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Patrick Lyons Boston Nightclubs King:  You dance at his clubs, drink at his bars, dine at his restaurants. But you likely had no idea what Boston's preeminent but press-shy lord of entertainment looked like -- until now. Lansdowne Street Boston...Lansdowne Street clubs to become concert hall...La Verdad Boston LaVerdad Restaurant Lansdown Street...


 

House of Blues hits Lansdowne

Patrick Lyons sells clubs now under renovation as music chain returns to area.

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr.
 
Globe Staff / January 29, 2008

 

Boston entertainment prince Patrick T. Lyons, in the midst of a multimillion-dollar renovation of his Lansdowne Street clubs, has sold them to the House of Blues chain.

Lyons will concentrate on restaurants and other entertainment spots he has opened in Boston and elsewhere. He had closed the popular music venues Avalon and Axis, adjacent to Fenway Park, to turn them into a bigger, flashier complex called the Music Hall.

And the House of Blues, which started in 1992 in a small house on Winthrop Street in Harvard Square and closed a decade later, will return to its roots in the Boston area - though in a venue some 10 times the size of the original.

"We know a little bit about the DNA of the House of Blues," said Lyons, a cofounder of the first House of Blues club. "They have the ability to book shows and bring in talent. We feel very comfortable with them taking over this asset that's so near and dear to our hearts."

Going with the demographic flow, Lyons, 55, is moving out of the music club and show business, which he entered in Buffalo in the early 1970s. He moved to Boston as manager of 15 Lansdowne St. - later called Avalon - in 1978.

Lyons is selling his company, That's Entertainment Inc., which operates the clubs, to House of Blues Entertainment Inc. No price was disclosed.

House of Blues Entertainment is owned by Live Nation, which was spun out from media giant Clear Channel Communications Inc. in 2005. The company, in partnership with Boston and Dublin restaurant operator Joe Dunne, purchased the Paradise on Commonwealth Avenue from Lyons late last year.

Avalon and Axis closed in October and are scheduled to reopen by the end of the year as an expanded $14 million complex that will include a music venue to accommodate 2,500, a 350-seat lounge and function room, and a 125-seat restaurant.

Work is about to begin on the plan by Cambridge Seven Architects Inc. that Lyons and a partner commissioned, and Lyons will continue to oversee design and construction.

"The only thing that has changed is in place of a sign that says Lansdowne Music Hall, it will say House of Blues," Lyons said yesterday. He will continue to own the real estate and will be landlord under a long-term lease to the House of Blues, which will book and operate the club.

The House of Blues, with a larger capacity than Avalon and Axis (formerly known as Boston-Boston, Metro, Citi, and Spit), is expected to be able to attract bigger-name acts.

Aidan J. Scully, senior vice president of House of Blues development, said, "I'm a Boston boy. We're coming home - I'm very excited about it." Scully, raised in Malden, was general manager of the House of Blues in Cambridge for about 15 years. He also worked in other Boston clubs and knows Lyons.

"He understands the business well enough to put together a multifunctional facility," Scully said of Lyons. "What he envisioned wasn't that far off from what we would want."

Scully also said Boston's new House of Blues, with about 50,000 square feet, limited seating, and VIP boxes, would be unique. "Historically we have created these venues not to be cookie-cutter," he said.

But, he added: "When you walk in you're going to know it's the House of Blues."

The House of Blues has about a dozen locations that use the HOB name, and it operates other entertainment facilities as well. It also operates a nonprofit foundation that teaches public school students about the history of American music.

Lyons said he would focus on his restaurants and other establishments, including Game On with its three locations, including Fenway, Lucky's, also with three locations, and Summer Shack restaurants, with four locations co-owned with Jasper White.

Lyons will also soon open a 250-seat restaurant, as yet unnamed, under the bleachers at Fenway Park.

He is currently partnering with chef Lydia Shire in Scampo, an upscale restaurant to open at the new Liberty Hotel in the former jail on Charles Street. And Lyons operates restaurants in Atlantic City, plus a nightclub and two restaurants at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn.

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at tpalmer@globe.com.


Lansdowne Street clubs to become concert hall

City backs bid, which owner Patrick Lyons sees as part of larger vision for area

Nightclub owner Patrick Lyons won city approval yesterday to build a $14 million , 2,500-seat concert hall on Lansdowne Street across from Fenway Park.

The board of the Boston Redevelopment Authority unanimously endorsed Lyons's proposal to combine his two existing Lansdowne Street clubs, Avalon and Axis, into one posh entertainment complex. Lyons said the larger scale of the new venue is necessary for Boston to attract top-tier music acts in an era where live performances are more important than ever for artists.

"There's been a change in the music business because of digital music and the fall of CDs, where the only way artists make money today is touring. The 2,500-seat or 3,000-seat venue is the sweet spot for those tours," Lyons said, adding that Boston currently doesn't have such a facility. "This will keep us ahead of the curve," he said.

Lyons also revealed more of his ambitions to transform Lansdowne Street from a drab party strip into a swanky, illuminated entertainment and dining district anchored by his new club and five restaurants that he controls. Two of those restaurants, Game On and La Verdad Taqueria , are already in operation, and Lyons plans to renovate two of his other clubs on the street -- Modern and Embassy -- into eateries.

He also has designs on another restaurant, which he said should open before the start of baseball season next year. He declined to disclose the location or concept behind that restaurant.

"We've made a significant investment in the transformation of Lansdowne Street into a restaurant row," he said.

That area of the city may be further transformed by other significant developments on the books. Developer John Rosenthal, for example, has proposed building a 1.3-million-square-foot complex, with two residential towers, on Massachusetts Turnpike Authority property a few hundreds yards west of Lyons's Lansdowne Street holdings.

