Chef Nobu Matsuhisa was not plotting to launch a global empire when he opened the doors to his namesake Beverly Hills sushi spot at 129 N. La Cienega Blvd. in 1987 — he was just hoping to avoid another catastrophe. “I came to Los Angeles after a year in Alaska,” says Matsuhisa, recalling the painful memory of his Anchorage eatery. “About 15 days after the grand opening, there was an electrical fire in the middle of the night, and the restaurant burned down. I almost killed myself.”
Thirty years and zero devastating fires later, his eponymous restaurant remains what it was almost as soon as its proprietor served up his first plate of black cod with miso: a hub for Hollywood power players, foodies and affectionate neighbors, all lured by his distinctive spin on Japanese cuisine — which eventually became such an enormous draw that even Tom Cruise couldn’t book a table. Now, that simple dining room and sprawling sushi bar, barely altered by the decades, have spawned an international brand that’s worth an estimated $500 million and credited with mainstreaming a once niche cuisine in the United States. After initially rebuffing pleas from entrepreneurial Oscar winner Robert De Niro to open a single New York outpost, Matsuhisa, together with his partners, now runs an empire that includes 41 restaurants and four hotels — arguably making theirs the most successful culinary collaboration in Hollywood history. For an intimate look at how an unassuming restaurant turned into an iconic brand, THR asked Matsuhisa, 68; his wife, Yoko; partners, including De Niro; and some key supporters to discuss this piece of L.A. sushi history.
In 1988, model Toukie Smith introduces De Niro to Montrachet restaurateur Drew Nieporent and the pair set about collaborating on an eatery in Manhattan’s not-quite-burgeoning Tribeca neighborhood. But Matsuhisa isn’t easily convinced about splitting his time.
DE NIRO I started living down in Tribeca before doing Raging Bull. I was looking for a gym, originally, and I found a loft — which I decided to live in instead. I just thought the neighborhood was a great place to set up shop.
MATSUHISA Around 1989, Bob sent me a ticket to go to New York. I stayed at the World Trade Center. He had just bought the building where Tribeca Grill is now. All of the elevators were leaking water and mice were running around, but he had a vision of how everything would look. He explained to me that he wanted to make a restaurant there. But it was too early to open another restaurant. I was still burned from what happened in Alaska.
DREW NIEPORENT, NOW NOBU MANAGING PARTNER Bob wanted him for Tribeca Grill, which was a moment of bad casting. But I saw the friendship between them and made it my mission to make that collaboration happen.
MATSUHISA Four years later, Bob asked me again. I agreed.
DE NIRO I thought it was a no-brainer.
OVITZ You could shoot a cannon down the street in Tribeca in those days. Bob was so far ahead of his time it was frightening.
NIEPORENT Japanese food was not on the cutting edge of New York cuisine. The city was dominated by the “le” and “la” French restaurants. Japanese restaurants were all marketed to the Japanese. There was nothing that was Westernized.
REICHL, NEW YORK TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC, 1993-99 It’s difficult to understand from this vantage point, but as late as 1995, I still had to explain what sushi was to the readers of The New York Times. There was not a big sushi aesthetic, not like in L.A.
DE NIRO I just wanted to have a place where people could meet up and eat his food.
NIEPORENT The space we picked for the original Nobu [105 Hudson St.] was sort of a nefarious spot, a wise-guy hangout.
DAVID ROCKWELL, ARCHITECT There had been so many failed restaurants in that space.
DE NIRO I’d say Tribeca was quieter then, but it still is … compared to SoHo.
ROCKWELL I was working with Meals on Wheels at this event at the South Street Seaport, and I happened to try Nobu’s rock shrimp with the creamy ponzu. The next day I called up Drew and asked to meet with Nobu and Robert. I knew they were trying to open in New York, and I thought it would be a real honor to design the restaurant.
TEPER When it came time to name it, we thought “Nobu” would be easier for New Yorkers to pronounce than “Matsuhisa.”
NIEPORENT Matsuhisa was the template. Nobu had the same food, but it was a whole new idea.
ROCKWELL Restaurants offer a chance to build a language, where design and food come out of the same understanding. We had a lot of conversations about not looking like other Japanese restaurants. Nobu is originally from the country, not the city, thus the use of trees inside and river rock walls.
NIEPORENT Nobu was also David’s breakout project. The first day we open our doors, the wise guys come in and go, “Where’s the bar?” We didn’t have one. We needed room for the sushi bar, so we solved that problem.
