosystem that encourages and empowers employees to chase their own hospitality dreams. It’s about the feeling of crushing and drowning every day, about juggling multiple roles and finding ways to thrive or at least survive, so you can do it again the next day and the next and the next.
Here are the power players setting the table for the future of the hospitality industry.
- Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi & Jeff Zalaznick
- Junghyun and Ellia Park
- Chintan Pandya and Roni Mazumdar
- Johann Moonesinghe and Andrew Harris
- Jeffrey Soffer
- Enrique Olvera and Santiago Perez
- Jeff Klein
- Jerry Greenberg
- Stephen Ross
- Noah Tepperberg and Jason Strauss
- Simon Kim
- David Grutman
- Rob Speyer and EB Kelly
- Scott Sartiano
- Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis
- Eugene Remm and Mark Birnbaum
- Kwame Onwuachi
- Tosh Berman and Mikey Tanha
- Christopher Chen, Chris Ying and Noelle Cornelio
- Missy Robbins and Sean Feeney
- Frank III & Lorenzo Fertitta
- Chris Webb
- Elizabeth Blau
- Shu Chowdhury
- Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook
- Michael Stillman
- John Fraser
- Mashama Bailey
- Scarr Pimentel
- John Kunkel
- Sam Bakhshandehpour
- Candace and Charles Nelson
- Joel Montaniel
- Liwei Liao
- Robert Earl
- Brendan Sodikoff
- Craig Robins
- Dennis DeGori
- Ronn Nicolli
- David Gelb
- Jonathan Shecter
- Jon Neidich
- Pete Wells
- Jayma Cardoso
- Andrew Taub and Jonathan Owsley
- Billy Logan and Hank Spring
- Richard Born and Ira Drukier
- B.J. Novak and Timothy Hollingsworth
- Kevin Hart
- Eric Demby and Jonathan Butler
Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi & Jeff Zalaznick
- Major Food Group
It might seem crazy that a 10-year-old restaurant is still the hottest restaurant in the country. But it should be clear by now that Major Food Group operates on another level. According to data obtained by Observer, New York’s Carbone has the most Resy notifications (upwards of 20,000 a week) of any restaurant in America. And there have been weeks where the restaurant with the second-most notifications has been New York’s new Torrisi Bar & Restaurant, the triumphant rebirth of the brand that started it all for Major Food Group’s game-changing visionaries.
There are now more than 50 Major Food Group restaurants worldwide, including those in the hospitality company’s Miami private club. The $3,000-per-seat Carbone Beach pop-ups, presented by American Express, have attracted A-list crowds during Miami’s Formula One week. A members-only ZZ’s Club, which will feature the world’s first private Carbone, has sold out of $50,000 founding memberships and is scheduled to open later this year at Hudson Yards.
“We’re in the process of expanding not only our incredible restaurant portfolio but expanding into other verticals,” Zalaznick tells Observer, mentioning hotel deals like The Newbury Boston as well as branded residential developments like a forthcoming Major Food Group condo tower in Miami. “We’re not stopping. We’re creating better products than ever and really growing and spreading our wings across the entirety of the hospitality world."
Junghyun and Ellia Park
- Na:eun Hospitality
A decade after this married couple immigrated to New York, the Parks have found themselves at the absolute pinnacle of fine dining with Atomix. Yes, the top-ranked United States restaurant in this year’s World’s 50 Best List is a unicorn with evocative tasting menus that showcase Korean traditions, techniques and artisans. Junghyun, who goes by JP and won a 2023 James Beard Award for Best Chef: New York, is proud to shatter stereotypes and show guests that Korean cuisine is about much more than barbecue, spicy food, noodles and free banchan. Atomix is here to help redefine and revalue Korean food.
“I believe the next generation can change what fine dining means,” JP tells Observer. “It’s going to be more personal. It needs to be more about their own stories.”
The Parks also operate their first restaurant, Atoboy, which playfully merges Korean food and New York influences. And they’ve joined the formidable new dining collection at Rockefeller Center with the recent opening of Naro, which is inspired by classic Korean dishes that are underrepresented in America.
“We have so many Korean-Americans and immigrants working with us, and they said they found their identity at our restaurants,” Ellia says. “That’s what’s most important for us.”
To cite just one example: After cooking at Atomix, chef Ki Kim moved to Los Angeles and opened Kinn. The headline for Kinn’s Los Angeles Times review asked a question with an answer that was self-evident: “Is this Koreatown upstart the future of fine dining in L.A.?”
Chintan Pandya and Roni Mazumdar
- Unapologetic Foods
These happy rebels, who specialize in uncompromising, obscure, hyper-specific Indian food, have created some of New York’s most popular restaurants and are just getting started.
“The day we feel that our story is told across all corners of America is probably the day we will stop,” Mazumdar tells Observer. “A lot of people start with the real estate. We start with the emotion.”
Their growing restaurant portfolio includes Dhamaka, Semma (chef Vijay Kumar’s Michelin-starred hot spot which has about a 1,500-person waiting list daily), Masalawala & Sons (a restaurant that has proven that the demand for their food in Brooklyn rivals what they’ve seen in Manhattan) and the fast-casual Rowdy Rooster. They sell upwards of 900 pounds of lamb and goat (including, famously, goat kidneys and testicles at Dhamaka) on busy weeks. They have plans to open three more New York restaurants in the coming months.
“We are very lucky because we have a population of 1.4 billion in our country and the food changes every 50, 60 miles,” Pandya says. “So we have this big, blank whiteboard in front of us.”
And they’re not limiting themselves to Indian cuisine. One of their forthcoming restaurants, Naks, will serve Filipino food.
Johann Moonesinghe and Andrew Harris
The married couple behind the country’s most innovative restaurant-financing company have deployed upwards of $120 million to more than 1,000 restaurants. This includes funding expansion for hall-of-famers like Danny Meyer, José Andrés and Michael Mina and dominant hospitality companies like Major Food Group, Noble 33 and 50 Eggs. Instead of giving loans or taking equity, inKind pre-purchases food-and-beverage credit and sells it on its app. It also provides marketing, mentorship and access to a coveted 450,000-plus user base that tends to rack up higher check averages and return more often than other customers.
“The typical restaurant-financing model is broken,” Moonesinghe tells Observer. “A lot of chefs and restaurateurs walk away from their busy restaurants because it’s very difficult to pay back investors and make money. So we created a better way.”