Lyons said his music hall project should be completed within a year. Currently, Avalon and Axis can hold 2,100 and 1,100 people respectively.

Under the new plan, the clubs would renovated into one 35,000- square-foot facility, to be called Lansdowne Street Music Hall.

It would have a stage that could be moved to accommodate the props and sets of various bands and new dressing rooms for performers.

Renderings of the proposed hall show several boxy additions somewhat taller than the existing low-level structures, but with the facades of the existing buildings preserved.

During the meeting yesterday, BRA board member Christopher J. Supple questioned whether Lyons was certain the existing facades could be saved, and was told by architect Gary C. Johnson, a principal of the firm Cambridge Seven, that the company would make every effort to do so.

Lyons's plan also has the support of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who released a statement lauding the development.

"The addition of this new music venue will enliven the ever-popular entertainment district, and the much needed restaurant space will give people more options when they attend a concert or Red Sox games," Menino said.

Keith Reed can be reached at reed@globe.com.


Club owner Patrick Lyons has new vision for Lansdowne St.

Proposes sprucing up Fenway area, adding new restaurants

Boston club king Patrick Lyons has told the city and his Lansdowne Street neighbors he wants to replace two of Boston's most famous nightclubs with a modern entertainment complex that would include restaurants, sidewalk seating, and a terrace looking toward Fenway Park.

Taking inspiration from Wrigleyville, the friendly entertainment district associated with Chicago's Wrigley Field, Lyons said he wants to turn Avalon and Axis into a cutting-edge facility that would enhance Lansdowne Street and complement the area's main attraction, Fenway Park.

"Our last significant renovation was 12 years ago," said Lyons. "Our dream is changing the climate from all the intensity of nightclubs to more diversity -- restaurants, dining, and dancing."

Lyons said that if city officials and neighbors including the Red Sox approve, he will spend about $14 million to build a 2,500-capacity club with a larger stage, better lighting, more amenities -- such as dressing rooms and showers for the artists -- and a sound system "as good as we've had" or better.

He is proposing to start construction this summer and finish early next year. It is tentatively named "Lansdowne Street Music Hall."

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has been briefed on the Lyons plan, yesterday called it "a good idea."

"He's going to remove that old structure in keeping with what the Red Sox are doing," said Menino. "These buildings are barns. His vision is to make Fenway a pleasing place to go."

Located in a popular but dingy area dominated by the ballpark, the buildings have a long, storied history. One was built as a horse barn over a century ago and used by Boston Globe founder Eben Jordan, who also owned the Jordan Marsh department store. Later used as warehouses, the buildings have been music clubs since the late 1960s, with names including the Boston Tea Party, 15 Lansdowne, Boston Boston, Metro, and Citi.

Artists including Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Carly Simon have played there, and more recently Taylor Hicks and Fall Out Boy. Elvis Costello is lined up for May 15.

Lyons commissioned architects Cambridge Seven Associates Inc. to create a modern venue on the site, next to his two other clubs, The Modern and Embassy, which would also undergo renovation.

A new, two-story building would be about 20 feet taller than the current 32-foot-high industrial building, Lyons said -- but shorter than the 90 feet or so that the city zoning allows. A second phase, including function space on the third floor, could come later, he said. He may retain some of the old buildings' structure, especially the historic facades on Lansdowne.

Lyons said he would add a 125-seat "popular-priced" restaurant and a 75-seat room for fine dining. Restaurants would extend the periods that visitors come to the area beyond the current late-night club hours.

"There's virtually never been food on this street," Lyons said. This week he opened La Verdad Taqueria Mexicana, a takeout and sit-down restaurant with tacos, fresh tortillas, and margaritas, at 1 Lansdowne St.

Lyons spoke in his cluttered office above the clubs, stuffed with memorabilia that includes a 1970s J. Geils "Showtime" album poster, a 1995 photo of Lyons with Aerosmith's Steve Tyler, and an advertisement for what he said was Boston's first AIDS benefit, in 1984.

Lyons came to the district in 1977 when Avalon was 15 Lansdowne Street, and now he owns or co-owns that and several other Boston clubs and restaurants, including Kings bowling lanes and Jasper White's Summer Shack in the Back Bay, and Lucky's Lounge in the Fort Point Channel area.

He has been concentrating recently on opening entertainment complexes in other locations, including Atlantic City and Mohegan Sun, the Connecticut venue that features gambling.

But he is moving now on Lansdowne Street because the Red Sox have made a firm commitment to stay at Fenway Park and the city of Boston has encouraged local property owners to clean up the area. About two years ago the city and landlords put thousands of dollars into widening the sidewalks to 12 feet, planting trees, and installing antique-style streetlights.

"All the owners said, 'Let's change the makeup of the street,' " said Lyons. "These clubs -- they're part of the fabric of the town."

Lyons said the changes are being made in part because live entertainment has become increasingly important at clubs since about 1980 and because 2,500 seats is an optimum number for many groups. His two clubs, Avalon and Axis, hold about 2,100 and 1,100 respectively, but can't currently be combined.

The new club would also be able to accommodate smaller concerts and would have more VIP or "opera box" seating, in addition to standing room.

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at tpalmer@globe.com.


Patrick Lyons story by:  A. J. Baime Boston Magazine

You dance at his clubs, drink at his bars, dine at his restaurants. But you likely had no idea what Boston's preeminent but press-shy lord of entertainment looked like -- until now.

