High-energy music, a professional DJ, and serious cuisine are becoming de rigueur in new ‘nitropubs.’
While it sounds like an oxymoron, some restaurant owners are offering fine dining in these club-like atmospheres. So many, in fact, that Chicago Tribune reporter Phil Vettel dubbed them ‘nitropubs,’ placing emphasis on the fact that the scene can be as important as the fare.
Take VB3 in Jersey City, New Jersey. Clientele ranging from local artists to Goldman Sachs employees can order wild salmon with ramps, morels and peas, and then listen to everything from old-school hip hop to soul.
"I think the way dining is going nowadays is that you’ve got to be able to do many things out of one place," says owner and chef Michael Colletti. "It's not just coming to eat. We wanted to make a place where you’re coming to have an experience."
The soft opening of VB3 in May garnered a few press mentions, and Colletti has been marketing via social media almost exclusively while his staff gets up to speed.
Philadelphia’s Valanni opened over 10 years ago and is known for its signature cocktails and its menu, which is a blend of Mediterranean and Latin influenced small and large plates of seasonal specialties.
In 2010, owner George Anni doubled the size of the restaurant and created Social, a lounge with bottle-service and live DJ in the evenings. "We did it to capture the late night business," he says.
Dealing with the diversity of clientele Valanni and Social attract can be difficult, Anni says. Because they're near the theater district, they get a theater crowd along with people out for a night of partying. "But for the most part, it's been very accepted," he says.
We can name other eateries that fall under the nitropub moniker—Chicago’s RPM Italian, Nellcôte, and Tavernita for example—but does this make it a trend worth watching? Anni gives a definite yes, but others aren't so sure.
Andrew Hunter, Culinary Partner at the restaurant consultancy Results Thru Strategy, is careful to distinguish between a stunt, a fad, and a trend.
"Right now it’s very much at the early stage of being a fad," he says. "It’s something that’s clearly catching some people’s attention. But really this is planting time for nitropubs, and hopefully it will develop."
Hunter believes some restaurant owners are combining thoughtful food with a party-like atmosphere in order to differentiate themselves from high-end restaurants.
"Fine dining chefs figured out that white tablecloth restaurants are probably a thing of the past. I know I'm making a very broad statement, but people don’t really want to eat that way anymore,” he says.
“You can probably pick several white tablecloth restaurants around the country that are American institutions and will always do well. But by definition, white tablecloth restaurants are expensive and they’re a commitment for the whole evening, and they are a commitment to a certain style of food and only that food."
In a few years we'll know whether the Chicago Tribune coined a term that's on every restaurant-goer's lips—or a name for a short-lived trend.
By Linda Formichelli