- Fontainebleau Development
In December, Miami real estate titan Soffer will open the highly anticipated 3,644-room Fontainebleau Las Vegas casino-resort with 36 food-and-beverage venues, including the first Vegas spots from Mexico City powerhouse chef Gabriela Camara, prolific Miami operator David Grutman, Los Angeles pasta overlord Evan Funke and New York sushi stars Masa Ito and Kevin Kim .
“It is a dream come true to see this project come to fruition after 15 years,” Soffer tells Observer. “For Fontainebleau, this evolution of our brand and expansion to an incredible destination like Las Vegas is a testament to a legacy that dates back to 1954 and the opening of Fontainebleau Miami Beach. This is our moment to show the world and our guests what Fontainebleau Development does best. We are creating an extension of the iconic Fontainebleau experience, with its remarkable history, culture, design and service embedded within its walls.”
Soffer, who reacquired the Fontainebleau Las Vegas building in 2021 and managed to secure a $2.2 billion loan to complete the resort, also continues to invest heavily in Miami. He’s putting nearly $100 million into the revamp of Fontainebleau Miami Beach, which will include a state-of-the-art 50,000-square-foot event center that is slated to open in 2025. And in a partnership of real estate heavyweights, Fontainebleau Development and Related Companies are working together to build a new Westin hotel at Miami International Airport.
Enrique Olvera and Santiago Perez
With 17 restaurants, Olvera and Perez have brought top-tier ingredients like heirloom corn and sustainable seafood to the masses. They operate both high-end contemporary Mexican restaurants like Mexico City’s Pujol, New York’s Cosme and L.A.’s Damian as well as a growing group of more casual spots.
Atla, an “everyday Mexican” restaurant that started in New York, recently expanded to Los Angeles with the opening of a breezy 7,200-square-foot Venice space that Olvera thinks could be a prototype for future restaurants. A new taqueria, Tacos Atla, will debut in Williamsburg this year. But Olvera and Perez are also growing beyond the Atla brand and have plans for two other New York restaurants and another Mexico City spot next year.
“We have two efforts going on: further building the Atla brand, which is a lot more replicable, and the other one is one-off fine dining,” Perez says. “We really want to further build our presence both in New York and Mexico City, which at the moment are our largest markets. Depending on how the taqueria and the Atla sit-down concept work, we’re going to push the accelerator a little further.”
Casamata already goes through close to a ton of masa (and an average of 2,000 tortillas per restaurant) every day.
- JK Hotel Group
Jeff Klein is known for Sunset Tower and San Vicente Bungalows (a private club that, contrary to rumors, has not kicked out Prince Harry and Meghan Markle) in Los Angeles. But Klein, who was born and raised in New York, plans to open what feels like his crown jewel next spring in the West Village.
“This is probably the most exciting thing in my career,” Klein tells Observer. His previous New York ventures included City Club and Graydon Carter’s Monkey Bar.
Klein’s purchased the Jane Hotel for $62 million and will likely spend close to that amount reimagining the space as a 100-room hotel and the separate San Vicente West Village membership club. The private club will include nine luxurious guest rooms, a dinner-only dining room, a lush rooftop cafe for lunch, a basement discotheque, a screening room, event spaces and co-working. Klein is also busy in L.A., where San Vicente Santa Monica will likely open around the same time next year.
“If you’re a member of one, you have the opportunity to be a member of all of them,” Klein says.
He looks for “diversity in every sense of the word” and an even split of women and men as he creates private spaces for people who actively contribute to the creative culture and also the professional and philanthropic worlds.
“We reject a lot of billionaires,” Klein says. “Just because someone has money doesn’t make them interesting.”
- Sushi Nozawa Group
The groundbreaking sushi business that Greenberg created with Kazunori Nozawa, Tom Nozawa and Lele Massimini has opened 19 Los Angeles restaurants and expanded Sugarfish and KazuNori into New York. Beyond sushi, Greenberg has spearheaded L.A. sister restaurants Uovo, HiHo Cheeseburger and Matū.
For Greenberg (who previously co-founded digital business transformation specialist Sapient), it starts with the supply chain and figuring out how to do things nobody else does. His restaurants get shipments of fish that only go to Sushi Nozawa Group and use seaweed harvested and roasted to their specifications. Uovo makes its own fresh pasta in Italy and flies it to Los Angeles. HiHo Cheeseburger and Matū’s beef is 100 percent grass-fed wagyu from New Zealand’s First Light Farms, where Greenberg has become a co-owner.
“Our passion is the perfect bite, and we go to all ends of the earth to figure out how to deliver it,” Greenberg tells Observer.
- Related Companies
With more than $60 billion in real estate owned or under development, the company that Ross launched in 1972 is an enduring powerhouse that keeps getting stronger in major markets including New York and Miami (where Ross also owns the Dolphins and was instrumental in bringing Formula One to his Hard Rock Stadium). Besides being the landlord for high-profile dining destinations ranging from multiple José Andrés restaurants to Bad Roman to Major Food Group’s forthcoming private club at Hudson Yards, Ross has invested deeply in hospitality with a portfolio that includes Related’s Equinox Hotel. Plus, his private investment firm, RSE Ventures, has stakes in Momofuku, Milk Bar, Bluestone Lane and &Pizza. From top-tier dining to scalable quick-service spots, Ross is betting big on the future of restaurants.
Noah Tepperberg and Jason Strauss
- Tao Group Hospitality
Tao Group Hospitality, purchased by Mohari Group this year in a deal that valued Tepperberg and Strauss’s nightlife-and-restaurant behemoth at $550 million, has grown from 20 venues in 2016 to over 80 in 2023. The plan is to keep expanding.
“We are focusing on major markets (New York, Vegas, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami) and looking to build hubs with multiple venues in each,” Tepperberg tells Observer. The pair is also gearing up for Marquee New York’s 20-year celebration in December.
Recent openings include Cathédrale in Las Vegas, five spaces at the new Moxy Lower East Side hotel and Casadonna (a partnership with David Grutman) in Miami. Tao Group Hospitality, which purchased Hakkasan Group in 2021, also has a strong international presence. Hakkasan Hanway Place in London has retained its Michelin star for two decades. Hakkasan’s Abu Dhabi and Dubai locations also have a Michelin star.
- Gracious Hospitality Management
With Cote in New York, the Seoul-born Kim has merged the food of his heritage with his love for Peter Luger and his experience working for titans like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Thomas Keller. The result is a Korean barbecue restaurant that’s earned a Michelin star while redefining what both steakhouses and fine dining can be in New York City and beyond.