It's just before midnight, and the hordes are filing into the Ultra 88 nightclub above the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Connecticut. The party is just beginning to lift off, and bartenders are working furiously to fuel the frenzy. Beneath a nexus of pulsating lights, stilettos slip on the sweat-greased dance floor, the mob bouncing to a hip-hop bass line like one huge organism with a thousand flailing limbs. Ultra 88 has never hosted such a fevered bash before. The club is brand new and fully loaded with add-ons. Secluded in the back, a room-sized bed for loungers sits surrounded by a curtain of gold lamme, the kind of fabric you'd imagine Halle Berry slipping out of after Oscar night. High-rolling VIPs are milling in the private lounge, which features flat-screen TVs, butler service, and a bathroom for their exclusive use. Mostly velvet-red, the whole club is constructed like a high-end sports car, built for speed. And right now the speedometer needle's pinned. Celtics stars Antoine Walker and Walter McCarty are on the dance floor, working moves that make the basketball stuff look like hopscotch. Fashion guru Joseph Abboud mingles, dressed in a white suit, sans tie. Silver-screen producer Bobby Farrelly, half of the brother duo behind such films as There's Something about Mary and Kingpin, stands with cabernet in hand, talking about Stuck on You, the movie he has just wrapped up about a pair of Siamese twins. "Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear were literally joined at the hip for 58 days of shooting," Farrelly is saying, chuckling almost sadistically. Leaning up against the bar at the edge of this frenzy, quietly soaking it all in, stands a tall man with dark hair. He's older than the dance-floor crowd, dressed casually in a striped button-down and black-rimmed specs. He whispers something to a beautiful blond bartender, who promptly begins handing out shots of tequila to a small clique of well-dressed friends. The quiet man lifts a shot himself and tosses it back. All around him, smooth-talkers are working the night, unaware of the quiet man leaning on the bar. Unaware that the man is in fact the guy in charge, this party's host, Patrick Lyons, the biggest entertainment mogul in New England for the last two decades. Understated in garb and posture, the quiet man is in fact the life of the party, the man responsible for it all, the one some people like to call the king of clubs.
Patrick Lyons doesn't like it when he's called the king of clubs. "That's old news," he says. "I'm way past that."

 

He also doesn't like publicity. At all. That's why most Bostonians have no idea what New England's preeminent entertainment czar looks like. Lyons doesn't like to be recognized. Though he spends his life hobnobbing with celebrities and rock stars, he doesn't wish to be one himself. Over lunch in the Back Bay at Jasper White's Summer Shack (which he co-owns) inside the Kings bowling-and-nightclub complex (which he also owns) a few days before the big event at Ultra 88 (which he owns), Lyons, 48, is looking edgy in a wrinkled short-sleeve button-down, shades pulled back over his head, a two-day stubble riding his square jaw. His gaze is part businessman charming, part don't fuck with me. He is explaining why he doesn't like to have his picture taken or consent to interviews like this one, which took months to arrange. (Among other things, it required a promise to attend a pricey charity event he ran. Which is another thing about Patrick Lyons: He's all heart. More on that later.) "Personal publicity doesn't do me any good anymore," he says. "I prefer anonymity." It's an odd thing to hear from such a high-profile figure, not to mention one who is in the restaurant and nightclub business. Then again, Lyons is already doing nicely, thank you. His privately held company, the Lyons Group, is attracting "north of $50 million" in business annually. And it's expanding rapidly in what seems the worst economic climate since the Hoover administration. Along with even lower-profile partner Ed Sparks (Lyons handles the creative and conceptual stuff, Sparks the finances and operation), Lyons now runs 25 restaurants, nightclubs, lounges, and bars. Places like the Big Easy, Harvard Gardens, Lucky's Lounge, the Paradise, and Sonsie, to name just a few.

 

The company dominates Lansdowne Street, the hipster mecca behind Fenway's Green Monster, with joints like the Modern, Embassy, Avalon, Axis, Jake Ivory's Dueling Pianos, the Tiki Room, and Bill's Bar. Lyons has also consulted for the likes of billionaire Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn and Mel Simon, cochairman of the nation's biggest single shopping mall company. Then there's that little music-venue venture Lyons helped launch back in 1992 called House of Blues. The first was in Cambridge. Now there are eight across North America. Make the mistake of asking Patrick Lyons what he's up to these days, and you'd better be prepared to hang out for a while. His reticence to talk is suddenly stripped away. In just the past 12 months, he'll tell you, he has opened Kings, the Tiki Room, two new Summer Shacks with Jasper White, and the nightlife complex at Mohegan Sun that includes not only Ultra 88 but a Las Vegas' style lounge dubbed Lucky's and an Irish pub, the Dubliner. "These places," Lyons says, "will knock your fucking head in." He isn't bragging. Patrick Lyons is on a manic mission. His goal: to keep himself from getting bored. He's spent decades hunting for the next buzz. And he's got the city of Boston in tow. "The most remarkable quality about Patrick," says Stephen Mindich, a longtime Lyons friend and publisher of the Boston Phoenix, "is his ability to feel what is happening in his world, and to feel what is about to happen in the near future. If you're too far ahead, people won't understand where you're coming from. If you're too far behind, they won't care. You have to be right on the moment." Still, long before this moment, long before the chi-chi eateries and the 2,000 full- and part-time employees, there was just the king of clubs, a streetwise kid who showed up in town, ready to play his hand.


