Mr. Big

Sam Nazarian’s proposed empire of hotels, clubs, and restaurants—and a partnership with designer Philippe Starck–could make him nightlife’s next king

When Sam Nazarian decided to reach the Paris designer Philippe Starck by phone and ask him to come to Los Angeles and draw up plans for a nightclub or a restaurant for him, he had yet to purchase Madonna’s Maverick Records headquarters on Beverly Boulevard, where his company SBE is now based. Nor had he picked up, for $11 million, Jennifer Lopez’s Mulholland Drive house, where today he lives among eight and a half bathrooms and all the furniture the actress left behind, or acquired Harvey Weinstein’s old Miramax building, where Nazarian will relocate SBE’s film division once his movies with Edward Norton and Laurence Fishburne are completed. Neither had he bought out RJ’s in Beverly Hills, El Dorado in Brentwood, the Lounge in West Hollywood, or the Gate and the Coconut Teaszer in Hollywood–all of which, along with a half-dozen or so other properties, will soon make up his hospitality empire. (Marina del Rey, where he intends to transplant the Hamptons’ yacht culture and create a hotel, wasn’t even on the agenda.) No, Nazarian hadn’t done any of this when he went searching for Starck’s number. He was only 26 then, and given that he is today 29, it was almost a lifetime ago.

When Nazarian did reach him last year, Starck remembers asking out loud, “Who is this guy?” Nazarian, a USC business school graduate who had spent a few years managing his family’s extensive real estate portfolio, didn’t exactly have the kind of profile that would turn an internationally renowned designer’s head. On a sunny afternoon in late January, however, Starck swept into Nazarian’s office after flying in from Paris to close the deal he wound up striking with the once mysterious and therefore possibly boring Nazarian. “Because, eeef you work with boring people,” Starck said on his arrival, his vowels stretching out like lazy hammocks, “in the end eeet be boring. My rule is to give happiness, elegance, intelligence, mageeek, and not to work with people”–here he paused to mimic a boring developer–“who arrive and say, ‘It’s very nice–I like the pink and gray’ But we looove working with Sam.”

Starck wore brown-and-orange rubber boots, faded jeans, and a rumpled bomber jacket. He said he hadn’t slept for half a week, and he looked every minute of it. A nine-day shadow covered his ripened cherub face, and he spoke with the languid casualness of someone used to gesticulating with an expensive French cigarette in hand. “The minimum possible we can have,” he said, describing his new partnership with Nazarian, “is that you will eat the aaaiiir because of the vibration of what will happen in our places. We will completely change the face of L.A.!”

Nazarian, who had momentarily stepped out to smoke an American cigarette, appeared in the doorway dressed in motorcycle boots and an untucked black oxford. “The way I look at it,” he remarked in developerspeak, “is to bring in the best designer in the world and let him revolutionize L.A. with his high-end concept design.” Nazarian is high-end himself, six feet five and imposing–“like the pleasant side of a house,” a friend once described him. “That’s the revolutionary nature of Starck,” Nazarian said.

The designer smiled up at his new Hollywood benefactor and agreed. “It is called,” he announced, “the mageeek touch!”

Nazarian is banking on Starck’s magic touch. In the next 30 months the two men plan to build no fewer than ten Starck-designed restaurants and clubs in Los Angeles, which SBE will operate. Their first venture to break ground, a supper club named Slab, will appear on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights, where the Nazarian-owned club Shelter (formerly the Coconut Teaszer) sits. It will look, according to Starck, “like a slice of European castle floating in the middle of nowhere–a pure piece of poetry.”

Perhaps because he is the child of high-tech wealth (his father was an early Qualcomm investor), Nazarian loves talking in terms of “systems,” “concepts,” “factors,” and “components”–the entire world, whether it’s investment banking, cocktail service, or human interaction, broken down to the silicon chip and the iridium band. “We’re taking the lounge component to a higher factor,” he will say of an upcoming project with Starck, or “We have all the systems in place for our supper club concept rollout.” Often, he can appear dreamy and lost in thought, but it’s an alert kind of dreaming, the ever-spinning computation of interest rates, bond trajectories, and market trends that revolves in his head. Nazarian’s decision to woo Starck–famous for his elite properties, like Ian Schrager’s boutique hotels, and for his Target housewares line–is a calculated one.

Nazarian’s goal is to establish himself as the next king of L.A.’s nightlife, beneficent ruler of both the A-list and the C-list. Starck is equally comfortable in a swank hotel hallway or a crowded department store aisle.