Kim loves the conviviality of Korean barbecue, “where people are interacting with food and fire and each other,” and he wanted to improve the experience with higher-quality beef (including Japanese and American wagyu). The meat of the matter is impressive, with business that rivals the country’s top traditional steakhouses: Cote goes through an average of 22,500 pounds of meat a month in New York and 16,700 pounds in Miami. Both Cote locations sell 7,000 to 7,500 of their $68-per-person Butcher’s Feasts and more than 1,000 $225 steak omakases each month.
And Kim (who has Korean fried chicken spot Coqodaq in the works) is in expansion mode, with a new location of Cote in Singapore slated to open this year.
“We don’t have a set limit or goal,” Kim tells Observer. “We’re not looking at this in a very private-equity sort of way. Rule number one is to fall in love with a city, because Cote is love for me.”
- Groot Hospitality
With a thriving nightlife/dining/hotel business and A-list partners including Pharrell Williams and Bad Bunny, Grutman has been a top Miami scene-maker at venues like LIV, Swan, Gekkō and the Goodtime Hotel.
Grutman recently expanded Komodo to Dallas and will open Komodo, Papi Steak and other spots inside the forthcoming Fontainebleau Las Vegas. He’s also diversified Groot Hospitality by backing products (including Jah Mama hot sauce, the Daring Foods plant-based chicken alternative, Goodles mac-and-cheese, Owen’s mixers and Liquid Death water) he’s showcased at his hot spots.
“We invest in a lot of upstart brands that we integrate into our hospitality,” Grutman says. “I think it’s great to be able to help young entrepreneurs and use our platform to launch new brands.”
The next frontier for Grutman isn’t even on this planet. He’s partnered with space-travel company Space Perspective on the David Grutman Spaceflight Experience, and guests can book $125,000 trips that feature food and beverages curated by Groot Hospitality.
Rob Speyer and EB Kelly
- Tishman Speyer
Speyer and Kelly are leading a gargantuan Rockefeller Center redevelopment project that has brought in many of New York’s top independent hospitality operators. The most notable new marquee restaurants include JP and Ellia Park’s rink-level Naro, Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson’s Le Rock, Ignacio Mattos’s Lodi, Greg Baxtrom’s Five Acres and Jess Shadbolt, Clare de Boer and Annie Shi’s Jupiter.
Speyer and Kelly have also shored up and diversified Rockefeller Center’s quick-service dining lineup with JJ Johnson’s FieldTrip, David Chang’s Fuku, Rachel Krupa’s The Goods Mart and many others. It’s enough to make the idea of going back to your Midtown office feel exciting.
- Bond Hospitality
With the members-only Zero Bond, Sartiano (who previously was a top nightlife operator at Butter, 1OAK and The Darby) has created the private club of choice for power players like Mayor Eric Adams, Tom Brady, Kim Kardashian and Michael Rubin.
In June, Sartiano and chef Alfred Portale opened Italian restaurant Sartiano’s at the storied Mercer Hotel space that used to be home to Mercer Kitchen. As always, Sartiano stresses that he doesn’t do many deals and only seizes opportunities where he believes he can make a long-term impact.
“My goal for Sartiano’s is for it to become a multi-generational New York City restaurant and a SoHo staple,” he tells Observer.
Sartiano sees both Sartiano’s and Zero Bond as brands that he can expand around the country and beyond. The second Zero Bond is slated to open at Wynn Las Vegas in 2025.
Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis
- Saffy’s, Bavel and Bestia
After creating Italian wonderland Bestia and celebrating their roots at Middle Eastern phenomenon Bavel, this husband-and-wife culinary couple doubled down on their heritage with their third blockbuster restaurant: Saffy’s became an instant sensation in East Hollywood last year with shawarma and skewers cooked over open-fire and the kind of packed, loud, frenetic dining room that Menashe and Gergis excel at creating. On Fridays and Saturdays, Saffy’s, Bavel and Bestia might serve 1,300 people combined, and even weeknights see 1,100 guests.
“We’re just as maxed out as we’ve always been,” Menashe, who transformed the Arts District with Bestia in 2012 and Bavel in 2018, tells Observer. Rather than open more restaurants for themselves, the couple now want to help their existing staff create businesses.
“We want to find talent from within, team up with them and grow that way,” Menashe says. “The goal now is to help people develop their own concept.”
“What we can give is more than our style of cooking,” Gergis tells Observer. “What we can give is our years of experience.”
Menashe and Gergis’s restaurants have already spawned a slew of chefs and operators who are making an impact. In Los Angeles alone, their former employees have gone on to open 2023 James Beard Award winner Ototo, 2023 Bon Appetit Best New Restaurant Kuya Lord, Cento Pasta Bar, Poltergeist, Barra Santos and Tabula Rasa Bar.
Eugene Remm and Mark Birnbaum
- Catch Hospitality Group
Remm and Birnbaum are known for enormous, celebrity-laden restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Aspen, but they’re taking a measured approach to expanding their Catch and Catch Steak empire.
“What we’re doing is a steady-growth business plan where we try to open one store per year,” Remm tells Observer. “It’s a perfect balance of growing a business while keeping the culture, which is the most important thing to us…We are not backed by private equity. We’re responsible to ourselves and our team. We want to be here for the next 20 or 30 years, so blitz growth has no value for us if it’s going to hurt the brand.”
Next up for Remm, Birnbaum and partner Tilman Fertitta is an 18,000-square-foot Miami Beach location. Catch has also secured deals for locations in Dallas and Scottsdale.
“We look for amazing pieces of real estate in cities that can handle multiple $20-million-plus restaurants,” Remm says. “When we see that trend, we believe it has space for a Catch. We need to make sure that these are cities that can be busy on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.”
The uncompromising culinary mind who blasted the racism-laced strictures of fine dining in a 2019 memoir (Notes from a Young Black Chef, which he completed before he turned 30) has ascended to the top of New York’s hospitality elite. He’s done this at Tatiana, a Lincoln Center restaurant that celebrates Black cuisine through the lens of New York, a city where cultures blend like nowhere else. Thanks to Onwuachi, high-end destination dining can now mean braised oxtails, curried snow crab, brown-stew branzino and a “bodega special” dessert that’s a riff on a Little Debbie Cosmic Brownie.
Next up for Onwuachi (who’s also curated a sold-out Food & Wine festival) is a return to Washington D.C., where he previously opened Kith and Kin.