Truth be told, Patrick Lyons was pretty much tricked into coming to Massachusetts. He arrived on a bus at the age of 23 with a couple years' experience working in nightclubs in his hometown of Buffalo, and later in Minneapolis and Detroit. He'd skipped college, finding a home working in discos instead. (Lyons inherited his service-trade genes from his one-time barmaid mom.) One day, his boss asked him if he'd be interested in opening a nightclub in Boston. "Actually, it's on Cape Cod," the boss said. Boston? Cape Cod? Sounded exotic to a kid from Buffalo. But when he stepped off the bus, he learned the club -- a 1,200-capacity disco called Uncle Sam's -- was on Nantasket Beach in Hull. "It was a seaside honky-tonk," he recalls. "The prospects were frightening. It was really bad." Still, even in a town like Hull, the '70s disco craze could make a cash register grow legs and do splits on a dance floor -- if a club was marketed the right way. With the help of his brother John, Lyons made the place a success. He worked a stint in New York City before transferring to a local disco called Boston-Boston at 15 Lansdowne, the current location of Avalon -- arguably Lyons's best-known venue now. (John Lyons is now part owner and director of operations for Avalon and Axis.) In 1981, along with Sparks, an accountant who provided the financial know-how, Lyons leveraged a buyout of Boston-Boston. The Lyons Group was born. But it was just the beginning. "Patrick's eyes have always been on sticks," says John Spooner, a financial planner (and this magazine's finance columnist), who began early on advising the budding club king about what to do with his profits. "He has an endless curiosity and an ability to clue in to what is coming next."


In 1979, Lyons opened another room off Boston-Boston, at the location that is now Axis. He tried to think of the grossest name he could come up with. Within weeks, Spit was the hottest nightclub in New England. "Pat hired a cadre of DJs who broke punk rock in Boston, including Oedipus," now program director at WBCN, remembers photographer Steven Stone, who was hired to shoot pictures in the club in the early '80s. "It was a wild scene -- hot, loud, sweaty. Lots of Spandex, bright rayon, mismatched shoes, artfully torn clothing." To make the place different (and pump up profits), Lyons pioneered a new party scheme called "double-decking," now all the rage in clubs worldwide. He'd have a band play a set, then jack the party up another notch with a DJ to keep the crowd turning over. Boston-Boston became Metro, and its first act was a band called the Vapors, whose "Turning Japanese" was a hit on a fledgling MTV. The B-52s followed, then the Ramones. "Playing Patrick's clubs was like a personal party for me," says legendary rocker Peter Wolf. "Everybody knew everybody, and I liked Patrick because he wasn't some big-shot money guy. He was a street kid like me, working his way up from the bottom. When my show was over, we'd have this after-hours get-together we called 'two-fingers.' Sometimes it was scotch, sometimes rum, sometimes bourbon." Back then, Lyons courted publicity. He pulled stunts, once smashing two cases of Stolichnaya (worth $144 at the time) to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- after calling both major dailies and all the local TV news stations.

 

When he remodeled Spit's moldy bathrooms, he made an event out of it. Crooned the Phoenix at the time: "Spit, the club for punk rockers, has imported a stock of black toilets and urinals from Italy to put a punk punch into its unisex restrooms." Lyons hired tuxedo-clad waiters to hand out Champagne in the new latrines. It was all a joke, and the king of clubs was laughing his ass off. "Of course I'm a hustler," he told this magazine in 1980. "It's all a sport. I'm only going to be this age once, so I might as well enjoy it." As Lyons basked in the spotlight, partner Ed Sparks was working the back end. Unlike most nightclub/ service businesses (which, let's face it, are often run by flakes and sleazeballs), the Lyons Group hired top law and accounting firms. "We did everything in a professional manner," Sparks says over lunch at Sonsie. "That's what enabled us to grow." Disco and punk morphed into new wave and then grunge, and Lyons relaunched Spit and Metro as Axis and Avalon (after an incarnation as Citi). In 1982, he and Sparks bought the Paradise from Don Law. Lyons reshaped his clubs, staying one step ahead of the times. "There aren't too many people in town who've been able to reinvent themselves over and over for 25 straight years," Spooner says. On the stages where U2 and Madonna once played ("We paid Madonna a thousand bucks to play Spit," Lyons remembers, laughing, "with her brother as a backup dancer"), the Lyons Group started hosting Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Phish -- the hottest acts of each evolving era, before they hit the stadiums. "Patrick always had the ability to sniff out what was about to happen," Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich says. So where does that leave him now?


When you walk into the Lyons Group headquarters on Lansdowne Street, the first thing you see is a wall with all the logos of all the ventures that make up the entertainment empire. It's always been Patrick Lyons's strategy to hit every segment of the market. In the beginning there was disco and there was punk, and Lyons had a club for each crowd. Today, fine dining is the new disco, and yuppie lounges are the new punk. If you don't agree, you can still head over to Avalon or the Paradise on any given night and bang heads with some sweaty leather folk. Whatever you need, whoever you think you are, Lyons is serving up the good times. It's a spectacularly effective strategy. There's Lansdowne for the college kids, the Alley for the Euros and the twenty somethings. It's notable that, just as he did in the '80s, Lyons is also supplying venues now to serve an audience of people around his own age. Wearing a Fendi red beret and matching G-string? You'll feel right at home noshing on focaccia at Sonsie on Newbury Street. Looking to cheat on your wife with a girl half your age? Try Lucky's Lounge in Southie. "Patrick shows people how to have fun," says Jasper White, the Lyons Group's partner in the Summer Shack venture. (There are three Jasper White's Summer Shacks now, with plans to go national.) "His creativity, his insight into the marketplace -- he's just really good at it." Most nights you can find Lyons in one of his places. Sometimes he pops up by surprise, finds a doorman or bartender who doesn't know who he is, and tests the service that way. Other times he entertains groups of friends, many of them celebrities, at one of his clubs or over dinner in one of his restaurants. While Lyons works the front end, his partner continues to handle operations. Says Sparks: "After Patrick plays with the Erector set, I come in and make sure the bills are paid, the money's in the bank, the payroll's taken care of. It's a great partnership."

