Hot restaurateur Darin Rubell gives the people exactly what they want
Does New York really need another $14 hamburger? It’s a question I put to restaurateur Darin Rubell on a recent Wednesday night at the site of his latest venture, Boulton & Watt. Rubell—lanky, smiling easy in an embroidered pale blue button-down shirt and a newsboy cap—didn’t hesitate before answering. “No,” he said. “And yet, at every one of my restaurants, it’s the most popular thing on the menu.”
Indeed, the 2,500-square-foot restaurant on the corner of Avenue A and Houston Street was packed that evening, 20-somethings cheerfully downing pints of Bronx Pale Ale and Kelso IPA, snacking on oysters, pigs-in-a-blanket and, yes, burgers.
This is one of Rubell’s talents, a secret of his success: he knows how to give people what they want. “It’s a pretty simple formula,” he said. “Good food and a good attitude go a really long way.”
Lineage doesn’t hurt, either. Rubell’s father co-owned the New York restaurant chain Steak Loft in the 1970s. His grandfather had Siegel’s, an old-fashioned Jewish deli in Brooklyn. Most famously, his father’s cousin Steve Rubell was the proprietor of legendary disco joint Studio 54. While 38-year-old Rubell is too young to have hustled across the dance floor there in a white polyester leisure suit, he certainly felt the family business in his blood. When asked if Steve had influenced him, Rubell grew thoughtful. “Influence isn’t the right word,” he said. “Inspiration is more accurate.”
There’s none of Studio 54’s glitz or glamour (and, one assumes, no Mafia and models snorting coke in the bathroom) here. Boulton & Watt is a kind of locavore Americana take on the English pub, with classic rock on the radio. The food is comforting; familiar with a twist. They serve pineapple pickles and steak frites, but also seasonal fare. After a weekend trip in which Rubell and his chef/partner David Rotter foraged in the woods around Rhinebeck in upstate New York, they offered ramp pesto pasta with crispy morels. “Our passion is for really fresh food,” said Rubell.
"It's a pretty simple formula. Good food and a good attitude go a really long way."
This is a case of food following form. They decided on a look for the ex-dive bar—it’s named after the investors of the steam engine—and found fare that would match it. With vintage wood floors, polished concrete ceilings and iron gears tacked upon the walls, it’s meant to feel like a former factory reborn as a restaurant.
Such reuses are common here, with so many of New York’s ex-industrial spaces now used as hedge fund offices or luxury dwellings. But there’s something ironic about glamorizing manufacturing space at a time when the economy is still so hobbled by the loss of it; something uncomfortable—not to the patrons, but to me—about creating fallacious industrial history. It’s as if Boulton & Watt were a theme bar, so tastefully done that no one knows the theme is American economic decline.
But Rubell himself is on the opposite trajectory, a full tilt upward swing. He’s not a cutting edge restaurateur, but rather someone who knows how to jump on the bandwagon at the perfect moment. He grew up in the West Village in the 1970s, and remembers his mother cautioning him not to venture east of Broadway, when the East Village was a den of drugs and crime. By the time he opened his first restaurant as full partner in 2004 there (Mercadito), the plague of hard drugs had disappeared. Tompkins Square Park was swept clean of the homeless (Rubell started a free outdoor film program there, which is screening Rocky Horror and The Big Lebowski this summer). Squats had been transformed into condos. And yet the commercial rents still bordered on reasonable.
He opened Gallery Bar—purveyors of fine art and fine cocktails—on the Lower East Side in 2006, just before the cheese cubes and cheap wine went missing from gallery openings after the crash. In 2008 he launched the roaring ’20s-inspired East Village lounge Ella. In 2012, he and Rotter took over the busy Bushwick arm of Life Café, which had ventured into the neighborhood back in 2001, when few hipsters had found it. He opened a catering company, Farm to Fork, that supplies lunches to hedge funds, and he continues to support art projects around the East Village.
Boulton & Watt is still his baby, but Rubell is pondering his next move. This might mean finding his intrepid sea legs, venturing further out into Brooklyn, or perhaps diversifying beyond the food industry. His inspirational uncle, after all, went on to open the Morgan Hotel and the Palladium nightclub. “That’s what I love about this business,” he says. “You could go from bartending to owning a hotel.” And no matter how upscale said hotel might be, you can be sure Rubell will serve burgers.