Tosh Berman and Mikey Tanha
- Noble 33 Hospitality Group
The scene-dining players behind Toca Madera, Casa Madera and Sparrow Italia are on an expansion tear with big plans for Houston, Miami and New York City along with their existing restaurants in Los Angeles, Scottsdale, Las Vegas, London and Toronto. Noble 33, which recently got funding from inKind and is one of the fastest-growing and best-selling brands on inKind’s consumer-facing app, isn’t shy about facing the strongest competition in the game. In New York, Berman and Tanha just opened the nearly 9,000-square-foot Meduza Mediterrania in the Meatpacking District, an area where Catch, Tao and RH New York have footholds.
When you add in two forthcoming Los Angeles locations, Noble 33 has deals for nine restaurants that could open in the next 24 to 36 months. They’re also considering other locations in New York. But the founders say they had to learn how to walk before they could run like this.
“We really started the infancy stages of this hospitality company back in 2014,” Berman tells Observer. “We purposely and cautiously made decisions on the way we’ve expanded. We felt like we needed to continue to fine-tune our skills. It was after the launch of London [in 2019] when we really felt like we were ready to meet the expectations of the discerning clientele in the New York market. Our particular brand of restaurant hospitality has a high-energy component, an atmospheric component, a theatrical component. That art direction is something we’ve been fine-tuning for the better part of a decade.”
Christopher Chen, Chris Ying and Noelle Cornelio
- Majordomo Media
The team running David Chang’s media company recently opened its Los Angeles studio, a 6,000-square-foot production/event space with two kitchens at the Row DTLA development, where everything from cooking demos to dinner parties cooked by Chang could turn into programming distributed to a wide audience.
“At Majordomo Media, we're focused on creating honest, relatable shows and products that help people have the knowledge and tools to eat, cook and live life better,” Cornelio says. “Now, with our new studio and event space, we're bringing all of our work and productions—whether it's TV shows, digital content, podcasts or product development—under one roof. We're able to not only share and connect more stories across various mediums but also invite our audience in on the action. Soon, they'll be able to take part in our shows, taste what our chefs and talent are creating and experience home goods in a new way.”
Majordomo Media’s TV lineup already includes shows for Netflix (most notably the Emmy-nominated Ugly Delicious) and Disney/Hulu (where Majordomo Media signed a talent deal for Chang and a production deal for original programming, including Best in Dough and Secret Chef). Majordomo has filmed more than 300 hours of programming for LG’s FAST channel business and is busy creating more streaming content for the smart-TV giant. Beyond that, there’s Majordomo’s Ringer/Spotify podcast business along with products including Anyday microwaveable bowls. A line of pots and pans (a partnership with cookware giant Meyer) is in the works.
Missy Robbins and Sean Feeney
Chef Robbins and restaurateur Feeney have always thought of Grovehouse, which runs Misi and Lilia in Williamsburg, as a hospitality company and not a restaurant company.
“We were never going to open a lot of restaurants,” Feeney tells Observer. “One of the goals was creating a really amazing experience for people inside of a space like a restaurant and then at some point scaling that outside of the four walls."
It helps, of course, when the four walls of your restaurants are constantly packed. (Misi and Lilia have more Resy notifications than any other restaurants in Brooklyn.) So in August, the partners opened their Williamsburg “experiential retail boutique” Misipasta, which sells pasta sheets, cook-at-home pasta kits, sauces, large-format entrees and more.
“The goal is helping people master the art of cooking and hosting and entertaining,” Feeney says. Feeney also had a busy year expanding his slice joint, Fini Pizza, which started in Williamsburg and recently added locations in Amagansett and outside of the Barclays Center.
Frank III & Lorenzo Fertitta
- Station Casinos
These casino moguls (who operate, among many other restaurants, Palace Station’s beloved 24-hour Oyster Bar and have brought Philadelphia chef Marc Vetri, Vegas mainstay Lotus of Siam and Los Angeles hospitality giant Wish You Were Here Group to their revamped Red Rock casino-resort) are continuing to make huge bets on off-Strip hospitality.
The brothers are spending close to $780 million on the Durango casino-resort, which is slated to open November 20 with restaurants from Lettuce Entertain You and Clique Hospitality. Durango will also be home to the Eat Your Heart Out food hall with outposts of L.A.’s Irv’s Burgers, New York’s Prince Street Pizza, Philadelphia’s Fiorella (also from Vetri) alongside local favorites like Shang Artisan Noodle, Vesta Coffee and Nielsen’s Frozen Custard. And perhaps most exciting for customers who know how long the wait can be at Palace Station, no matter when you visit: There will be an Oyster Bar here, too.
When Webb launched ChowNow in 2012, his goal was to simply offer independent restaurants an online ordering solution. Since then, the subscription-based commission-free takeout platform (which gives restaurants all customer data from transactions) has become vital for multiple reasons. Most importantly, the simple idea of letting restaurants keep more money from each sale helps operators survive in a challenging industry that only became harder when Covid-19 hit.
A commission-free platform also reduces the cost of takeout for customers because restaurants aren’t inclined to mark up prices as they do on apps that take percentages of each sale. Webb understands that many restaurants, desperate for revenue, signed up for multiple platforms during the pandemic. He sees ChowNow as a one-stop alternative now that things are normalizing.
“What we’ve always focused on is building one platform to power all things takeout,” Webb says. “You don’t need to use five vendors. We can take care of everything for you. You can have one button on your website for pickup and delivery.”
ChowNow works with 20,000 restaurants and saves those restaurants hundreds of millions of dollars in commissions each year. It’s powered more than 250 million orders from 45 million customers, including 15 million customers in the last year.
- Blau Associates
The longtime restaurant-development executive and consultant, who’s put together casino dining lineups that have generated more than $1 billion in revenue, helped Steve Wynn bring Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Todd English and Petrossian to Bellagio 25 years ago. As an owner/operator, she partnered with Kerry Simon and Buddy Valastro. Her imprint is on current Wynn Las Vegas hot spots Delilah and Casa Playa.
Beyond Las Vegas, she was tapped by Tishman Speyer for the redevelopment of New York’s Rainbow Room. Her clients have included numerous hotel groups, Mohegan Sun and the Golden State Warriors. Her reach extends to Canada, Asia and the Middle East (where she’s overseeing restaurant development for Wynn’s forthcoming United Arab Emirates property). Her new Dallas steakhouse, Crown Block, atop the famed Reunion Tower, booked 10,000 reservations in its first week.
“The casinos are what I’m renowned for, but our scope and reach are so much broader than that,” Blau tells Observer. “I’ve created a rare niche. I can step into anywhere there’s a need for a food-and-beverage solution.”