 

Not that there haven't been some failures, like the "notable bomb on Newbury Street," as the Globe called the ill-fated restaurant Fynn's, and the Mama Kin nightclub debacle, a venture with Aerosmith that ended in tatters in 1999; Lansdowne Street may draw dance audiences and Eurokids, but it was tougher to lure people there to hear the local rock that Mama Kin was meant to spotlight, a problem that only worsened friction between Lyons and Aerosmith over the club's finances. (Part of the space became the Modern and the rest was used to expand Avalon.) There are those who say that Kings, the 40,000-square-foot eating/drinking/bowling complex that opened in March in the Back Bay, is too big for its britches. Time will tell.


There's also a whole other side to this crazy business. The Lyons Group throws charity events. Big ones. If that sounds boring to you, you've never been to one. The Lyons Group runs some of the city's highest-profile events to raise money for some of the highest-profile charities, like those founded by Celtics stars Walker and McCarty, respectively. "He's a classy guy," says McCarty, whose I Love Music Foundation for underprivileged kids was the beneficiary of a Lyons-sponsored party last year. "He's always everywhere, doing a lot for the community." The Lyons Group also throws the Urban Improv's Banned in Boston bash every year, in which politicians and celebrities act out comic stage plays to raise money for violence- prevention programs in inner-city schools. This year's event featured Governor Mitt Romney singing and Mayor Mumbles Menino reciting Shakespeare. (Get that: a nightclub owner and a mayor who actually get along.) It raised nearly half a million dollars. At another event years back -- one that included the best live show ever played in any of Lyons's clubs, according to Lyons himself -- Prince took the stage at Avalon to benefit a scholarship named for a Berklee student who had been run over and killed while waiting in line for concert tickets on Mass. Ave. "We flew in his family and presented them with the scholarship," Lyons recalls with his usual intensity. "Prince came on at 2 a.m. and played the first two songs in complete darkness. Then the lights came on and the place fucking roared!" On this particular afternoon, Lyons is sitting in his cluttered office, behind a desk so messy it looks like someone just had a kidney removed on it. He's holding a cell phone to one ear and his desk phone to the other, planning a party that is less than two weeks away. There's a problem with the invitations: They've been printed with the wrong date. Or is it the right date? No one can seem to figure it out. He hangs up the phone and flashes that devilish grin. "This party's going to be a bomb," he says. By that, he means very good. Even sitting at his desk in his office, the man's having a good time, and he's going to make sure that, when this particular party comes, hundreds of other people are going to be having a good time, too. Which is what seems to count.


What happens to Patrick Lyons after the party's over and the guests have gone home? He's wandering around Boston right now, wondering the same thing. By now, it's likely that he's read this story and is probably not happy about being called the king of clubs again. Okay, maybe he's not the king of clubs anymore. Lyons used to own Saturday night in this town. Now, with his restaurants and his consulting business and his lounges, he owns every night. He's the earl of entertainment, Dr. Feelgood, the baron of Boston after dark. He's the life of the party, a man on a manic hunt for that next buzz. When he finds it, you'll know.

 

One by one, party by party, half of Boston will show up to eat it, drink it, roll it, have it surgically enhanced, or whatever it is that people will be doing in Boston next year and the next year, in the hours after the sun goes down.

 


La Verdad Restaurant steps up to the plate on Lansdowne Street

By Carol Beggy & Mark Shanahan | April 9, 2007

Although the staff at La Verdad was hustling over the weekend to get everything at the new Lansdowne Street eatery ready in time for the Red Sox home opener tomorrow, chef/co-owner Ken Oringer said he isn't thinking about being across the street from Fenway Park. "I have
to focus on what's going on in here," said Oringer the other night while serving up some of his authentic Mexican cuisine. Partner Michael Ginor, of Hudson Valley Foie Gras, is a little more realistic about being in the former Tiki Bar at the corner of Ipswich Street right out the back gates of the ballpark. "We have it set up as a taqueria right as you enter the front door. That's for those coming by for a quick meal," said Ginor, who added that on Thursdays through Saturdays, it will be open from 11 a.m. until 2 a.m.

 

But for partner Patrick Lyons, whose Lyons Group owns a chunk of Lansdowne Street, it's about the changing demographics of the Fenway area. "For the Red Sox games, that's 80 or so nights a year," said Lyons, who has two more high -end restaurants on Lansdowne Street in the planning stages. "It's about the rest of the year, earlier in the evenings, before the nightclubs get going." With Oringer, best known for his Back Bay restaurant Clio as well as Toro in the South End,

La Verdad is serving up an ambitious menu.

 

There are 14 kinds of tacos, including chile relleno, tripe, and lobster, and there's only one burrito in the lineup . And the place is already attracting a bit of attention.

 

Spotted over the last few days as the eatery was putting its menu and staff through the paces were Sox CEO Larry Lucchino Walter McCarty; Fresh skincare cofounder Lev Glazman; and chefs Ming Tsai, Jasper White, Lydia Shire, Michael Schlow, and Todd English.

 

Anna Kournikova, Joey McIntyre, and a One-Armed Panhandler Walk into a Bar...

Even as Sonsie owner Patrick Lyons launches a spinoff of his iconic restaurant, those of us who’ve seen the craziness that still goes on at the original know there’ll never be another place like it.

By Jessica Pressler

Illustration by Andy Potts.

Anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant knows there comes a day when you just really, really want to slug a customer.

The story has it that for Danielle, who’s been tending bar at Newbury Street landmark Sonsie for a year and a half, that moment came this summer, when a longtime regular who as a house rule is not to be served hard liquor (for propriety’s sake, we’ll call him Fernando) got a little out of hand and grabbed her butt.

