by John D. Hubbard
The deal has been struck, the film is a wrap, the newspaper is on the press. Letterman tickets are in your purse. The promotion came through. Tonight's the night. Where to celebrate?
Well, Earl Geer '80 has a table for you. Or maybe a Hollywood booth that embraces in chocolate leather and backs up to a velvet curtain that whispers elegance, hints at show business.
Sullivan's Restaurant and Broadcast Lounge, the newest of Geer's three Manhattan restaurants, recalls an era when Broadway was the Great White Way and guys and dolls kept busy until the dawn.
It is possible to walk into Sullivan's and swear Jackie Gleason and a few of his pals are knockin' 'em back at the end of the bar. You can bend an elbow where the Beatles had beers after their appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show in the theater right next door. And you can select the surf and turf, the same item David Letterman ordered for his studio audience during one recent show.
Sullivan's couldn't be any closer to the Ed Sullivan Theater. In fact, the kitchen is located pretty much right over the stage where Letterman delivers his nightly monologues. In the spot that once housed Cordial's, which actually was a favorite Jackie Gleason watering hole, Geer has created a place that hearkens back to an era of fedoras and pearls, the kind of establishment known with almost dewy affection as a "joint."
Reverence for the past with a modern sensibility is at the heart of Geer's approach to creating restaurants.
"My sense of the places comes from old storefront restaurants that still exist, dotting the Northeast particularly," says Geer. "Those old joints that are still hanging on. I studied these places, almost like I was on an archaeological dig, with a martini or a cold beer."
The venerable Lenox Lounge in Harlem was a Geer favorite and a source of inspiration for the original Hi Life, which opened six years ago on 83rd and Amsterdam. Two years later a larger Hi Life was created at 72nd and 1st Avenue. Sullivan's welcomed the public in April of 1996.
Geer's attention to design and detail comes together as atmosphere. Terrazzo floors, mahogany bars, brass banisters, channel lettering and neon, linen, stainless steel, tufted leather. Even the upholstery nailheads were carefully chosen - they are not unlike those at the old 21 Club.
Step off Broadway and into Sullivan's. There's the bar with a 28-foot ceiling with booths along one wall that speak of martinis and cigars. A wide-mouthed staircase leads to the main dining area where it is possible to see and be seen while at the same time offering the allure of disappearing, of being lost in enveloping leather. Whether it is the heady sensation of a night on the town or the seclusion of a romantic rendezvous, Sullivan's stands ready to deliver.
"We like to think we've done something different," says Geer. While there is a decided show business flavor - black and white photographs from the Ed Sullivan show are everywhere, a recreation of the program's curtain creates a proscenium effect and each of the restaurant's four bathrooms is dedicated to a Beatle and decorated with vintage fan magazine pages - the feel is classic New York eatery.
"We really handled this in a way that the memorabilia is secondary. Instead, it recalls the ambience of the great supper clubs of the thirties and forties," says Geer, who presides not over a theme restaurant but a piece of updated history.
"There's a thread from the great old speakeasys and taverns brought back to life in a hip and creative way. Stylistically there is a feel of going back from the '80s when everything was new and trendy to an era of glamour and comfort. Our slogan is 1930s style, 1990s food."
The menu offers just what you'd imagine Ed Sullivan himself would have ordered; giant steaks, chops, crab cakes, grilled swordfish, big salads and homemade soups. Geer's raw bars are popular and Hi Life's art deco version is run by a sushi chef.
"We're honoring the classic cuisine of New York," says Geer, speaking of the menu at Sullivan's. His two Hi Life restaurants offer a big city brasserie fare. Thai chefs turn out everything from padthai noodles to strawberry sundaes.
"It's been seven years since I got into this," Geer is saying as the luncheon crowd at Sullivan's filters out. "It's been a whirlwind, coming out of obscurity to open three businesses."
Actually, the restaurants mark a return of sorts to Geer's roots. He ran a gourmet taco business in high school and he would show up in a 1959 laundry truck selling food to concert goers in Central Park and tourists lined up to see the big ships during Operation Sail.
Geer, who played wide receiver for the Red Raiders, also found time at Colgate to run a sub shop out of a village store after regular business hours. Despite the food industry experience, Geer entered the more traditional business world following graduation. He eventually started his own real estate company and "caught the end of the '80s real estate situation, which was quite good."
The run provided Geer with the means to create Hi Life. New York Magazine put the new restaurant on the map with an enthusiastic review and people responded to the food, the design and the staffing. Among the busiest was the owner, who spent every night for two years standing watch.
It is a practice Geer repeated when he opened the second Hi Life and continues now with Sullivan's.
"We are doing small transactions with no room for error. If someone is unhappy, even if it's a $20 transaction, that can start to hurt a business. There is a lot of pressure that comes with a business that does millions of dollars a year in small increments."
So Geer sees everything. Many nights he is by Sullivan's front door, at the host station with the TV screen that is actually a fishbowl. He checks the lighting, is concerned about the level of the music (cool jazz and R&B, of course) and doesn't hesitate to climb a ladder to make an adjustment to the marquee. Geer is still working constantly to get his newest place flowing right.
"A restaurant is really an environment," says Geer, "that provides food, atmosphere, visual effects and hospitality. There are so many factors, it can be consuming." Nearly all the elements, once the architects had cut lines out of raw space, are from Geer's vision. He saw a place Clark Gable might stumble into out of a black and white movie.
Geer has always loved restaurants and his affection shows. He is especially fond of his places, to the point that he speaks of "nurturing them, defending them," as if they were family members. Bill Cosby recognizes the quality - he threw his Christmas party at Sullivan's. Ladies Home Journal had a big affair at the Broadway location and no one who was on hand when Paul Shaffer, Richie Havens and Noel Redding of the Jimi Hendrix Experience did a roaring "All Along the Watchtower" will soon forget their night at Sullivan's.
Of course, it doesn't have to be a big occasion. Sometimes just disappearing in a banquette is all it takes to begin a perfect evening.
Earl Geer has a table waiting.