The Return of the Nightlife King: Seth Greenberg
Once upon a time, Seth Greenberg reigned over a glittery club scene that upended the bar-hopping habits of stodgy old Boston. Now the prodigal impresario has returned. Can he bring that magic back?
Seth Greenberg is holding forth on history. Boston’s, not his own. He’s standing in the doorway of what will become Woodward, the “modern tavern” he’s opening this month in the new Ames Hotel, in which he’s a partner. He’s looking out at the Old State House and down State Street toward the Custom House Tower, pondering the past, the city’s long memory. “This is where the Boston Tea Party took place,” he says of his new neighborhood, sounding a bit awestruck.
He’s an unlikely history buff, standing here with his tousled hair, fancy watch (Chronoswiss), and artfully untucked blue shirt. Of course, the tea dumping took place down the harbor a ways—but no matter. What he’s getting at is what makes the old Ames building—the city’s first skyscraper when it was completed in 1893—such a compelling place for a swank new hotel, and the perfect spot for his own latest experiment. “The Ames family, who built this place, had a company called Ames Plow,” Greenberg says. “When Mr. Ames died, Mrs. Ames remarried a man named Woodward and opened a tavern at her home. So this is named after Mrs. Woodward’s tavern.”
To know anything about Seth Greenberg is to wonder at his desire to become a tavern keeper. But Woodward, he explains, won’t be your great-grandfather’s watering hole. What Greenberg has in mind is a vibe he describes, with a straight face, as “Ben Franklin meets supermodel.” The way he sees it, if a colonial about town were alive today, this is just the sort of place he’d enjoy. And hey, who doesn’t want to hang out with supermodels?
Seth Greenberg is handsome and perpetually tanned. He loves fashion. He loves Saint-Tropez. And the Hamptons. And models. And South Beach. And working out. And fast cars. He also loves Boston. A purveyor of a glam lifestyle in a notoriously buttoned-down city, Greenberg has always glimpsed opportunity here. With Woodward, amid both a recession and a poorly timed hotel building boom, he’s out to redefine a career that’s fixed in time to a spectacular moment in the 1990s, when he invented an entire subculture at M-80 and later at the Theater District’s Aria, then the city’s most glittering nightspots. That early success spawned other deals—including Mistral, the restaurant he opened in the South End—but after a string of run-ins with the city’s licensing board over underage drinking and overcrowding, his flagship club was shuttered. In frustration, he left the bar business behind and set up shop in New York, giving up the Ladder District condo and the band of trailing Greenberg wannabes and Maggie Inc. models just as the lights dimmed on what was the most glorious nightlife era in Boston since the jazz club days of the 1940s.
Now, a dozen years after he opened his last big property here, he’s back in Boston to accomplish what he says has been his goal all along: becoming a player in the hotel business. If he succeeds, Boston will once more witness his talent for spinning a sleepy scene into something sparkling. And if he really succeeds, we may also witness a transformation in the once-rowdy club king himself.
What Greenberg has in mind at Woodward is a charming open space, filled with light bouncing off the old building’s brown and white marble mosaic floor. There will be glossy white Windsor chairs, banquettes overflowing with fabulous people, and a bar stocked with craft drinks made with local cider and herbs. The venture is a partnership between the boutique hoteliers at the Morgan Hotel Group—owners of Mondrian in L.A. and the Delano in Miami—along with Normandy Real Estate Partners, which owns, among other things, the Hancock Tower. With players like these, Woodward will be a far cry from the sort of ye olde beer bar that could easily have been plopped onto this Freedom Trail parcel. It will also be a far cry from the crowded after-dark hideaways in which Greenberg used to hold court. What he wants is to create a scene that feels like real Boston, only cooler, a place where you feel you simply have to be. And almost no one is better at creating that kind of thing than Seth Greenberg.
To truly understand his talents, you have to go back to the mid-’90s, to M-80, the old Comm. Ave. concert hall he turned into an orgy of indulgence. The club, which was located inside the storied Paradise Rock Club—a mere cork’s pop from the BU campus—catered to an international crowd the likes of which the city had never seen. Saudi princes rolled up in their Mercedes S-Class convertibles, and Venezuelan scions ordered $200 bottles of Cristal for everyone they knew. As the economic slowdown gave way to a local tech boom, even homegrown kids were suddenly awash in unprecedented piles of discretionary cash.
