Feature writing


With the Raven, Henry Stimler expands his nightlife presence

The New York Times

November 6, 2013

In his own words, Henry Stimler was “always a wandering spirit and dreamer.” He grew up the second child of five in an ultra-Orthodox home in the predominantly Jewish area of Golders Green, North London.

“I was the different one, the only blond kid alongside 43 other kids at school,” he said. “I didn’t do what everyone else in my community did: go to synagogue, stay a virgin, marry the girl around the corner and live in the same four-block radius as my parents. I wanted to explore and have my own life. I was a little bit naughtier. I liked the girls.”

The 33-year-old businessman revealed this sitting in the nightclub the Raven, where he is the creative director, in the meatpacking district. “It’s people drinking, dancing on couches, making out in corners and hopefully getting laid at the end of the night — that’s all I can hope for,” Mr. Stimler said of his mission.

He was dressed in tight jeans and a T-shirt (“I dress in a very rock ’n’ roll way”; his favorite store is Trash and Vaudeville) and boots from the Beatwear store in Liverpool, England. His hair was shorn close on the side and wavy on top.

“My Nazi youth haircut,” he said. “I can wear it like this because it’s two months till I see my parents.”

Named by Yana Tara, Mr. Stimler’s girlfriend, after the Edgar Allan Poe poem, the club, on Gansevoort Street, is decorated with distressed wallpaper, artwork that includes photographs of a man and woman acting out the poem and a ceiling painting of heaven and hell. The look of the Raven, which is owned by the hospitality organization the Line Group, is Victorian hunting lodge as commandeered by Kate Moss and the Sex Pistols.

Mr. Stimler said he wanted “more rock ’n’ roll rather than pretty boys” — the same kind of clientele (rich, looking for the semblance of a bit of rough) who frequented the Raven’s predecessor, Gunbar, which had the ersatz touches of graffitied walls and an in-house tattooist. (In 2011, a writer for The New York Times imagined Kurt Cobain “cursing from beyond the grave” at the sight of three smartly dressed men moshing to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”)

On a recent Wednesday evening, the incense sticks burning at the bar were the only whiff of counterculture at the Raven: the men were mainly in the well-heeled ensemble of navy blazers and jeans. Their female companions were (like a caucus of Robert Palmer backup singers) wearing short, tight black dresses.

On the Raven’s opening night, LL Cool J was “dancing away,” Mr. Stimler said. The film director Paul Haggis and Om’Mas Keith, Frank Ocean’s record producer, were also there. Massive Attack D.J.’d a few weeks later. Aaron Voros, the former Ranger and a longtime fan of Mr. Stimler’s night life ventures, said: “Henry’s skill is making everyone feel like his best friend. It isn’t fake. He likes people.”

Ross Meisel, the director of night life operations for the Line Group, said Mr. Stimler remains “genuine and well-grounded in a world not known for people with those qualities.”

“He’s the same with busboys and rock stars,” Mr. Meisel said. (Speaking of rock stars, Mr. Stimler counts Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones among his friends.)

Since he was young, Mr. Stimler said, he “charmed my way through craziness.” As a boy he was “very loud, verbose, cheeky.” There was a lot of fighting and crying with his mother, Miriam, and father, Stanley.

“I couldn’t ask for two better parents,” he said. “They were both kids of Holocaust survivors and couldn’t understand why they had four angelic kids who never caused any problems, and this one middle child who was crazy.” He would shout at them: “I swear I’m adopted. You got the wrong baby at birth.”

As a schoolboy, Mr. Stimler would do anything to spend time with girls. He would sneak off “with other nerdy Jewish kids” to London nightclubs like Chinawhite. At 20, he got his first internship at a finance company and one night picked up a Swedish woman, taking her “up to my room with pictures of my rabbi and bar mitzvah.” After catching him sneaking in in the early hours, his parents asked: “What kind of a person are you?” and “What will the neighbors think?”

Mr. Stimler studied finance at the University of Westminster, then history at University College London, “which I never finished.”

“I just wanted to live, get laid, smoke cigarettes and have fun,” he added. He was groomed, like his brother, for a position in his father’s successful and well-respected commodities business. “I worked for him for a few months,” he said. “I hated it, felt trapped. It was everything I didn’t want to be.” (Mr. Stimler’s family declined to comment for this article.)

At 24, Mr. Stimler came to New York for an internship at a finance company and fell madly in love with Manhattan. “Everyone loved the British cheeky-chappy thing,” he said. “There was no curfew, no religion or community watching me. I felt alive.”

Soon after his arrival, he created an investment firm, Phoenix SWF Fund, which, he said, “grew at a ferocious pace,” and collapsed during the 2008 financial crisis. The businessman Sol Kinraich, a friend of Mr. Stimler for 10 years, said: “He didn’t let it destroy him. He goes at 600 miles per hour.”

With “quite a bit of money left in the bank,” Mr. Stimler created Madame Wong’s, a pop-up nightclub in 2010, learning “you don’t make money from hipsters.” He also learned that he needed a cabaret license, after the police shut him down for not having one. The socialite Denise Rich encouraged him to set up a French-themed cabaret dinner evening at the former hot spot La Petite Maison in Midtown. After that came Jezebel, now named J, a kosher restaurant in SoHo attended by the likes of Lindsay Lohan and the Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

At the time Mr. Stimler and Ms. Tara had broken up. He said that he had spent a fortune taking a woman out to a nonkosher restaurant where he could only eat salad. She left him on the curb, hungry. He set up J, “where I wouldn’t be embarrassed to take a date.”

Opinion is split on the Raven’s chances of success. The meatpacking district is now “very bridge-and-tunnel and the crowd you’re trying to attract — the fashion crowd and such — have moved on,” said Scott Solish, the night-life editor of Eater New York. “I’m not sure how sustainable the D.J.-and-bottle-service model of the Raven is. The market is saturated with these kinds of places that don’t rise up to the big clubs like Marquee, Lavo and Finale and the area is really no longer interesting for night life.”

While he is sure the Raven will “go through the typical hype cycle of a meatpacking club,” Geoff Rynex, the New York editor of the night-life website UrbanDaddy, rates its chances higher. “It’s got a much more polished feel than a lot of clubs,” he said. “Typically places like this look a lot better in the heat of the party than when they’re empty, but with the Raven I think you’ve got a spot that would hold up even if it was just a quiet cocktail spot.”

The Raven was much in use during New York Fashion Week. Charlotte and Samantha Ronson hosted a party there, as did VFiles, Katie Gallagher and Unlimited magazine. Galore magazine had its Halloween party there. Also in the Raven’s favor is that the Line Group owns not only the club, but also the restaurant and private event space on the floors above, as well as much of the block; the Raven may change or expand, Mr. Rynex said.

Mr. Stimler said his parents “think I’m nuts,” though they appear to support him: When his father visited the Raven, he measured out the square footage and calculated how much his son should make a year. Pop-up versions of the Raven are planned in Miami and for Paris Fashion Week. Mr. Stimler also wants to build a “cool, rock ’n’ roll” hotel.

Though he can appear at times almost like a caricature of a Manhattan scenester, Mr. Stimler said his faith remains “incredibly important;” he is a member of the Park East Synagogue on East 67th Street. To relax, he reads, watches soccer and American football and walks his 7-year-old golden retriever, Jay-Z, in Central Park.

As his interview with a reporter wound down, an email from Mr. Stimler’s father arrived. The subject was about a party to celebrate his parents’ wedding anniversary.

It read: “Booked you first class return ticket to London. Will send it to you soon. Now have a haircut and bring normal clothes.”