He Did It His Way
by Michele Elyzabeth
Rare are the ones who can sustain success in a city such as Los Angeles, especially when it comes to restaurants. Unlike New York and Paris “where eateries may stand a chance of becoming iconic” trends usually dictate the mood of the moment, making location and decor the prime concern. The food becomes secondary. Instead, it is about ‘where you should go for lunch,’ ‘where you should be seen in the evening,’ ‘what you should wear,’ and ‘who goes there?’ With trends comes yet another pitfall, the lack of identity and soul. Most restaurants seem to look alike as if a single architect and interior designer had worked on all of them. Thankfully for us, there are a few exceptions. Victor Drai is one man that has never been known for conventionality. He does it his way! So, when I heard that he took over an iconic spot formerly known as “Le Dome” and turned it into “Rare by Drai’s,” I was thrilled and could not wait to reconnect with him and see what he had done with the space. For the few who do not know Victor, he is a self-made multi-millionaire, business savvy and known to jet-setter crowds around the world. He is a successful movie producer, a nightlife mogul having conquered both Los Angeles and Las Vegas. He is the creator and founder of Las Vegas’ mega clubs Tryst and XS, and the visionary owner behind the newly renovated “Drai’s After Hours” opening this spring.
During one of his trips to Paris, he met legendary actress Jacqueline Bisset, which resulted in a long friendship and opened doors in the industry. Drai hit cinematic gold with the 1984 romantic comedy “The Woman in Red” starring Gene Wilder, Kelly LeBrock, Gilda Radner and Charles Grodin, which he solely produced. Other films such as “The Man With One Red Shoe,” “Folks,” “The Bride” and the blockbuster “Weekend at Bernie’s” followed. In 1993 he opened Drai’s on La Cienega Boulevard which rapidly became the entertainment industry hangout. Drai’s was quite different from other places. It did not feel like a restaurant, but rather like someone’s home. Eager to test himself one more time, he acted on a business opportunity and, in 1997, opened his Las Vegas Drai’s restaurant on the Strip. It quickly became the hottest table in town. Two years later, Drai added a nightclub element to the restaurant, transforming it into Drai’s After Hours. The club’s 1 a.m. to early morning business hours pioneered the after-hours venue concept, making him the talk of the town. No one had thought of it. Victor could do no wrong. Whatever he touched turned to gold. In 2007, Steve Wynn asked him to revamp the unsuccessful club “La Bete.” With his creativity and attention to detail, the impressive Tryst nightclub was born.
Another of Victor’s creations, the XS nightclub at Encore in Las Vegas, is an award-winning and record-breaking club and considered the most successful nightclub in the world. Drai added a fourth venue to his endeavors in March 2010, opening Drai’s Hollywood, a rooftop restaurant, pool, and nightclub at the W Hotel, with great food and ambiance. It was unique in itself. Victor Drai was presiding over the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine. It was a bit of a shock when I found out that he had decided to move locations. I was curious to know why. On a sunny February afternoon, I went to “Rare by Drai’s” which opened just before the New Year.
Victor was already there waiting. He looked the same. This man does not age. Invited to sit down at a round table, he was ready to answer my questions.
ME: You just opened this gorgeous restaurant; tell me how this came about?
I was in Hollywood for three and a half years. I was very happy with the night clubs, but not with the restaurants because all of my clientele lived far away. They came once in a while, but it was too far and traffic was really bad. All my clientele lived in West Hollywood, so people didn’t come. My best friends didn’t come. That was bothering me. Then, I started to have problems with the hotel because of the noise and the pool. The issue was that we both were controlling the pool, and that didn’t work for me. We were a night club, and they didn’t get it. I didn’t want to move without another Drai’s in Hollywood or Los Angeles. So I started looking.
How did you find this deal?
The people who own BLT are best friends with my partner, Michael Gruber. He came to me, and said, ‘What do you think?’ because they were in trouble here. So we made the deal and it was the perfect deal for me to make. It’s my name, it’s my restaurant, it’s my place. They take care of the accounting and payroll, which is perfect for me. I don’t want to do that. They’ve been good partners so far; they don’t bother me.
How is the restaurant doing?
Amazingly great. I’m very impressed because I was expecting it to take a little longer than it did. We’ve already sold out almost every Friday and Saturday since we’ve opened. It’s crazy; we did 300 dinners on Saturday. That’s a lot, because we only sit 180 people.