In a few years, if everything goes Nazarian’s way; you won’t be able to throw a cell phone in L.A. without hitting a Starck-designed SBE property. (Today only two Starck properties ex ist in L.A., Schrager’s Mondrian hotel on the Sunset Strip and the Taschen bookstore in Beverly Hills.) Following Slab will come construction of Katsu, a Japanese restaurant led by sushi chef Katsuya Uechi, in Brentwood; Megu, a joint partnership between SBE and the Japanese company behind New York City’s Megu restaurant, on La Cienega; the Lounge, another supper club, in West Hollywood; the Club, a fourqevel nightclub and event space just blocks from the Kodak Theater on Hollywood Boulevard; and three more projects that include a supper club slated to go into the Grove and a possible cafe partnership with the Taschen publishing company. Hotels are to follow–SBE wants to own four or five in the next four or five years–as well as other mixed-use properties. In addition, many of Starck’s designs are meant to be prototypes that will successively roll out across the city. For instance, once the first Katsu opens, a second will be installed within a new four-square-block Grove mall going into Glendale.

Without roadblocks, Nazarian may soon attain a status heretofore unknown in the city’s history–a developer whose impact on cocktails is akin to Conrad Hilton’s influence on pillow mints. Starck–his clubs and restaurants standing from West Hollywood to Newport Beach–could find himself the most familiar public space designer in Southern California. Not even the city’s most important architect, Frank Gehry; has as many identifiable local buildings as Nazarian and Starck plan to create. That kind of panoramic self-expression can lead to architectural musings like, Could Starck imagine a project this vast in Paris?

“It is a conservative city,” he sighed regretfully; slouching even deeper into his exhaustion, “and there are no people there like Sam.”

“L.A.,” said Nazarian, mentioning a more favorable comparison, “is like Rome 2,000 years ago. Seventy percent of the images in the world come from here, and the A-list factor lives here.” Nazarian himself resembles a senator who might have passed judgment on Spartacus. He has a broad Roman nose; wears his black hair slicked back; owns thick, swooping eyebrows that could have been sketched with a coal lump; and the corners of his eyes, following the arch of the brows, pull downward, giving Nazarian a sometimes somber look that makes him seem knowing.

“But I think people here,” he continued, “have been lulled into a complacent state–they believe we will never have the best chefs, the best nightclubs, the coolest design, the best service.” Maybe because he appears a good decade older than his actual age–one of those men destined to look like the middle-aged adult they will become–it’s easier to believe a young man so fond of making grand claims. “The 1980s were the pinnacle of design here,” Nazarian said. “Now we’re bringing all that back with the Starck concepts.”

“L.A.,” agreed Starck, “will become the boiling point. I want now to work only with lovers, and I will show you what I think of this guy” Starck rose and clomped in his rubber boots over to where Nazarian towered a foot above him in the doorway, reached up, affectionately kissed his business partner on the lips, then turned and grinned.

“Sam plus L.A.,” he announced to the air, “is the key to creation!”

Nazarian brushed a light hand over his mouth, then laughed and said, “He meant ‘lovers’ figuratively, of course.”
Who is this guy? Starck’s New York-based U.S. agent, Michele Caniato, had wondered the same thing when he learned of Nazarian’s persistent attempts to contact his client. “When I first met with Sam,” says Caniato, “I thought, ‘What is he talking about?’ So I called the top private bankers, and they said that he is the most honest and credible person on the West Coast. That’s when I said to Starck, ‘I think I have met someone who would be a great match.’ The biggest frustration for the artist is a developer who runs out of money or a board of directors with zo people who have different opinions about the money With Sam, Starck has the assurance of one person who has the power to make decisions. That kind of security is extremely important when you sign a deal like this.”

Still, few people in Hollywood know anything about Nazarian except that he is on a mad streak to buy up everything on the board as fast as he can. “He’s hardly been on the scene,” says club owner Eric Weitzman, who has helped open nightspots like the Good Luck Bar, Ivar, Tengu, and El Dorado. “I wouldn’t say he’s a mogul, because no one knows who he is.”

Nazarian, the youngest of four siblings, was born in Wehran but grew up in Beverly Hills from the age of three. He attended Beverly Hills High School and went on to enroll in NYU’s business school, only to drop out and return to L.A. in 1997 to finish his education at USC. By then his father, Younes, and uncle, Izak, who together had run a Tehran construction company before losing it in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, had developed businesses so successful they are thought to be the richest Persian Jewish family in the world, owning assets that have been estimated at between $1 billion and $2 billion.

In 1987, while overseeing a small L.A. company named Standard Tool & Die, the NazarJan brothers were approached by a man seeking investment for a business that would utilize empty satellite space to establish two-way radio communications for long-haul truckers. A venture named Omninet was formed; a year later it would merge into an upstart San Diego-based communications technology company called Qualcomm. In 1993, after Qualcomm’s public offering, Izak and Younes were ranked the fifth and sixth largest shareholders. Instantly; they were wealthier than they ever were in Iran. “After Qualcomm went through the roof,” says Nazarian, “it became more of a wealth distribution and management situation for my father.”