- Bowery Engine
The tech-stack entrepreneur and investor who founded and exited point-of-sale company Salido has a portfolio of innovative companies, including Lunchbox (which provides enterprise order management for everything from David Chang’s Fuku to 16 Handles to chains with 1,000-plus locations like Firehouse Subs) and SevenRooms (which allows high-end restaurants, nightclubs and many other spots to use customer data in ways that increase revenue and guest loyalty).
He’s also getting directly into the brick-and-mortar game with a recent deal for the North American and South American rights to Gymkhana, a Michelin-starred contemporary Indian restaurant in London. Chowdhury is actively working with major development partners to open Gymkhana in New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles while also growing the Gymkhana Fine Foods consumer-products business.
“It’s both a privilege and a duty to showcase and build a brand that celebrates the best culinary elements of my heritage,” the Indian-American Chowdhury tells Observer.
A regular VIP guest at many of the country’s hottest restaurants, Chowdhury says he’s studying the best operators because he wants to learn from their success.
Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook
- CookNSolo Restaurants
The creators of game-changing Philadelphia restaurants that showcase the diversity of Israeli food, Solomonov and Cook are rightfully one of the country’s most respected operating teams. Their headliner restaurant, Zahav, hit the trifecta of James Beard Awards (outstanding restaurant, outstanding chef for Solomonov and book of the year) back when the Beards were less performative and had more heft.
Last year, Solomonov and Cook, with Boka Restaurant Group, opened the most buzzed-about new restaurant in Brooklyn: an outpost of Israeli grill Laser Wolf on the roof of Williamsburg's Hoxton hotel. They’ve since added two more restaurants, K’Far and Jaffa, at the hotel.
With a hospitality group that goes through more than 180 gallons of tahina weekly, they’ve helped create a landscape where Middle Eastern food (whether it’s elegant or rustic or both at the same time) is the main event at top restaurants around the country.
“I wanted to bring Israeli food to the global market and I wanted to represent a country that is often misunderstood,” Solomonov tells Observer. This year, Solomonov was appointed to President Biden’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition and also became Doordash’s chief restaurant advisor. “I’m really proud to be able to say that I am fulfilling what I think is to be my life’s work. To look back at our business plan that Steve wrote, it was like, ‘Israeli food will be the next big thing.’ That was half because we believed it and half because we needed our friends and family to give us $5,000 checks. To be able to look back on this and say we sort of made it, it’s really really cool.”
- Quality Branded
Stillman creates over-the-top theatrical restaurants like Quality Italian (which sold 200,000 slices of chicken parm pizza in 2022) and playfully subversive modern Italian restaurant Bad Roman (which has become one of the city’s busiest restaurants after opening at the Shops at Columbus Circle this year).
It’s no surprise that when Stillman opens a more intimate restaurant like Don Angie, the demand for seats greatly exceeds the supply. Don Angie debuted in 2017, sold 17,000 lasagnas last year and still averages 1,200 notifications on Resy nightly.
Meanwhile, Bad Roman, which averages 500 covers a night, quickly prompted the New York Post to declare that “NYC’s most thrilling new restaurant is in a mall.” That mall, with a dining collection that includes Per Se and Masa, already had high-end restaurants but had never seen anything like the throngs showing up with hopes of scoring a Bad Roman walk-in seat at 5 p.m.
“I definitely realize how special that is,” Stillman tells Observer. He believes that immersive, experiential restaurants have become increasingly alluring after changes brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic have kept people at home more. “It’s the 24th restaurant I’ve opened personally. It is a unique thing, especially for its size and scale, to create that kind of interest…Social media plays a big part in that. We’ve had people who show up at Bad Roman all the time and say they didn’t realize where this was.”
Stillman, a proud New Yorker who's honored to be part of the city’s post-Covid resurgence, will continue to focus on New York expansion. But he’s also looking for the right deals around the country. Last year, he opened three new restaurant concepts on the ground floor of a members club in Denver.
- JF Restaurants
At both his independent restaurants and the destinations he’s created at upper-echelon hotels, New York chef John Fraser has showcased bright, vibrant, often vegetable-focused cuisine.
“A lot of my training as a cook was in Southern California,” Fraser, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, tells Observer. “So it’s not just a sensibility. It’s also a kind of connectivity. There’s a certain kind of sunlight. There’s a certain way of moving in the world that’s very Southern California. That imprint has followed me through almost all of my cooking.”
So it makes sense that Fraser returned to Los Angeles in 2019 and opened both Ardor and The Roof at Ian Schrager and Marriott’s West Hollywood Edition hotel. Combined, Ardor and The Roof average more than 10,000 monthly covers, which is notable in a city that often isn’t welcoming to out-of-town chefs. Fraser has also expanded to the Tampa Edition, where his Azure restaurant alone is averaging 8,660 covers a month.
“We’re in the hospitality business,” says Fraser, who will soon open restaurants at the new luxury development Winthrop Center in Boston. “In my younger years, I worked for people who would curse brunch or curse breakfast. In my mind, those are opportunities to make impacts and create memories. If we do a couple million bucks in breakfast and you’re trying to hit profitability, that’s a really nice way to do it.”
- The Grey
After working with mentor Gabrielle Hamilton at New York’s Prune, the Bronx-born Bailey partnered with John Morisano to open a trailblazing Savannah, Georgia, restaurant in 2014. The Grey, located on the site of a former Greyhound bus terminal that was segregated, is where Bailey has woven together African-diaspora cuisine with Southern food and established herself as one of America’s most acclaimed and influential chefs (complete with her own Chef’s Table episode). This year, Bailey opened Diner Bar and The Grey Market in Austin’s Thompson Hotel, where she’s continuing to reimagine what Southern food is and can be.
“I think this type of food is going to continue to be innovative because chefs are more personal now,” Bailey, who spent part of her childhood in Savannah, tells Observer. “With African Americans, there’s this huge gaping hole. It’s really difficult to draw from what tribe you come from. So we get to do this real melting pot of flavors and come from a very intuitive place.”
Next up is a restaurant in Paris, which Bailey plans to open early next year in a 7th Arrondissement café space she and Morisano have purchased. Bailey, who cut her teeth cooking in France, is excited to dive into the overlaps between French cooking and Southern cuisines.
- Scarr’s Pizza
New York’s top slice joint (just ask Pete Wells) is the life’s work of a Dominican-American who does things his own way with organic house-milled flour, organic tomatoes, all-natural cheese, vegan Caesar salads and expertly crafted cocktails at his new flagship across the street from his original location. (Pro tip: Skip the slice line by using Resy to book a table for a whole pie.)