“Usually we just ignore that kind of thing, like, ‘Oh, it’s just Fernando,’” explains Lilly, a pretty blond bartender who says she witnessed the incident. But on that night, Lilly surmises, Danielle had had enough. “She just turned around and laid into him” with a stern tongue-lashing. The following day, general manager Thomas Holland had to sit Fernando down and mete out his sentence: He was not to come into Sonsie for two weeks. “He gets banned at least once a year,” Thomas says. A former playwright, Thomas knows the importance of characters and considers Fernando to be part of the Sonsie “community”; he even invited Fernando to his wedding. “It takes a lot of personalities to create this place,” he says. “It’s like a collage.”

Anyway, that’s why Fernando is not at Sonsie tonight. (The staff have closed ranks and refuse to confirm the story, as if to ensure that what happens at Sonsie stays at Sonsie.) And though I certainly can’t blame Danielle—having worked at the restaurant about a decade ago, when Fernando was a nascent regular, I’ve experienced his less charming qualities—I’m a little disappointed, because his constant (if slightly grating) presence, the way he sits there rattling the ice in his glass of Heineken, is one of the many things that are essential to the Sonsie experience. Fernando is like Eric, the buff blond who when the restaurant opened was hired to paint Sonsie’s windows but now paints on an easel out front because that’s just what he does, and James, the one-handed homeless guy who works the area in front of J.P. Licks across the street and comes in every day to exchange his coins for easier-to-carry bills (and I’ll tell you, he sometimes makes a lot, which is probably what sparked the rumor that he owns a house in Winchester), and bartenders like Lilly who, in her spare time, goes to “Harvard, actually?” He can’t be replicated.

Not that that’s stopping owner Patrick Lyons from trying: This month the Lyons Group will open a Sonsie in, of all places, Atlantic City, New Jersey—more specifically, in the Pier, a $170 million entertainment megacomplex adjacent to the Caesars casino that might be described as an eyesore if most of the buildings in Atlantic City were not even uglier—and he’s also in talks with developers in Vegas about procuring some property out there. Which could mean, all things considered, that we might eventually regard the little bistro on Newbury Street as the Original Sonsie—in much the same way that Manhattan residents perhaps regard theirs as the Original T.G.I. Friday’s, a restaurant that, when it launched in the 1960s, was considered wildly cool and innovative.


Maybe you aren’t surprised, or horrified, by this. It’s really sort of what restaurant owners are doing these days, isn’t it? You come up with a good formula and then capitalize on it. You extend the brand. And then before you know it, you’ve got what Lyons himself, while sitting recently in celebrity chef Michael Mina’s new Atlantic City restaurant, Seablue, referred to as Todd English Disease—even though it could be argued that Lyons, whose Lyons Group has built up a roster of 25 themed nightlife establishments in the Boston area over the course of 20 years, had Todd English Disease even before Todd English himself did.

Incidentally, there will also be versions of the Lyons Group’s sports bars Game On and Irish pub the Dubliner—in this case called the Trinity—in Atlantic City. But we (because I’m assuming you are secretly as much of a snob as I am) don’t really care if those bars become chainlike, because, well, they felt like chains from the first day.

But Sonsie? Back in 1993, when Sonsie first opened, with its look-at-me-looking-at-you glass doors (those doors that are everywhere now, but, you must remember, were very original in 1993—as were the leather club chairs in the foyer that Lyons brought back from a Paris flea market because, he points out, “they didn’t have them at Restoration Hardware back then”), it didn’t resemble anything else. With its loud music and hot hostesses and client base of Brahmins—not just Back Bay Brahmins but actual Brahmins, from Bangalore by way of BU—plus the proximity via those doors to a loud, somewhat raggedy end of Newbury Street populated by punks and panhandlers, Sonsie was both extremely Boston and not very Boston at all.

These days, due in no small part to Sonsie, that end of Newbury Street has fewer punks and more shoe stores. Leather club chairs and comfortably loud soundtracks have become de rigueur (like, say, at the Starbucks across the street). And Sonsie no longer looks bracingly original but merely obvious. From a business perspective, it makes sense to take the formula on the road. But you have to wonder what aspects of the place that Lyons calls “as comfortable as an old shoe” will get lost in translation.

According to him, nothing. “There are a thousand and one little things that made Sonsie work, and we’re going to duplicate them all here,” Lyons says on a recent evening in Atlantic City, where, high above the Boardwalk, Sonsie II is still a mess of raw concrete, beams, and blueprints. I ask him to list a few. “How the servers engage a guest on the floor,” he says. “How a hostess is dressed. How a manager walks through a dining room. The music, and the programming of the music, the proper volume. The deliberate tone of advertising…”

Then, bless him, he forgets what he’s talking about.

“…And those little details, like on a raging Thursday night, when Harleys go blasting by and the noise goes in and reverberates around, or a fire engine gets stuck in front of the restaurant and it’s just sitting there going off because people are double-parked in front of Capital Grille,” he says, “you know you are interacting with the street. What you are really getting is a taste of the city.”

But in Atlantic City there is no city—or, at least, what there is of it is separated from those marble-topped café tables by escalators and giant walls of thick plate glass. There are no weird afterwork regulars whose names everyone will know, the punks and lunatics get weeded out by security, and there’s certainly no way to get pretty bartenders who go to “Harvard, actually?” This is the problem with chains: Even when you try to follow the recipe, you always end up compromising some of the details.

Of course, this is all somewhat personal for me.

The first time I walked into Sonsie—and I’m pretty sure I walked in not through the front door but through one of the open bistro doors, startling some diners—I was a freshman in art school looking for a part-time job, and Sonsie seemed like the perfect fit. It felt like a place where things happened, and this was exactly what I wanted since I was from a North Shore suburb where absolutely nothing happened.

The whole interview took about five minutes. Even back then, before image-conscious companies like American Apparel had written their business plans, the Lyons Group’s hiring process was more like casting, and whatever the qualifications were for someone with very little experience, I had them. I was told to report to work the next day at 6:30 a.m. They needed a body to man the coffee bar, bad. Someone had just walked out in the middle of a shift.

