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Without reservations

Two nightlife entrepreneurs move into the New York hotel business with a detailed vision of 1960s style.

June 15, 2003|James Verini | Special to The Times

"We had no idea how successful it would be," MacPherson says. Although not too convincingly. Both men have a preternatural knack for knowing where to open their establishments and when. Who knew, for instance, that people with day jobs wanted to rediscover Los Angeles' Sunset Strip? MacPherson did, when he opened Bar Marmont in 1996. Who knew that the CBGB-flophouse corridor of New York's Bowery was due for a revival? Goode did, when he opened Bowery Bar in 1994. And say what you will about the declining quality of the crowd there, Bowery Bar has outlived its flashier mid-'90s boom compatriots -- places such as Moomba and Life -- and even outlasted New York Daily News columnist A.J. Benza, who proclaimed it dead eight years ago, shortly before people stopped reading his column.

Unlike Benza and the supermodels they are occasionally linked with, MacPherson and Goode know how to stick around.

All of which will seem strange to anyone who meets them. They are, as people in their profession go, unassuming. They have none of the Rande Gerber or Ian Schrager black-on-black swagger. MacPherson grew up in Malibu and assorted ski-resort towns and looks like a better-fed David Bowie. But at well over 6 feet, he makes it a point not to tower over a conversation. He has a languid, patient voice. Goode grew up in the Bay Area. His default facial expression is a befuddled smile, calling to mind a more relaxed John McEnroe. Their party attire is the same as their construction site attire: jeans and sneakers. They both subscribe to that Steven Spielberg-Steven Bing, comfortable-enough-with-my-power-to-not-have-to-wear-a-suit school of dress.

Not that they finish each other's sentences. Although quieter, Goode is, he admits, the mercurial one. A graduate of Parsons School of Design in New York, he has directed Nine Inch Nails videos, and lives in a Manhattan loft packed with taxidermied animals and Le Corbusier couches. He has always been, he says, more interested in the "theatricality" of the nightlife business. MacPherson holds a business degree from USC and says that "in all of my projects, I've tried to do something that would last." He is the materials buff; Goode is the one who wants to see diners' reactions when they find they've been seated next to a 30-foot dracaena tree.

Goode plans for obsolescence, he says. Area was open for only four years, and his Club MK less than that. His one large L.A. venture, the club b.c., , was the place to be seen -- for the six months it was open. "When I did Area, I meant it to be ephemeral," Goode says. "It was meant to be theater. But this is different."

By contrast, of the 11 restaurants and bars MacPherson has opened himself or with other partners, eight are still in business.

"He understands the aesthetics and the day-to-day," said Jon Sidel, MacPherson's former partner in the Olive, Good Luck Bar and Jones, among others. "At Jones, we developed a very complicated system to run the numbers. It was very laborious. I didn't want to hassle some guy about how many potatoes were in the kitchen. But Sean made people do it. To be successful in this business you have to nag, and he can nag."


The nightlife path

For all their anti-scene humility, MacPherson and Goode are well-known men of the evening. MacPherson, who has never been married and has no children, used to live with actress-model Gina Gershon. Goode, who's been married once (to get his wife a green card, he says), used to date model Rachel Williams.

They are beating a well-worn, if logical, path into the night. Their two most prominent predecessors are Schrager, once upon a time of Studio 54 and now of myriad hotels, including the Mondrian, and Andre Balazs, owner of the Standard hotels (he started out as a minority partner in one of Goode's clubs in New York). The path is strewn with casualties. But boutique hotels have come to replace mega-clubs in the hierarchy of nightlife; it is now hotels, and not restaurants or bars, that represent the high-water mark of entrepreneurial success in the nightlife industry.

MacPherson has had hotel ambitions since a decade ago, when he and Sidel attempted to buy the Farmers Daughter motel on Fairfax Avenue. That was in 1993 -- when he was 28. When the Park opened, the New York press noted that it felt like the ground floor of a boutique hotel, without the rooms upstairs.

But as they sit in their self-designed, self-furnished hotel, MacPherson and Goode are, they insist, a breed apart. "We've been immersed in this project in the way that most owners would probably be too smart to," MacPherson says. "We've done the most unglamorous things you can imagine -- flying to tile conventions in Florida."

"We've both put up our life savings for it," Goode says, in a rare moment of drama. "Our necks are out."

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