“I want to show people from my background what’s possible,” says Pimentel, whose merch game has included limited-edition Nikes (only given to friends and family, with a pair subsequently sold via Sotheby’s for $220,000) and T-shirts you might see worn at scenester festivals on the other side of the country. “I use organic ingredients because I don’t want to feed my friends something that makes them feel bad.”
He’s put the Sushi Oku omakase bar into his former location, where he also plans to add vegan pizza. Deals for pizzerias in Los Angeles and Asia, as well as a Dubai pop-up, are in process.
- 50 Eggs Hospitality Group
After turning fried chicken into destination dining at the first Yardbird in Miami, Kunkel has expanded that Southern food brand to Las Vegas, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Chicago, Denver and Singapore. His hospitality company also showcases pan-Latin flavors and live-fire cooking at chef Lorena Garcia’s Chica in Miami, Las Vegas and Aspen. And Kunkel leveled up last year when he partnered with two-Michelin-star chef Tetsuya Wakuda on Wakuda, a glitzy restaurant at the upscale Venetian resort (also home to Yardbird and Chica) on the Vegas Strip. Kunkel is now scouting possible future locations for Wakuda.
“Whatever Wakuda is in Vegas today, the next one will continue to evolve and get better,” Kunkel says. “We’ve started looking at sites in New York and also L.A., and we’ve also been targeting London and the Middle East. ”
- José Andrés Group
“The content and the storytelling was created over 30 years,” Bakshandehpour says of world-beating chef José Andrés’s multifaceted company in a recent conversation with Observer. “But in the last 24 months, we’ve really invested in people and systems, and the company has been transformed and set up for expansion.”
There are now 36 restaurants in the portfolio, including deals Bakhshandehpour secured for Zaytinya and The Bazaar at the Ritz-Carlton New York, Nomad. Bakhshandehpour and Andrés also recently opened hotel restaurants at Conrad Los Angeles, Waldorf-Astoria Washington D.C. and Atlantis the Royal in Dubai. Plus, the company has signed a joint-venture agreement with retail-development giant Simon Properties to open restaurants, including a Zaytinya at The Forum Shops in Las Vegas. Beyond that, another dozen restaurants (several in South Florida) might come to life in the next 18 months.
Aside from restaurants, Bakhshandehpour is working on forthcoming consumer products (sauces, spices and prepared food) and running a media arm that’s created Discovery+ show José Andrés & Family in Spain and the Pressure Cooker podcast.
“It was a real opportunity not to do competition shows and to focus on storytelling,” Bakhshandehpour says.
Candace and Charles Nelson
- CN2 Ventures
After defying diet trends and selling more than 100 million cupcakes at Sprinkles Cupcakes (acquired by investment firm KarpReilly), this multifaceted hospitality/investment couple is focusing on new brands like Pizzana.
“Candace and I are creators of concepts,” says Charles, who, like his wife, went from investment banking to food entrepreneurship. “And when it’s time for someone else to take over, it’s time for us to go create something new.”
The Nelsons and pizzaiolo Daniele Uditi, who debuted their neo-Neapolitan pizzeria in L.A.’s ritzy Brentwood neighborhood, have four Pizzanas in Los Angeles and one in Dallas. Another L.A. location and a Houston outpost could open this year, and Austin, Nashville and Florida are the next targets. Ever ambitious, the Nelsons envision hundreds of Pizzanas around the country while they also consider ventures like consumer-packaged goods. Candace has no doubt gotten some new investment ideas as she’s filmed episodes for the new season of Shark Tank.
Much more than a reservations solution, Montaniel’s total-package CRM company has helped top restaurant operators (Nobu, Danny Meyer, Wolfgang Puck), nightlife spots (LIV, Tao, Delilah), hotels (Mandarin Oriental, Wynn, Marriott) and private clubs (Soho House, Zero Bond, Aman) with everything from online transactions to virtual waitlists to personalizing experiences for VIP customers. At the same time, SevenRooms allows restaurants to manage their reservations book across multiple platforms, including Google, OpenTable and Resy.
“We help restaurants manage their operations, guest data and marketing,” Montaniel tells Observer. “Where we’ve found the biggest gap of what they don’t do is in marketing.”
So SevenRooms is empowering hospitality groups to do things like inform regulars about new openings or target high-value customers who haven’t visited in a while. Under Montaniel’s leadership, SevenRooms has seated more than a billion guests at upwards of 10,000 venues around the world since launching in 2011. Spend a day in Las Vegas, for example, and you might stay at an MGM Resorts International casino-resort, eat at a restaurant and party at a club or lounge powered by the data-driven SevenRooms.
- The Joint
At any given moment at Liao’s dry-aged seafood market in Los Angeles, more than 1,200 fish hang on hooks. The Joint has sold seafood to more than 60 California restaurants, including those helmed by Wolfgang Puck, Enrique Olvera and Dominique Crenn. Liao (who recently opened his own hand-roll bar, Uoichiba) is an evangelist who’s convinced the culinary elite that dry-aging seafood clarifies flavors and removes impurities. L.A. chefs like Michael Cimarusti, who dry-ages his own fish at Providence, credit Liao for turning them on to the process.
Liao’s outgrown his current digs and is working on a larger facility, known as Spec Fisheries, where he will age more than 30,000 pounds of fish weekly.
“This will be the largest dry-aging production company in the world, hands down,” Liao (whose customers already include restaurants in Washington D.C. and Nashville) tells Observer.
He’ll be supplying fish to the forthcoming Durango casino-resort’s Nicco’s steakhouse in Las Vegas and also has New York and Texas on the horizon.
- Earl Enterprises
In addition to a portfolio that includes Planet Hollywood (which he founded), Buca di Beppo (which recently took funding from inKind) and ghost-kitchen giant Virtual Dining Concepts, Earl is betting on the future of shopping malls. This year, he opened the 55,000-square-foot Topanga Social food hall, which now brings in 6,000 guests a day to the Westfield Topanga Mall and could gross more than $30 million annually in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley.
One of the goals at Topanga Social and the future food halls Earl plans to create is giving buzzworthy “single-unit chef-inspired operations'' (like Mini Kabob, Amboy and Shrimp Daddy) a viable expansion plan, with technology (including mobile ordering) that helps fuel that growth.
“I’m very friendly with lots of mall owners,” Earl tells Observer. “Across the world, mall owners are looking to repurpose the usage inside their malls. Our company’s position is that food and beverage is the answer because it will get you out of your home on a regular basis. We started thinking about what could be sufficiently innovative and exciting that as soon as you get there, you’re saying, ‘I’ve got to come back.’”