When I arrived, my coworker Leigh, a shaggy-haired 19-year-old who played in a grungy sort of rock band, was already behind the bar, pouring a healthy swig of something into a paper cup. “Espresso, Ghirardelli chocolate, and hard liquor,” he explained laconically. (It was 1995. We all spoke laconically.) “The first two help keep you on your feet. The last keeps you from killing the regulars.”

And that was pretty much my training.

Sonsie had been open for three years, and Fernando was already coming in every morning at the crack of dawn for coffee, even when he had been at the bar until 1 the night before. He was harmless but mildly irritating, prone to making baroque promises of Rolexes and designer clothing to the waitresses (none of which, to my knowledge, ever came through). He liked to sit near my station and utter proclamations about my interior life, as though the way I steamed milk somehow gave him insight into my soul.

“Bah! You don’t know who you are,” he told me one night, after someone had mistakenly allowed him hard alcohol.

“Okay, Fernando,” I said, swiping a rag across the bar and accidentally on purpose dumping out his half-full glass. In retrospect, he was right: I was only 17. (I’d lied on my application.)

But I was learning a lot at Sonsie. For example, it was Mahla, an older bartender, who first educated me about bikini waxing.

“You don’t wax?!?!” she exclaimed, her meticulously shaped eyebrows drawing together in confusion. “What if you have sex with someone?”

What if I what? I had no idea. Mahla went off to make six cosmos (then just becoming popular), and we never got back to the topic. We were too busy. It was always busy.

“It always felt festive, like a party,” says Rachel Padula, who worked the coat check at the time. “And there were glamorous people.” Or, she says, if they weren’t actually glamorous, the warm and forgiving light of Sonsie made them look as if they were—the rich college kids in their Dior sunglasses, the meatheads from the North Shore, Fernando, even the woman we called Crazy Makeup Lady, who would sit every afternoon in one of the leather club chairs up front, smearing on blush, eyeliner, and eye shadow, layer after layer, for hours upon hours, pausing only to stare crazily at a person of her choosing. One morning that person was Fred Schneider of the B-52s, who had played a show in town the night before and stopped in for a relaxing cappuccino, only to find himself the object of Crazy Makeup Lady’s wobbly yet unrelenting gaze. I gave him a to-go cup.

Sonsie might have had a reputation for snootiness, but as far as I’m aware no one on staff would ever have considered asking Crazy Makeup Lady or any of the other regulars like her to leave, not even for Fred Schneider. Sonsie’s crazy people—“good crazy people,” says Patrick Lyons, “very respectful”—were as much a part of the fabric of the place as the velvet curtains that hang from its ceiling.

Celebrities, like lunatics, seemed to have sensors that led them straight into Sonsie. They still do: Despite Sonsie’s being declared “over” by people who make such declarations, this past summer the gossip columns chronicled visits from David Schwimmer, Larry David, and Sheryl Crow (who, in case you, Us Weekly reader, are wondering, didn’t eat—“everyone else at the table ate,” says a bartender, “but she didn’t”) and innumerable local sports stars like David Ortiz and Tom Brady, who lives in the neighborhood and is a regular, if not quite on a Fernando level. (“It’s like that old Yogi Berra saying,” says George Meszoly, a regular of the nonirritating kind. “Nobody goes there. It’s too crowded.”) Brady kept Anna Kournikova company when she was in town; they sat in the back, and she smoked cigarettes. “But don’t write that,” Lyons says. “I don’t want the board of health people after me.” To which we say: Please. Everyone knows that Anna Kournikova can do whatever she wants.

Back when I worked there, sundry Hollywood types came by, usually of the quasi-recognizable That Guy From That Show variety. But when Joey McIntyre passed out face-first on a table, for us former New Kids on the Block fans on the staff it was a major event. Older members of the clientele were more impressed by Peter Wolf, who was, and is, a regular. He’d sit at the bar and seem very friendly, though rumor was that if anyone asked him about “Angel Is the Centerfold,” he’d freak. Dan Aykroyd came in often, drank the finest Bordeaux, and tipped big. Still does. “It’s Danny’s kitchen,” Lyons says. “He gets into Boston and he goes straight there. They cook him whatever he wants, no matter what time it is.”

One night Aykroyd left his salad untouched. “I ate it,” says Michael Brodeur, then an Emerson sophomore in charge of clearing plates, now an editor at the Weekly Dig (which shares owners with Boston magazine). “I was hungry. A growing boy! And these beautiful women would come in and they’d just leave their food untouched. I always felt like I was doing them a favor,” he adds, beatifically, “like I was absolving them of some kind of sin.”

Meanwhile, in the coatroom, Rachel Padula was absolving people of the sin of, um, outerwear. “Once Phylicia Rashad came in, and she had this beautiful orange coat that I tried on and wore for part of the night,” she remembers. “Ahmad (her former husband, the famous sportscaster) gave me a $10 tip when he came down to pick it up.” Located directly at the bottom of a two-level flight of stairs that customers frequently tumbled down, the coatroom was a surprisingly exciting post. “People would always get caught having sex in the downstairs dining room,” says Rachel, “and I would always get offered coke for some reason. Some people got it as tips. I guess because it was so near the bathroom.”

These were the early dot-com years, and everyone had Internet money and was happy to throw it around. “Once this gorgeous woman fell down the stairs holding a $100 bill,” says Rachel. “It was right when they had come out with the new ones, and she showed it to me, like, ‘Have you seen these?’ I said, ‘No, you know, it’s really cool.’ And then the woman was like, ‘You just hold on to that, honey.’ I always imagined someone gave it to her to go to the bathroom, like in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I made, like, $300 that night. I took it home and threw it on my bed and just rolled around in it.”