Like many Persian families, the Nazarians are close-knit. After graduating from USC, Younes’s youngest son went to work for him, diversifying the family’s real estate assets into retail, mixed use, and multifamily housing. In Hancock Park, for example, Nazarian oversaw his family’s investment in the Marlowe apartments on Rossmore Avenue. “Sam’s strength is an understanding of what people are looking for,” says an asset manager who worked with Nazarian, “whether it’s a 22-year-old with some money or a 50-year-old who wants a nice apartment.”

An apartment house and a trendy restaurant, however, are two different things. “I think Sam has a lot of drive and picks up things quickly,” says Dean Adler, a cofounder of Lubert-Adler Real Estate Funds and friend of the Nazarian family. (Among other properties, Lubert-Adler recently acquired the Montgomery Ward and Mervyn’s department store chains.) “And it’s fun to talk about plans and all the places you are going to open. But the hospitality business is very tough. You can’t just say; ‘I will open up eight concepts.’ The hard part is going to be getting up every morning and executing the day-to-day operations. I think that’s what Sam has to prove.”

Nazarian still talks with his father every day. But the person who may know Nazarian best is a stocky man named Lynn Merrill, who acts as his bodyguard, driver, and foster parent. Merrill has his own room at Nazarian’s Hollywood Hills home; it sits just a couple of left turns away from the indoor waterfall near the Ed Ruscha painting. If Nazarian sleeps in too late, Merrill is there to wake him. Because Nazarian is a millionaire who owns a restaurant, Yu, on Montana Avenue, he rarely eats in. What food he does find in his kitchen–on the night I visited it consisted of a box of cereal, some Wheat Thins, and a six-pack of Coke–Merrill has purchased. (Nazarian remembers cooking only once in his new kitchen. “I think it was rice,” he says.) If Nazarian stays out too late at one of his clubs, Shelter or Prey on La Cienega, Merrill reminds him that it’s past midnight and time to go home. If Nazarian has more than a couple of Jack and Cokes, Merrill cuts him off and also warns him to slow down on the smoking. For Christmas, Nazarian presented Merrill with a $130,000 Audi AS. The men interact like best friends, even equals. When the two arrive home after a night of raging at Prey, Nazarian can’t open his own front door. Merrill possesses all the keys to the house.

After checking out the Wheat Thins, the Coke, the tennis courts, and the infinity pool, Nazarian and I climbed into the back of his Ford Excursion with the bulletproof doors and the satellite TM, and then talked as Merrill drove through Beverly Hills and Brentwood to Yu. Nazarian is tall and slightly regal in the casual kind of way that can leave a very large person unthreatening, and therefore more likable. He looked oversize even in the SUV–scrunched up but happy–pointing out the Excursion’s computer and satellite technology,, then recalling the club scene he once inhabited while we passed through the Westside landscape of his youth.

“The main place was the Roxbury on Sunset,” he said, lowering his head to peer out the window into the dark. “That place was amazing. Then there was the Gate–which had an amazing Wednesday night–and Sanctuary on Robertson, which the president of my restaurant group used to own.”

Reza Roohi, the man Nazarian spoke of, is a 42-year-old former professional kickboxer and club security guard who leads Nazarian’s restaurant and club division. Roohi manages Shelter and Prey; oversees the upcoming Starck projects, and searches out new properties for Nazarian’s consideration. In the mid-’90s, Roohi was the manager who worked the door at the Beverly Hills club SanctuaW. He says that while Nazarian made attempts, he never got into the popular club on Roohi’s watch. Back then Roohi had no idea who Nazarian was–just one of the many rich Persian kids dazzled by his front-door status. “They were younger than me, but they all knew me,” Roohi says. “I was Persian, too, and they looked up to me and all wanted to be in this business. There is something about my business that a lot of moneyed people love because you interact with celebrities and it’s all about socializing.”

Nazarian grew up differently from his older siblings, who had more traditional Iranian childhoods in Tehran. “You have to remember,” says Nazarian’s sister Sharon Baradaran, a lecturer in UCLA’s political science department, “that unlike us, he was raised in the U.S., with the culture clash and my parents’ adjustment to knowing what is okay and what is not for teenagers.” Nazarian’s own clash had as much to do with the changing demographics of Beverly Hills as it did with his family’s altered history. “I didn’t speak Farsi,” he says, “and it wasn’t until I got to Beverly Hills High, where 40 percent of the school was Persian, that I began hanging out with these kids and learning the language’s slang.”