Is it mainly your old clientele?
Yes, and new people as well. I have not seen some of these clients for 13-14 years, and I don’t recognize them most of the time. (laughs) I say, ‘Oh, yeah!’ I have the worst memory, anyways, so it’s very funny. But they all come, and the location is amazing. The reaction is insane. Some people have already come three to five times, since we’ve opened. Literally, every week they come.
Any plans to open for lunch eventually?
No, because I designed the restaurant to be a night place. Lunch, does not make any money; it’s just salad and iced tea. And, worse than that, if they come for lunch, they don’t come for dinner. If I open lunch every day, certain people would come two to three times a week, but they would not come at night.
You’re probably the only French business man that has been able to sustain and reinvent yourself regularly. What do you attribute this to?
I’m born with my stuff. (laughs) I like to create. The fun part for me is the creation of the space. I would not have gotten involved with this project normally because I have two huge places opening in Vegas in May, but it was too perfect of a location for me to pass. I decided to do it. While I was killing myself working on all these projects at the same time, I thought ‘Why am I doing that for? I’m crazy. I don’t need it.’ But when it was finished, I was very happy I did it.
So take me back — you had Drai’s on La Cienega?
I opened Drai’s by accident, basically, because my wife at the time was pregnant and it was my first child. I wanted to be around. I was in the film business. I didn’t want to go away to be on location. I wanted to be there for the birth to at least to see my child, so I decided to open a restaurant. I’ve always loved restaurants. I’ve been nuts about it all of my life, so I opened Drai’s, not thinking it would be a hit at all. We opened with very little money, with little risk and it became a huge success.
How long were you there?
Five years. During the time that I was operating Drai’s, everybody wanted me to open other places. The first person I started to talk to was Donald Trump in New York. I flew to New York and met with him, and the location was great. It looked like I would make a deal. On my way back home, I realized that I left three days for one meeting. I said, ‘Wait a minute, that’s what I don’t want to do. I want to be with my kid. I don’t want to be that far, so forget it.’ I didn’t make that deal.
Then I started to look into where I could make another Drai’s, and the only other place that made sense to me was Vegas. It’s a 45-minute flight, plus I like to go. And Vegas was just starting to grow. You could see it happen. Some people didn’t see it; I did. It was just before Bellagio was built. Spago was the first restaurant there and it was doing really well.
There were no other restaurants in Vegas, so I decided to open my second place there. We became huge immediately. Then I created my night club. In other words, after the restaurant was closed, we created “After Hours” nightclub, which is 16 years old now —it’s the oldest nightclub in Vegas, and we’re packed every day. When the club started to take off, it was just a little too much and I said, ‘Close it,’ because we were on the top at the time. I decided to find a new place that was bigger, because it was a small Drai’s.
My reasoning was that I could concentrate on Vegas — everybody will be hungry to see our new place in a year or two, so I moved all my business there. I never really found a place in LA that was really exciting to me after all of these years.
I started to get into the club business. I opened Tryst with Steve Wynn, and then I reopened Tryst because it was a catastrophe when they had it, so they called me and we made a deal. I came to help change the place; made a huge success out of it. Then I made XS, which was about an $80 million night club, and then I got into trouble with Steve Wynn. My deal with him was: You can never tell me what to do. That was part of my deal. So when he became a really big success after five or six years, he started telling me what to do, and I said no way, so I left. He paid me and there was no issue. I created my new place — what I’ve been building for the last three years. It will open in May, above the old Drai’s where we’re remodeling the entire hotel, The Cromwell. We’re building a 70,000 square feet night club — huge.
During that process, this place came along. And I didn’t want to do it, so I was so tough on the deal, but they said yes to everything I was asking, and it was such a perfect location for me. Plus, I can have a night club in the lower level.
Yes. All the elements were perfect, so I said fine. I’m really glad that I did. I was not happy the last two months, but soon we opened and I became very happy.
What do you still attribute to the fact that you’ve been able to survive? Are you just a lucky guy? Or do you just understand business?
Yes, the latter. I’ve always had that in my life. I was in fashion in France and I was in the movie business. I’ve always been very successful in what I do.
But you have a little bit of luck on your side, though, don’t you?