Greenberg’s clientele was young, flush, and ready to party. Models and fashionable brainiacs rubbed elbows, and even John Kerry made frequent appearances. Designers like Versace and Betsey Johnson hosted fashion shows. The mantra was “Dom is for drinking and Moët is for spraying,” and during its run, M-80 was selling more high-end champagne than any other venue in New England. In that era of pre-9/11 innocence, Saudis mixed with Jews, Turks mixed with Greeks, and the sign above the bar read “World Peace.” “It was kind of magical,” says Bethany Van Delft, a former model who was an M-80 regular. “Every now and then, if there was something really political happening in the Middle East, you might notice some tension. But nothing erupting into violence. Nothing like that. Nothing that wasn’t solved by a bottle of champagne being shaken up and sprayed on everyone.”
The scene that coalesced around Greenberg in the 1990s was proof of his ability to capture the moment. It’s a skill he’s been honing since his teen years in Miami Beach, where he lived with his father, a garment industry and real estate entrepreneur; his mother, a former model; and his sisters in a Mediterranean-style waterfront house on North Bay Road. At 15, he discovered the Cricket Club, then a posh hangout for an international crowd of disco dancers, Spanish-speaking expats, and tennis-playing locals. “It was amazing,” he says. “Europeans, wealthy Latins, the WASP community, Miami Jews, all mixed together. I’d put on a three-piece suit and get a ride from my parents’ friends. That’s what got me hooked on nightlife.”
It gave him a vision of a lifestyle, and when he arrived at BU in 1978, he set about creating an undergrad version of the same. Through a friend whose father owned the Theater District’s Hotel Bradford, he arranged to rent the hotel’s ballroom to throw his first major party. Nothing too raucous, just some music and drinks, but what other freshman would’ve had the confidence to pull that off? “I had a great group of friends,” he says. “I was 17 and the drinking age was 18, so I couldn’t legally get into a club, but I could certainly do business.”
“Seth had an entrepreneurial mindset, even in the college years,” says his former roommate, Michael Conte, now a surgeon in San Francisco. “Within the first couple of months of starting school, I remember, he received a shipment of high-end designer jeans, 20 or 30 pairs, and was selling them out of his dorm room.” Students flocked to Greenberg; it didn’t hurt that his looks brought to mind a cross between David Duchovny and a young Richard Gere. “But it was more than that,” Conte says. “He was magnetic, he really knew how to have fun, and he had a way of promoting that was unique. There were a lot of people who wanted to be around him.”
In fact, part of Greenberg’s appeal is the disarming sweetness in his manner. Though he’s built his career on cultivating the cool crowd, he carries himself like a nice Jewish boy. He calls his mom daily. He remembers names.
Greenberg studied accounting in college—left to his own devices, he would have pursued marketing, but his father laughed at the prospect, saying, “You think I need to pay for you to learn marketing?” Yet he still found time to throw parties, which he did under the name of, ahem, Stallion Productions. By his senior year, he was netting more than $40,000 from parties.
His success caught the attention of nightlife bigwigs Pat Lyons and Don Law, who, separately and jointly, had stakes in a burgeoning collection of bars and music venues around the city. In 1984, two years after graduating, Greenberg bought an ownership stake in the Paradise—owned by Lyons and Law—which had a comedy club called Stitches in the front room. About five years later, he turned that front room into M-80 and began promoting “Euro House” nights (he says he coined the name “Euro” locally, using it to describe the whole motley crew of wealthy international students and party kids around town).
Boston, then a town of duck boots and wide-wale corduroys, may have seemed an unlikely place for a Euro-obsessed party kid to plant his flag. But Greenberg’s view of the city was centered on Newbury Street’s high-end boutiques and salons. He saw the makings of a scene that reminded him of his Cricket Club days, and set about making himself invaluable to those he met. If you were a newcomer of certain means from Barcelona or Riyadh looking for advice on where to live or eat, or even where to find a dentist or buy a stereo, someone would likely send you to see Seth. “My office was a concierge service for everyone,” he says. “Still is to this day.”