One night after Dan Aykroyd was in, Kate, who worked at J.P. Licks across the street and hung out with all of us, spotted him in the hallway of her dorm. “I was like, this is crazy. Dan Aykroyd signed into Emerson’s Little Building! He must have left his license at the door and everything.”
Mandy, a Michigan State University student who hostessed at Sonsie this past summer, had her own unexpected celebrity encounter. “Mike Tyson came in the other night,” she says. “He was with this other guy and they called the next day and wanted us to go out with them after work. We didn’t go, though. I was like, I can’t go out with Mike Tyson. My mom would kill me.”

“What would it take to get Mark Wahlberg and the kids from Entourage down here for the opening?” Ensconced in a giant orange booth at Michael Mina’s Atlantic City restaurant, Patrick Lyons is on the phone, celebrity wrangling.

Whoever’s on the other end says it won’t be a problem. These days anyone with money and connections—and Lyons has plenty of both—can get stars to show up for their events. Even T.G.I. Friday’s. And with Atlantic City’s new rep as a hot spot, there will be plenty of glamorous young things to make the new Sonsie, à la the Boston one, look like a party.

More difficult might be finding good help. The Lyons Group’s ventures are among almost a dozen restaurants opening in the Pier, and competition for staff is fierce. Which is why, for the second time in as many hours, Lyons is now grilling our waitress.

“You know that’s not Kobe, right?” he says, pointing to the menu. “It’s wagyu. They don’t have Kobe in America.”

“Wull,” she says, her French manicured fingers fluttering nervously, “I guess we say Kobe because most people don’t know what wagyu is.”

“Well, I know what it is,” Lyons says, peering at her over the menu. “It seems you have a little truth-in-advertising problem.”
“Wull…”

The thing is, you have to have a certain kind of personality to work at Sonsie. Some people are able to accept with Nietzschean stoicism not only Lyons’s persnicketiness but also the demands of the Newbury Street customer, the never-ending shifts, the punishing volume of orders. For many of them—alumni like Richard Hare, who left not long ago to manage Stella in the South End—the place is like waiter boot camp, and they eventually take their hard-earned skills to less draining, higher priced spots around Boston, making Sonsie sort of the ur-restaurant of the city’s dining scene.

But others find they just can’t, or won’t, put up with it all. “Eventually I hated working there so much that I had dreams about holding customers’ hands under the hot-water valve on the espresso machine,” says Leigh, my former partner behind the coffee counter, who is thankfully no longer working behind anyone’s counter and is now, of all things, a lawyer. Often when I worked there, a new hire would show up, work for the day, and never return. That problem hasn’t gone away. “It happens here all the time,” says Arianna, a waitress at Original Sonsie. “I think it happened yesterday.”

“It’s weird,” adds Jesse, another waitress.

But maybe the turnover is actually a good thing, since it helps keep the restaurant feeling fresh. In any case, it’s not hard for the management to find replacements. In Boston there’s always a new crop of starry-eyed college students from small suburban towns, postgraduate drifters, and artists who need to pay the bills until the big break comes. I know that when I finally quit for good—I was always quitting, then getting lured back again, then quitting again—it couldn’t have taken them long to find someone new. What’s less clear, though, is how you can have a Sonsie without having a ready supply of quirky Bostonians to stock its payroll.

Apparently, Lyons is prepared to make the most of what’s at his disposal.

Back at Seablue, the sommelier walks up to our table bearing a bottle of Riesling, which he presents with an extravagant flourish. He’s very tall, with an insane-looking cowlick and an earnest demeanor. He blusters knowingly about the art on the label, makes a comment about vineyards in Germany. Lyons is pleased; wine is a personal interest of his. “You,” he says, “are very good.” The sommelier beams. Then he unloads the wine into our glasses like diesel into a Mack truck.

“Okay, so he can’t pour,” Lyons says as the sommelier walks away. “We can work on that.” David Brilliant, a member of Lyons’s entourage and a wine aficionado, winces.

I’m inclined to take it as a positive sign. Because it appears, at least for now, that Lyons is still paying attention to the details. That, at least for now, maybe he’s not necessarily making a cookie-cutter chain. That he’s still casting for the right mix of personalities. That he’s looking not only for the sort of staffers who will remember that Fernando should never be served hard alcohol, but also, just to keep things interesting, the sort who might accidentally give it to him anyway.

Originally published in Boston magazine, October 2006


 

The Lyons Group:

Patrick Lyons, John Lyons, Mindy d’Arbeloff, Ed Sparks, Steve Coyle, Steve Adelman, Eric Aulenback, and Ray Montgomery

The Lyons Group practically defines " nightlife players " in Boston.

Its holdings include Avalon, Axis, Embassy, the Modern, I/D, and Bill’s Bar on Lansdowne Street; the restaurants Sonsie, Harvard Gardens, part of Jasper White’s Summer Shacks, Lucky’s Lounge, and the Tiki Bar; the entertainment emporium that is Kings and the deVille Lounge; Sophia’s nightclub; and, in the Alley, the Big Easy, Sugar Shack, The Quarter, Rocket Bar and Sweetwater Café (obviously, we could have listed this group in the restaurant category as well).

These eight people are the engine that makes the Lyons machine run smoothly.

Their exact roles are as follows: Patrick Lyons, chairman/owner; John Lyons, VP of operations; Mindy d’Arbeloff, VP of public relations; Ed Sparks, CEO/owner; Steve Coyle, VP of operations; Steve Adelman, marketing director of Avalon/Embassy; Eric Aulenback, VP of operations; and Ray Montgomery, GM of Avalon, Axis, and Embassy.

 

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