ROCKWELL The sushi bar had to be the star of the room. It was kind of a turning point for restaurants in New York, in terms of what luxury was. I don’t think there was another high-end, three-star restaurant that didn’t have white tablecloths.
MATSUHISA I lived in New York those first three months. Then my schedule was two weeks in L.A. and two weeks in New York for a while.
NIEPORENT It was instantly the hot table with the culinary cognoscenti. Gael Greene and Ruth Reichl gave us great reviews.
REICHL I gave it three stars right out of the box. I loved it. Matsuhisa in L.A. was sort of a modest restaurant. There was nothing modest about Nobu. Everything about it screamed “Pay attention!” The timing was impeccable.
NIEPORENT We didn’t set out to be a celebrity spot, but that’s what happened. It was someone every night. That neighborhood was where they all eventually lived. The entire cast of The Sopranos was in Tribeca. John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were on North Moore Street. Ed Burns and Christy Turlington are still up the block.
TEPER We didn’t think about it as a bigger business, but when it became a huge success, developers from London, Miami and Vegas started calling to do the same thing.
MATSUHISA London was the first.
TEPER Even today, we don’t solicit developers or new locations. People call us. I recently got a request from Ghana. Now I’ve got nothing against Ghana, but I don’t think it’s a place for us. Some locations are just impossible to get the product.
As the brand’s global footprint grows, Matsuhisa in L.A. and the original New York Nobu remain thriving flagships — the latter dubbed best restaurant in the city by Food & Wine magazine in 2000 and largely credited with making Tribeca a culture capital. But the neighborhood is one of those most crippled by the 2001 attacks at the World Trade Center.
NIEPORENT After September 11th, the streets were cut off to all vehicular and foot traffic — unless you could prove you lived down there. We were shut down for two full weeks, all the while we were petitioning the mayor [Rudy Giuliani] to let us open.
DE NIRO Jane Rosenthal and I had started taking busloads down to restaurants below Canal Street to get things going — not just Tribeca, but Chinatown. We wanted to show people that it was OK. The [Tribeca Film] Festival would come later.
NIEPORENT I vividly remember telling my staff, “There’s a lot of uncertainty here, but something tells me we’re going to be fine.” The greatest thing, post-9/11, was the sense of community and the surge to businesses in lower Manhattan. It was a full house as soon as we reopened.
Now on every continent but Antarctica, the Nobu business in 2015 gets a $100 million buy-in from billionaire James Packer as the empire expands into hotels — the latest, The Nobu Ryokan Malibu, opened April 28 — and its chef evolves with changing tastes.
MATSUHISA We bought the old L’Orangerie up La Cienega, and we were supposed to move Matsuhisa there. A lot of my regular customers started calling and saying, “No, you cannot.” Bob recommended I stay. This is my flagship.
TEPER Larry Ellison owns a property in Malibu on the PCH, and when he decided to develop it, he approached us to see if we were willing to move from the Country Mart to where we are now, at the ocean. We did not know it would be so successful.
MATSUHISA Normally, you move locations and customers hate it. Not Malibu. People are still thanking me.
NIEPORENT Unfortunately, our Tribeca lease ran out, and we couldn’t negotiate favorable terms. We moved the original Nobu to a brand-new facility on Wall Street, 195 Broadway.
MATSUHISA A lot of our restaurants are now in hotels — London, Las Vegas, Miami Beach, Hong Kong — and a couple of years ago, Bob said, “Why do we do restaurants in somebody else’s hotel?”
DE NIRO Hotels seek us out to get our credibility or a certain cachet, so why wouldn’t we attempt to do that ourselves?
MATSUHISA The first Nobu hotel was in Caesars [in Las Vegas in 2013], then Manila, then Australia.
DE NIRO I’d like to do a Caribbean next. A Nobu beach club, hopefully.
NIEPORENT Nobu is now a lifestyle. I’ve had a lot of restaurants, but never something like this.
REICHL Nobu literally changed the way restaurants think about each other and themselves.
ROCKWELL People still call me to get reservations. They think I’m a concierge or something.
MATSUHISA My philosophy is, food is like fashion. My signature dishes haven’t changed, but there are different cultures, different foods, to translate to new ones. People didn’t like uni. Now children eat uni. We have restaurants on five continents, and last year I was in all of them … every two or three days a different city, a different restaurant. I used to stay longer, but now it’s shorter and shorter. I do more talking than cooking now.
This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.