His Saudi friends were so smitten that they began taking Greenberg to their estates in Cannes and Saint-Tropez. The somewhat improbable fact that a Jewish guy, raised Orthodox, now a secular Zionist, would be welcomed into the inner circle of Arab royalty didn’t seem to occur to anybody. Greenberg was fun and charismatic, and he attracted the kinds of women that lesser mortals couldn’t dream of approaching. “They took me to their homes and I became a family friend to my Saudi brothers,” he says. “We even called each other ‘the brethren.’ And while I was there, I developed a true appreciation for European culture and nightlife.”
Indeed, more than any kind of accounting acumen, it’s Greenberg’s gift for making friends that’s led to his business success. His well-cultivated relationships with gossip columnists produced reams of breathless reports about his appearances with an impressive list of pals, from Pablo Picasso’s grandson, Olivier, to Elle Macpherson. There he was, jetting off to London in 1996 in an attempt to lure the supermodel-themed Fashion Café to Boston. Here he was rubbing elbows with Carly Simon and Harvey Weinstein on the Vineyard. Even now, his partner in the Ames project is, as Greenberg says, “best friend” Richard Kilstock, who happens to be an heir to a British real estate fortune and the son-in-law of billionaire Clinton pardonee Marc Rich.
Which is not to say Greenberg’s relationships are mere quid pro quo arrangements, or a means to some loftier end. His friends speak of him with genuine affection, as he does of them. It’s just that, simply put, his social network remains his most valuable asset. “It has always been part of what I do. It’s part of the Seth lifestyle,” he says with a smirk. “I take care of people and they take care of me.”
Of course, some relationships are easier to negotiate than others. Back in the late ’90s, even as his star was on the rise, Greenberg wasn’t universally loved. For all that talk of world peace and brotherhood, M-80 had managed to piss a lot of people off. Greenberg never cozied up to City Hall, and made matters worse by speaking out in the press against Mayor Tom Menino’s nightclub curfews. Over the years, M-80 was cited for numerous license violations, from overcrowding and underage drinking to disorderly patrons. On one memorable October night in 1999, officers found “a mob from wall to wall,” according to the police report, plus a blocked exit, underage partygoers, and a woman passed out on a couch. While they were investigating these offenses, two fistfights broke out.
And if that wasn’t headache enough, Greenberg had another image problem. Many Bostonians, put off by the Euros’ ostentatious displays of wealth, took to calling his customer base “Eurotrash.” Some M-80 patrons, turned off by what they regarded as the cops’ imperious approach to traffic control outside the club, grew standoffish with police. “Don’t talk to me like that,” they’d say. “Do you know who I am?” Rock aficionados were offended at being rushed out of the Paradise at 10 p.m. to make more room for the dance crowd on nights when M-80 took over the entire club. It was true that the business made more money off liquor sales than concerts, but this sort of thing frustrated powerful concert promoters like Don Law.
To make matters worse, Law still owned a minority share in the club, as did Lyons, so Greenberg had to contend with not just irate customers, but also grumpy investors. While Greenberg won’t comment on what soured his relationship with Lyons, he did complain in a 2000 Boston profile that Lyons misrepresented the amount of debt attached to the Paradise at the time of the 1984 sale. (Lyons did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.) There were other hints of discord: In a 1993 Globe interview, Greenberg described the Paradise as “a trashy old ’70s rock ‘n’ roll venue.” It seemed the mentee had turned into quite an upstart.
The city suspended the club’s liquor license for two weeks in 1996, and in 1998 tried to suspend its entertainment license as well. The Herald crowed, “Menino Hates Greenberg!” and the Globe noted that “one of the few parties at which Mayor Tom Menino did not appear this year was the private grand-opening celebration…at Aria, the nightclub in the basement of the Wilbur Theatre owned by Seth Greenberg and John Platt.” In a 1998 Globe interview, Nancy Lo, then the city’s director of consumer affairs, called M-80 the worst-run club in town. “Nancy Lo gave me a gift,” Greenberg says. “That was a gift. That was a message. It was a good time for me to transition out of the nightclub business.”
He got another nudge in that direction two years later, when the licensing board padlocked M-80 and suspended its liquor license for six months.
Greenberg was informed the club would be able to retain its licenses only if a new operator were found. He cast about for a buyer, but eventually, and reluctantly, had to turn the club over to Pat Lyons, the man who had given him his start but with whom he now had a strained relationship. “Lyons was a stockholder in the company, and as such, he made a competing offer to the shareholders,” Greenberg says. “It gave them an exit option, and everyone accepted.”