Sodikoff’s high-flying Chicago restaurant group (known for, among other things, its beloved Au Cheval burger) is also a force in New York. The iconic 4 Charles Prime Rib, with its glamorous old-school dining experience, opened in 2016 and hasn’t stopped being one of the city’s toughest reservations. (According to data obtained by Observer, Resy notifications for this restaurant are often only surpassed by Major Food Group’s Carbone and Torrisi.)
Hogsalt also has a popular Las Vegas steakhouse, Bavette’s, inside the Park MGM resort. Bavette’s, a brand that started in Chicago, is a restaurant that celebrates both the old and the new. The design is retro, but this is a modern meatery with French influences and a laid-back vibe that favors fun over formality. In Vegas, things often pop off here on the nights of Golden Knights games.
The visionary behind the 18-square-block Miami Design District has believed in the future of this formerly abandoned area since he started acquiring property here more than two decades ago. Now he’s curated a neighborhood with Major Food Group destinations (ZZ’s Club, Contessa and Sadelle’s at Kith), David Grutman’s Swan, Simon Kim’s Cote, Antonio Bachour’s Tablé and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon (the only two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Florida). And with shopping options from Chanel to Ferragamo to Harry Winston to Hermès, this pleasantly strollable area has become one of the most luxurious retail and dining districts in America.
Robins is also behind Design Miami, a yearly fair that attracts discerning collectors on the same week as Art Basel.
“Craig is a visionary,” Kim says. “He predicted what the future would be. His vision for the future is something I believe in too. I felt that Miami was going to move away from the beach and start becoming this cosmopolitan international city. He’s created something truly unique with the Design District.”
There’s so much stimuli at this 24-hour Miami ultra club that certain VIP tables are sometimes sold multiple times on big nights, with top spenders happily overwhelmed even if they decide to leave before a headliner enters the DJ booth. After creating E11even, which debuted in 2014, DeGori and partners Mike Simkins and Marc Roberts have gone on to build a multifaceted business with a merchandise arm that sells $1 million in branded caps a year, a vodka line, a record label and other ventures.
This year, the group opened glamorous rooftop restaurant Giselle atop E11even, and there’s a forthcoming E11even high-rise hotel/condo development. During this year’s Formula 1 week (when E11even teamed up with Vegas nightclub Zouk on performances from Rick Ross, DJ Snake, Deadmau5, Travis Scott and Tiesto), many guests at prime E11even tables recognized one another because they had all come there directly from Carbone Beach.
- Resorts World Las Vegas and Zouk Group
Nicolli, a former street promoter who worked his way up the nightlife ranks at Wynn Las Vegas, is now a Vegas casino executive who’s driving the expansion of world-renowned club Zouk into Los Angeles. Zouk L.A., a partnership with Sam Nazarian’s SBE, will open next year and promises to have a stacked lineup of A-list DJs and performers. After all, Zouk at the two-year-old Resorts World Las Vegas has already boasted 150 headliners including Tiesto, Post Malone, Travis Scott, Miley Cyrus and J Balvin.
“When we went into this endeavor, it started with the idea of how do we create opportunities for our resident artists to play the other markets where Zouk is going to be represented,” Nicolli tells Observer.
Beyond his involvement with Zouk, Nicolli is also the hospitality-minded marketing boss at a casino where the Famous Food Street Eats food hall has racked up more than 1.7 million transactions. Resorts World Las Vegas is the type of buzzy spot where J. Cole filmed a music video during the day and Jack Harlow performed late-night on the same NBA Summer League weekend when Alex Rodriguez, Chris Paul and Sean O’Malley visited the property.
“You’re coming into this world understanding that it’s a lifestyle choice,” Nicolli says of his chosen career path. “The phone’s never off. Anyone at a high level in this industry, you’re always on.”
- Creator, Director, Producer
With Chef’s Table, Netflix’s first unscripted original and the streaming platform’s longest-running show, Gelb created a new kind of food television. A program without a host or a competition. A docuseries with cinematic qualities that centers stories around great chefs (including Massimo Bottura, Chris Bianco, Dominique Crenn, Rodney Scott, Enrique Olvera and Christina Tosi) and their origins, inspirations, desires, demons and ambitions. Chef’s Table has used food to tell important stories about creativity and commerce for a worldwide audience.
“The goal was to make a food show that I would want to watch, that wasn’t so much about how to cook and wasn’t a travelogue,” Gelb tells Observer. “It was a show about the passion of chefs, told by the chefs themselves and the people closest to them. And I wanted to bring all of the tools of cinema to bear and make it a poetic, meditative experience.”
Gelb previously directed Jiro Dreams of Sushi and recently made a Wolfgang Puck documentary for Disney+, but Chef’s Table (which premiered in 2015 and has created spinoffs that focused on France, barbecue and pizza) is his past, present and future.
“We’re all-in on Chef’s Table,” Gelb says. “We’re going to keep going as long as we can. We’re honored that chefs are honored to be on the show. One of the greatest compliments was from Alain Passard, who said the impact of Chef’s Table to him was greater than getting his third Michelin star.”
- Playback Prodigy
In his former roles as co-founder of hip-hop magazine The Source and director of programming for Wynn Las Vegas nightclubs, Shecter was at the forefront of musical trends. Now he curates music (funk, soul, disco, world music, yacht rock, electronic music and much more) that upwards of a million people hear every day at luxury properties around the country and beyond. His clients include Wynn Resorts (where he works closely with top executives to select songs for Las Vegas, Boston and Macau properties), MGM Resorts International (including Bellagio, Aria and Park MGM/NoMad), Soho House, Catch, Clique Hospitality and Okada Manila. In total, Playback Prodigy has customized music channels for more than 1,000 food-and-beverage and nightlife venues worldwide.
“In a big resort, we might serve up 48 channels of music simultaneously,” Shecter tells Observer. “We have great technology, but in the end what matters is the music: the selections we make, the way the music sounds, the transitions between songs. It’s about working with every client to identify what sonic identity their brand represents and to perfect that programming.”
- Golden Age Hospitality
A hands-on operator whom you might see DJing at his piano bar/lounge The Nines late at night, Neidich (whose hospitality company also includes Acme, The Happiest Hour and Deux Chats) is the arbiter of a specific brand of downtown cool that eschews big bottle-service clubs and favors exclusivity more focused on style and creativity.
