By Richard Bienstock | Photography by Jonathan Pushnik
This article originally appeared as "The Blue Brothers" in Guitar Aficionado, Winter 2011 Issue
Restaurateur guitarists Eric and Bruce Bromberg have built a rocker-friendly culinary empire with their Blue Ribbon marque. And to hear them tell it, they’re just getting started.
In the video for John Mayer’s 2009 hit song “Who Says,” the musician is shown carousing through late-night Manhattan, partying, clubbing, and dining at various downtown hot spots. For the restaurant scenes, Mayer and friends are shown piled into a banquette at New York City institution Blue Ribbon, digging into juicy steaks and clinking generous glasses of red. This was no setup: the singer, who owns a residence in the city, is a regular at the eatery. “John comes in all the time,” says Eric Bromberg, who, with younger brother Bruce, is co-owner of Blue Ribbon. “So when he asked to shoot the video there, we said, ‘Of course.’ When he’s in town, he’s at the restaurant three, four nights a week.”
Mayer’s not the only one. Over the years, the cozy dining space on Sullivan Street, situated on the western end of Manhattan’s SoHo district, has hosted scores of musicians, from Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck to the members of ZZ Top, Metallica, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Occasionally, the room has been so crammed with rock royalty that it makes the staff a bit uncomfortable. “One night, we had Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger side by side at separate tables,” Bruce Bromberg recalls. He’s quick to point out, however, that the seating arrangement stemmed more from necessity than to garner a cheap thrill. “Jagger walked in, and the only available table was next to McCartney, so what could we do?” He laughs. “We all looked at each other, like, Is this ok?”
Though it may have been mere coincidence that brought a Beatle and a Stone to Blue Ribbon on the same night, it is hardly an accident that the restaurant has become the place to eat among music’s elite. The Bromberg brothers, guitarists both, opened Blue Ribbon in 1992 specifically with an eye toward servicing the musician crowd—“our people,” as Bruce puts it. “We worked late, we went out to see music late, we played all night. It’s what we did,” he says. “And being culinary-minded in a city that calls itself ‘the city that never sleeps,’ it was kind of a drag, because at the end of the night we couldn’t go out and have a really nice meal. In those days, all you could really get at such a late hour was pizza and burgers. So when we opened Blue Ribbon, we said, ‘Let’s serve good food, the food we like to eat, and keep the kitchen going until four in the morning. Let’s create the environment we’ve been looking for.’ ”
For the Brombergs, that meant a restaurant that paired high-end, high-concept dishes (both brothers trained at the esteemed Le Cordon Bleu in Paris) with down-home comfort fare reminiscent of their childhood eats in Morristown, New Jersey. The result was an eclectic and somewhat playful menu, where foie gras terrine and beef marrow bones with oxtail marmalade (a now-legendary dish among New York foodies) were offered alongside pupu platters and matzo ball soup, the latter culled ingredient-for-ingredient from grandma’s recipe.
But while the brothers’ original intent was to court the music world—“We thought we’d get bands after their gigs, or people leaving Madison Square Garden after a show,” Bruce says—they initially wound up attracting a somewhat different though no less creative crowd: New York City chefs and restaurateurs. “Early on,” Eric recalls, [Nobu owner] Drew Nieporent came in really late one night, and he was kind of amazed that we were still cooking. He said, ‘It’s 2:30 in the morning! You guys are crazy! I’m telling everybody!’ And he came back over the next six months and brought what seemed like every chef, every restaurateur from the U.S., Asia, and Europe, into the place. And it just snowballed from there.”
Today, the Brombergs oversee eight establishments under the Blue Ribbon banner—six in Manhattan (including a bakery, market, tapas-style bar, sushi restaurant, and sushi bar and grill) and another two in Brooklyn. And then there’s a recent venture particularly close to their hearts: Brooklyn Bowl. Launched in partnership with music and film entrepreneur Peter Shapiro, the operation, housed in a 20,000-square foot former iron foundry in Williamsburg, boasts a 16-lane bowling alley and 600-capacity concert venue, all serviced by a specialized Blue Ribbon menu that showcases the Brombergs’ inventive, high-minded take on low cuisine, from French bread pizza topped with butternut squash and roasted garlic to pork rinds slathered in queso fresco and jalapeño.
