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The Last Old-School Restaurateur Standing

Drew Nieporent was born in 1955 and was obsessed with food by the early 1960s, before New York diners and newspaper critics became infatuated with everything French. “I had amazing exposure to restaurants of the ‘60s that nobody around today visited except my brother and me,” he recalled. “I had to parlay it into something.”

He forgot nothing, exquisite training for a child who would grow up to become one of New York’s pre-eminent front-of-the-house men and surely the most singular. Say what you will about his fellow empire builders like Danny Meyer, Keith McNally and Nick Valenti: As influential and successful as they have been as hosts, money assemblers and deal makers, none are still patrolling their restaurants with the same passion as Mr. Nieporent has.

In an age when marquee restaurants are often defined by their celebrity chefs, he may be the last of the great meet-and-greet men, a breed of owners who reigned over their personal dominions, the seemingly insignificant space between dining room and front door.

They assigned tables (momentous in Manhattan), communicated with their chefs, turned away the less fortunate (or less famous), dispensed perks of food and wine, and determined who was a V.I.P. and who was like the rest of us. At one time they personified their places of business and became as well known as their restaurants, especially if they were as revered as Sirio Maccioni (Le Cirque), Joe Baum (the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, the Four Seasons) and George Lang (Café des Artistes).

These days you will often find Mr. Nieporent on the premises when you walk into Bâtard, Tribeca Grill or one of the two Nobus in New York that he oversees. He remains intensely hands-on at a time when franchising and financing are the priorities in an increasingly difficult business. Remarkably, after more than 30 years of opening (and often closing) restaurants, Mr. Nieporent has hardly changed.

His famously cramped office has always been in TriBeCa; when his Myriad Restaurant Group was headquartered on Franklin Street, he used to sit outside, smoke a cigar and conduct business at a table brought down to the sidewalk. During business hours he is now more likely to be on the patio of Tribeca Grill.

He never hired a public relations firm, preferring personal contact. He remains the best resource for those who know him, have his phone number and need a last-minute reservation at any restaurant in town.

“If you’re a friend of Drew, you get in any door,” said the comedian and actor Paul Reiser, who took a photography class with Mr. Nieporent at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. “The whole point of getting famous is to hope for a good table, but you can end that heartache with a shortcut, just by knowing Drew. I once wanted to go to Rubicon in San Francisco while he was in Japan. He got me in. He’s hospitable from 5,000 miles away.”

Wherever Mr. Nieporent (NEE-pour-rent) appears — and he seems to be everywhere — he is a commanding figure, never content to hover in the background. He lights up a room like a bottle rocket on a birthday cake. He greets everyone he knows (and he knows everyone) in a voice that booms like a bugle call at sunrise or a ram’s horn on the Jewish High Holy Days.

“Taking care of people separates him,” said Marty Shapiro, a Myriad partner. “Others feel that way, but it’s in his soul.”

As everyone knows, attention from Mr. Nieporent can come at a price. “He will say anything that comes to mind,” his daughter, Gabrielle, pointed out. “He has no filter.”

He does it for love of a punch line, and perhaps from a certain cantankerousness that comes from knowing that what he set out to become — the Manhattan restaurateur as arbiter of everything culinary — has diminished drastically with the rise of the superstar chef.

“He loves to tell you to your face what he thought of your cooking,” said Eric Ripert, the chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin. “Mostly, it’s a compliment. He once said to me: ‘You’re the best seafood chef on the planet. Do you remember 30 years ago when you were at a charity event in New Jersey and you burned the tuna?’”

Growing Up, Eating Out

He was always going to become a restaurateur, even before he knew what the word meant. Mr. Reiser wrote in Mr. Nieporent’s high school yearbook, “Good luck with your restaurant.” As Mr. Reiser explained recently, “He was the only guy our age who knew exactly what he wanted to be when he was 17 or 18.”Mr. Nieporent’s father, who worked for the New York State Liquor Authority, received limitless invitations to dine on the house from owners hoping for an easy passage through bureaucratic channels. Such questionable largess was less scrutinized back then, although Mr. Nieporent recalls that Irwin Dubrow of Dubrow’s Cafeteria in the garment district — a restaurant he loved — would tape a $20 bill under the toilet for the health inspector, “until the wrong inspector showed up and blew the whistle.”

Mr. Nieporent said he remembers every restaurant he visited and everything he learned.

His mother taught him (wrongly, he points out) to twirl spaghetti with a fork, then capture it on a spoon, when the family was dining at San Marino. He was eating egg rolls and sweet-and-sour pork at China Song, next to the Ed Sullivan Theater, the night in 1964 when the Beatles first performed there. He learned the difference between Wiener schnitzel and schnitzel à la Holstein (which is about anchovies and capers) at Janssen’s. He sighs when recollecting his first chicken Kiev and the thrill of its bursting butter, at Two Guitars, a Russian nightclub in a basement on 14th Street.

“Eating out in the ’60s was for the privileged and the wealthy,” Mr. Nieporent said. “We were neither, but we were treated so well that I wanted to be a part of it. We’d sit at the table with the old-school guys who ran the restaurants. They’d ask my father, ‘What does he want to be?’ He’d say, ‘He wants to be in the restaurant business.’ They’d reply, ‘It’s getting terrible.’ They’d moan and bellyache. They were always crabby, always in a bad mood. But I would feel the aura.”

He graduated from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, and worked on the cruise ships Vistafjord and Sagafjord during summer vacations, carrying trays of food up escalators from the kitchen. “You had to know the proper names of six kinds of potatoes, all the different soups,” he said. “And if you dropped a platter, which I once did, the other waiters were pissed at you.”

After graduation, he recalled, “I worked all the La’s and the Le’s: Le Périgord, Le Regence, La Grenouille, La Reserve.” He was assistant restaurant director at Warner LeRoy’s celebrated Maxwell’s Plum and later restaurant director at Mr. LeRoy’s Tavern on the Green.