There’s quite possibly more je ne sais quoi per square foot in his intimate spots than anyone else’s. Succession star Jeremy Strong, a close friend, even told The New York Times that Neidich’s future impact could rival that of legends like Keith McNally and Jeff Klein. Last year, Neidich opened Le Dive, a natural wine bar in Dimes Square, solidifying the serious scenester status of a micro-neighborhood with a name that started as kind of a joke.
- New York Times
Yes, in this age of social media reviews and user-generated recommendation apps, professional critics matter less and less. But Wells is still a critic who can move markets. Let’s be clear: There are people on this list because Wells has ordained them. Kwame Onwuachi is undeniable at this moment after Wells declared that the chef’s Tatiana is the No. 1 restaurant in New York. The love that Wells has for Major Food Group (dating back to the original Torrisi) and JP and Ellia Park has helped make careers. Meanwhile, former top-of-the-food-chain restaurants like Per Se and Eleven Madison Park are less important because Wells doesn’t care about them as much anymore.
- The Surf Lodge
This Brazilian-born entrepreneur (who became a downtown nightlife fixture at Cain and Goldbar and worked with Tao Group Hospitality at Lavo) is an expert at creating perfect seasonal getaways. The Surf Lodge, with a strong music lineup, beach-chic hotel rooms, seafood-focused cuisine and a French Riviera-inspired lounge that’s a collaboration with CB2, is still a buzzing Montauk summer hangout 15 years after opening. Sister property The Snow Lodge at The St. Regis in Aspen is an après-ski experience that pops off like no other with a supper club, headlining DJs like Zedd and The Chainsmokers, cabaret shows and acoustic performances.
Andrew Taub and Jonathan Owsley
- L Catterton
Industry insiders point to Taub and Owsley as true hospitality power players at billionaire Bernard Arnault’s private equity colossus, which purchased Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group for $650 million and then sold part of that portfolio to Tilman Fertitta. L Catterton has also powered the growth of popular chains like Hopdoddy Burger Bar, sandwich slinger Mendocino Farms and salad sensation Chop’t.
From upscale dining to quick-service concepts to real estate (including the Miami Design District, which has turned into one of the country’s most significant dining neighborhoods), L Catterton bets on market-moving brands by providing operational expertise along with capital. The firm continues to run Bartaco and Barcelona Wine Bar, both of which were part of the Del Frisco’s purchase.
Billy Logan and Hank Spring
Private-equity legends Allan Karp and Chris Reilly are passing the torch to Logan (who’s on the board of California Fish Grill and Salt & Straw) and Spring (who’s on the board of Made in Cookware and Koia).
Logan and Spring are tasked with growing a firm that purchased Sprinkles Cupcakes and has funded the expansion of everything from Portland’s Salt & Straw to Los Angeles restaurants like HomeState and Pitfire (proving that private equity can see potential in brands that start off as neighborhood spots). And with investments like Spindrift sparkling water and Pop & Bottle wellness-focused coffee, KarpReilly is also a major beverage player.
Richard Born and Ira Drukier
- BD Hotels
Born and Drukier are savvy veteran hoteliers who understand the type of buzzy hospitality that upscale New York areas crave (while simultaneously creating affordable lodging options like the Pod hotels). Monkey Bar at Hotel Elysée dates back to 1936, has seen multiple incarnations (including one helmed by Graydon Carter) and is still one of the most coveted reservations in the city. At the Maritime Hotel in the party-centric Meatpacking District, Born and Drukier brought in Catch Steak and Tao Downtown.
These hotel moguls are constantly making moves to keep properties relevant and exciting: At SoHo’s Mercer Hotel, Zero Bond’s Scott Sartiano recently opened Sartiano’s with chef Alfred Portale in a location that was home to Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Mercer Kitchen for 25 years.
B.J. Novak and Timothy Hollingsworth
This sly, nostalgia-loving Los Angeles pop-up, which updates chain restaurant items with upscale ingredients, has a 20,000-plus-person waitlist. Chain has collaborated with Taco Bell on a wagyu-filled Crunchwrap Supreme riff and with Jack in the Box on a Munchies sauce. Chain created 1,000 limited-edition Pizza Hut hats that sold out in less than a day, even before Drew Barrymore wore one on her TV show. A second run of 1,000 hats also sold out in less than a day.
“Chain is a celebration of New Americana,” Novak, who recently moved the pop-up from a 150-capacity house to a 400-person venue, tells Observer. “What the diner was in the '50s, chain restaurants are to younger generations. Chain taps into that multi-generational nostalgia and puts a new spin on it. It's all about appreciating what's so universal and beloved about fast-casual cuisine and culture and actually treating it as something really special.”
Now Novak and Hollingsworth, who’ve had guests like Mindy Kaling, John Mayer, Kiernan Shipka, Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, Roy Choi and Shirley Chung at their events, are planning the huge two-day ChainFest that will debut food and merch collaborations with chains like Panda Express, Red Robin, Sonic and Dunkin’ in December.
“This started as a bit of a joke–making high-quality homages of chain restaurant dishes and serving them as a pandemic-era pop-up–but 18 months later, we're getting ready for a multi-thousand-person event where we'll partner with many of the chain restaurants that inspired us,” Hollingsworth tells Observer.
- Hart House
In just one year, the headlining comedian and actor’s plant-based restaurant company has become a quick-service player changing the face of fast food in Los Angeles. Hart House, with locations in L.A.’s Westchester (near the LAX airport), Monrovia, Hollywood and University Park South (across from the USC campus), has a self-declared mission of being “plant-based for the people.” The 100 percent plant-based food at Hart House includes burgers, sandwiches, salads, nuggets, fries, tots and shakes free from antibiotics, hormones, high fructose corn syrup, preservatives and artificial colors.
With Hart as its hype man, Hart House is creating affordable, health-conscious restaurants and community gathering places in underserved areas. The University Park South location, for example, aims to attract students and South Central L.A. residents with a big patio that includes giant Jenga, a water feature and a fire pit for chillier evenings.
Eric Demby and Jonathan Butler
Demby and Butler’s outdoor food markets are attended by tens of thousands of people around the country each week, and Smorgasburg has become one of the impactful incubators of independent restaurants (including Mighty Quinn’s and Speedy Romeo in New York).
Born in New York, Smorgasburg is a force in Los Angeles as well, under the curation of general manager Zach Brooks. Moo’s Craft Barbecue was one of Smorgasburg L.A.’s most popular vendors before opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant that has received extensive critical acclaim. Saucy Chick Rotisserie and The Goat Mafia opened an L.A. restaurant together and received a rave Los Angeles Times review after connecting at Smorgasburg.
Last year, Smorgasburg expanded to Miami and Toronto.