Since opening in 2009, Brooklyn Bowl has hosted performances by everyone from Yo La Tengo to Blues Traveler to Kanye West, as well as scores of up-and-coming New York acts, quickly making its name as one of the city’s hottest new music and food venues. “It’s the culmination of our dreams,” Bruce says. “The goal was to create an environment where there’s great food and great music, with equal attention to detail paid to both. And I think we were able to do it in a way where they complement each other perfectly.”
In essence, food and music have been the twin pillars of the brothers’ existence since their childhood days in Morristown. Their appreciation for the former sprouted largely from their father’s influence, whom they describe as a “Francophile obsessed with food, wine, and restaurants,” as well as the many nights at the table eating the traditional Jewish cooking of their maternal grandmother. “We didn’t grow up in a very religious household,” Eric says, “but food was kind of a religion from a very early age.” At the same time, music was a huge presence in their lives, in particular heavy rock acts like Deep Purple, Aerosmith, and the Who, and by their early teens both brothers had picked up guitars. But in a pattern that would reemerge throughout their lives, merely learning to play the instrument wasn’t enough; they also quickly became budding collectors and luthiers. “We hunted for guitars before we even had any money to buy them,” Eric says. “We would ride our bikes down to the Morristown music store and just stare at them in the window.”
One of their earliest acquisitions was a beat-up Hagstrom hollowbody electric, picked up for a song at a local garage sale. “That was the beginning of, ‘Okay, here’s something we can mess with,’ ” Eric continues. “We took that guitar apart piece by piece, learned what was inside, and figured out how to rebuild it.” The Hagstrom never recovered, though its truss rod lives on in one of Eric’s prized instruments, a homemade creation with a body and neck constructed from a single piece of Eastern hard-rock maple. “It took me six years to complete that guitar, figuring out how to do it as I went along,” he says. “I started it my junior year of high school and finished it up just before graduating college.”
By their college years, in fact, both brothers were obsessed with guitars and planned to make their way as professional musicians. Eric wrote and performed original music in New Orleans, where he attended Tulane University. Bruce, meanwhile, attended University of Colorado, where he ran a popular cover band. “We were called Joint Effort,” he recalls with a laugh. “Which our dad strongly disapproved of—he got the double entendre.” Eventually, both brothers returned to their love of food and cooking, separately enrolling in and graduating from Le Cordon Bleu—first Eric, then Bruce—followed by years apprenticing in kitchens in Paris and New York. Blue Ribbon signaled their first venture as restaurateurs, and it was hardly an immediate success.
“In the early days, we were so slow that Eric and I actually set up amps and a drum kit in the prep room,” Bruce recalls. “No one came into the restaurant from, like, midnight to four in the morning, so we’d sit back there and rock out with the staff.” If a wayward table happened to wander in, he says, “our manager would grab everybody and we’d all run back to the kitchen.” That all changed after Drew Nieporent brought the food world to the table, so to speak, and the musicians soon followed. “They all came,” Bruce says. “It was the late-night thing, and it just became known as the place to go.”
Though the Brombergs now spend considerably more time serving musicians than playing music, they never stopped acquiring guitars. Eric’s collection currently stands at close to 20 instruments, each of which he proudly displays on a stand in his home. Bruce is more haphazard. “Mine are in a pile,” he says with a laugh. But they are similarly minded about at least one thing: neither purchases an instrument strictly for its value as a “collector’s piece.” Rather, says Bruce, “Each one is like a memory. We didn’t just make a bunch of money and started buying fancy guitars—we’ve accumulated them over years and years of playing.” Among Bruce’s favorites are a black 1979 Les Paul, an Eighties-era National Reso-Phonic, and a red 1994 Paul Reed Smith, which, he says, “has a really intense tone. I just look at it and I know exactly the sound it will make when I pick it up.”