Looking back, Greenberg defends his record, noting that he sank close to $800,000 into the club, trying to improve things like traffic flow and crowd control. And he acknowledges that while he’s a big-picture guy, focused on setting the tone for a place, he’s less oriented toward managing day-to-day operations. “I manage my managers,” he says.
Greenberg will tell you all those struggles merely opened him up to new opportunities. He’d gotten a taste for the restaurant world in 1997, when he partnered with developer Paul Roiff in a South End fine-dining concept. Mistral debuted that year to packed crowds and high praise, and it remains a top dining destination to this day. “Seth has a great sense of style and of what’s ahead of the curve,” Roiff says. “He’s just a very unique individual. They say God gives, God takes. He’s got the pied piper gene. He’s got the style gene. But not the normal businessman genes.”
In 2002, looking for a little distance from Boston, Greenberg opened a restaurant-turned-private-event-space in Manhattan called Capitale, which Esquire named one of the top new restaurants of the year, and where he’s hosted parties for the likes of Elton John, Angelina Jolie, Hillary Clinton, Marc Jacobs, and a long list of other boldface names. (A second property, called Espace, opened last year.)
All the while, the Euro scene in Boston was fading. After 9/11, many Arab students had difficulty staying in town. “I had friends who went to MIT who couldn’t come back to [graduate] with their classes just because they were Saudi,” says George Aboujaoude, one of Greenberg’s protégés, who now owns Cafeteria on Newbury Street. While Boston is still the temporary home for thousands of students from around the world, many of them wealthy, some combination of wartime caution and recessionary modesty has seemed to muffle their presence. “Even now, the international scene is still there,” Aboujaoude says. “But no one is catering to them the same way.”
Even 10 years after its closing, M-80’s network of fans is still strong enough to support a Facebook group with more than 2,200 members, some of whom organized a reunion last summer. The Web page serves as a kind of surreal memorial, where devotees wax nostalgic with an intensity normally reserved for beloved summer camps. “Still to this day,” one wrote, “[I] have not been to a single club in Washington, Boston, L.A., London, or Dubai like M-80.” Another mused, “M-80 [was] a shelter…a safe house where we all hung out till late hours…. We’re still here trying to relive those memories and chant those fantastic songs…. It should be resurrected! World Peace!”
Today, of course, there is nothing on the Hub nightlife circuit that could inspire such rapturous testimonials. Pat Lyons’s Avalon is closed, Greenberg sold off Aria a few years ago, and while there is a thriving scene at the Liberty Hotel and a few dozen great bars, the city’s clubs don’t hold sway the way they used to. That may be a comfort to City Hall, but even the “Eurotrash”-scolding natives have to admit that Boston has lost a bit of the exuberance and, well, fabulousness it had in Greenberg’s heyday.
Still, any acolytes hoping for a revival of M-80 at Woodward should rejigger their expectations. At 48, Greenberg is now more likely to host a late dinner party with close friends than an all-night bacchanal. At Woodward, he says, he wants to create a place that will bring artists, fashionistas, European tourists, and after-work business types together over cocktails and streamlined versions of tavern fare like house-made pickles and short-rib pot roast.
“Boston has a lot of hotels with steakhouses. That’s what everyone was doing,” he says. “We’re going in the opposite direction. Instead of building a really high-end restaurant, we’re building a really affordable restaurant. I always felt that if you have a restaurant that’s just geared toward rich people, it’s just not going to be fun. You need young people and artists and models and you have to make a place affordable to them in order to have a good cross-spectrum of guests. Otherwise, the place becomes boring.”
What you don’t need, however, are underage drinkers or fistfights or pressing crowds. Those days, Greenberg says, are ancient history. His once-frosty relationship with City Hall has been on the mend these past few years, too. In 2005, he even began receiving invites to the mayor’s annual holiday party at the Parkman House. By all accounts, the Ames project has proceeded smoothly, with ample cooperation from its neighbor: Menino’s Boston Redevelopment Authority, located right around the corner.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Greenberg says of his foray into the more grownup hotel industry. “I’ve had trials and tribulations and a lot of setbacks. Sometimes things are going to go wrong at your establishments. Mistakes are going to happen. But at the end of the day, if you want to be a player, you have to be willing to step up to the plate…and I’m just getting started.”