Yeah, you have to. I’m lucky to be healthy! (laughs) It’s true, in that sense. But I know what I want to do, and I’m very opinionated and I’m very sure of myself. I’m not, but I always look like I’m very sure of myself, and I like to do new things. And I like beautiful places.
Did you decorate this space?
Everything — I decorate all of my places. The Drais’, the night clubs, XS — all of them. That’s the most fun of it. The new club is insane.
Are you still involved in producing?
Why? You were successful at it.
Yes, but if I were a writer or a director, I would definitely still be doing it. But the producer is like the first guy who creates the project, and then you’re the last piece in the wheel. Soon the director comes in, and you’re out, basically. They are the guys who decide what to do and how to do it, and I don’t like that. Then you have the studio. There are too many bosses for me and I don’t like that. I enjoyed it because it was something new. The chance to really make it in the film business as a French person was like a joke, so that was a challenge. That was fun. But there are lots of people in Hollywood who have been really nice to me. I have really good friends in Hollywood. They held the door open for me.
Do you split your time between LA and Vegas?
Yes, because in LA I have my family, and in Vegas I have my work. It’s very easy; they’re 45 minutes apart.
It’s not far, but it’s still demanding and a pressured job.
Not really, I have my own plane.
Oh, well… (Laughs)
It was an expense that I’m really happy I did it, because that made it easier. Sometimes I wake up and I don’t know if I’m in LA or in Vegas. I can go for a day sometimes.
What’s in the future for you after your reopening mid-May?
We’ll reopen ‘After Hours’ in the same building, and then I have another club I’m opening in Bally’s. I moved ‘After Hours’ to Bally’s while the hotel was being renovated. Now that I’m moving it back to its original place, I’m going to use that space for a new club for the gay community. There’s no classy gay club on the strip in Vegas.
As far as entertainment is concerned, is it strictly DJ?
It’s all DJ music. What’s happened in the last few years in the night clubs is that DJs have become big, big stars. I would get a DJ, but to pay $400,000 a night is ridiculous. It makes no sense.
Are you leasing, or are you the part-owner with the Hotel.
I’m 50/50 partners with Caesar’s.
How did you crack Vegas?
First I started Drai’s in a place where it was a McDonald’s and in the worst hotel ever —an ugly and smelly hotel called The Barbary Coast. However, it was the best location on the strip. It was across from Caesars and Bally’s. The location was so insane, they wanted to change the look of the hotel and they were ready to work with me. They were very sweet; they let me do what I wanted. I did something almost as pretty as ‘this’ place. My theory was ‘okay, if I do a pretty place in a great location, people will find it.’ It would be kind of a ‘speak-easy.’ And instead of downtown, I’d be uptown.
Were you busier after that?
No, we were always the same. We couldn’t be more packed than we were. It was crazy.
Then I created the night club, the restaurant was open until midnight, so I could not have a normal hour club. I opened an after-hours, the most famous after hours in the world.
After Hours is open until what to what time?
We open at 1:00 am and we close at 10:30 am in the morning. People came around 3:00 am. I have a very faithful clientele in all industries. After finishing work, if they wanted a drink, they came to Drai’s. It’s been 16 years now. We’re always packed, and I don’t spend a dollar on advertising and I don’t spend a dollar on DJs, and they love my place.
You’re just a lucky guy, (laughs).
No, not really. It’s really a cool place. And it’s funny, because you have different generations who all know Drai’s.
Do you still frequent your establishments at night?
I’m there during the day when I’m in Vegas, but rarely at night. It’s too late for me. Plus, I used to have the other clubs, XS and Tryst. I was in the other club from 2-3 o’clock, and then I would go to Drai’s for maybe half an hour.
And here, you come to your place?
If I’m in LA, I come to dinner here, but I don’t want it to be what it was on La Cienega where people came to see me. I don’t want to do that. People are blown away by the food here.
Drai’s had a certain cache because there was something European.
And at the time, it was the first restaurant with a lounge. It didn’t exist before.
There was a fireplace. They never saw that. It was very cool.
You are the only French man who was able to adapt to the times and reinvent himself. What do you like about your business?
I like beauty and great lighting. I’m serious. That’s 90% of my success.
Would you say that you are happy?
I’m very happy. I have my little girl who’s six years old and I have a 20-year old who’s beautiful. I have wonderful children. What else could one ask for?