For his part, Eric recalls his first major purchase as a 1969 Martin D-12-35 with Brazilian rosewood back and sides, which he obtained while in college for $575, a sum that at the time seemed to him exorbitant. Other standouts in his collection include his custom-built maple electric, completed in 1984, a 1982 Les Paul burst, which he calls his most “emotionally important guitar,” a 1967 Gibson J-45, and a 1971 ES-335, a 35thbirthday present from Bruce and the Blue Ribbon staff. Two standouts, and anomalies, given the fact that he admits they were acquired “with some thought of a collection in mind,” are his white 1974 Gibson SG Custom and EDS-1275 double-neck, purchased as a pair at a guitar show in New York in the mid Nineties. “Somehow the connection of those two guitars being the same year, the same color, and the same make was super cool,” he says, adding, “It took me a few years to pay those off.”
Though Eric is the more gear-obsessed of the brothers, it is in fact Bruce who has continued to perform more regularly in the years since they launched Blue Ribbon. For much of the Nineties, and earlier in this decade, he played guitar for local New York “humorcore” outfit Hevy Floe, a raging, hardcore punk act that, he says, was known for “crazy, theatrical, and bizarre shows.” To that end, the group had the dubious—and not easily earned—distinction of having been banned from famed punk dive CBGB after bringing a butchered pig onstage at one of its gigs. (Not surprisingly, perhaps, celebrity chef Mario Batali was among the group’s biggest fans, Bruce reports.)
In the mid Nineties, Bruce enlisted his older brother to engineer a Hevy Floe demo, which eventually led to another Bromberg endeavor—building a recording studio. “We started out in the bedroom of my Manhattan loft with an Alesis ADAT and some microphones,” Eric says, “and, just like with guitars, we kept adding more equipment.” Soon enough, this bedroom studio evolved into a full-blown operation, Blue Ribbon Sound. Located in Manhattan’s financial district, the studio opened in 1998 as a bi-level, 3,000-square-foot, full-service recording facility, replete with a sizeable live room and fully equipped Pro Tools setup. Among the many acts that have recorded at the studio include grunge forefathers the Melvins, who tracked parts of their 2000 effort, The Crybaby, at the studio, with one song, “Spineless,” featuring the guitar work of Bruce Bromberg.
In more recent years, the brothers relocated Blue Ribbon Sound to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill. “We record tons of bands there, radio shows, all different things,” Eric says. “And when a group like the Melvins comes to town and needs to do some work, they’ll do it there. It’s just a real laid-back, casual vibe. We don’t charge if you go a little bit over time or anything like that.” And if you work up an appetite while laying down tracks? “We can probably dig up some cold Blue Ribbon fried chicken,” Bruce says, adding that the studio “is just another part of the whole Blue Ribbon culture. One of our dreams would be to have a big recording studio out in the country, with a restaurant and a hotel attached to it. I think we’ll probably get to that someday.”
Given how things have progressed thus far, it’s highly likely. In the meantime, the brothers have their plate full taking the Blue Ribbon brand global. Last year they put out their first cookbook, Better Home Cooking, featuring recipes of some of their most popular dishes, and this December will see the opening of Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill Las Vegas, their first outpost outside of New York. And then there’s their recent partnership with Renaissance Hotels, for which the brothers designed a personalized “Blue Ribbon Classics” menu for the venerated chain, available in key hotels in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., among others. “We’re starting in 20 locations,” Eric says, “and that’s just the beginning.”
But despite their many endeavors, Eric continues, “It’s not like we’re following a master plan. All these things happen more or less in an organic way. We don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring, necessarily. We’re just going with it, and having fun doing it.”
Which, in a sense, could be considered something of a master plan. “If anything,” Bruce says, “from the time we were little kids, we were obsessed with the concept of building. That’s what led to us to say, ‘Let’s make the type of restaurant we would want to eat in,’ and open Blue Ribbon. Or, ‘Let’s make a cool version of Benihana,’ and do Blue Ribbon Sushi.
“It’s the same with music. We started off just listening to records, and then it quickly progressed to playing guitar, to making guitars, to playing in bands, to recording bands, to running a studio. When it comes to food and music, we’ve always been into the idea of creating things, and they’re all things that we love.”