From a childhood gig washing dishes in restaurants to a stint on Wall Street, impresario Nur Khan—known for the New York hotspots Wax, Sway Nightclub, Rose Bar, and Electric Room in the Dream Downtown hotel—is well acquainted with the work that goes into a business, and has set the standard for success in New York City nightlife.
Khan's New York hotspots have a transporting effect: Electric Room offers a taste of cool Britannia, Rose Bar is an art lover's dream, and his newest, Sheltering Sky in Williamsburg's McCarren Hotel, takes city dwellers on a breezy trip to Morocco. We spoke with Khan about nightlife destinations in NYC and around the world, his favorite hotels, and where nightlife is headed next.
What was the inspiration for your new Brooklyn rooftop bar, Sheltering Sky?
The name comes from the novel by Paul Bowles, a chronicle of startling adventure set against the background of the Sahara and North Africa. The main character Port, like Bowles himself, was a part of the New York intelligentsia who became weary of being such a member, and set out to escape it in remote locations. It's an allegory of spiritual adventure and the expat retreat we hope to achieve at the rooftop space of Sheltering Sky, which we designed to be comfortable at any time of day, all year round—with modern Moroccan finishes.
Where do you like to go out in NYC?
To be honest, I'm very comfortable in my own venues, where I know I'm going to see my friends and hear my type of music.
You spent part of your childhood washing dishes in restaurants. So it seems fitting to ask you now, where are your favorite places to eat in NYC?
I like my locals. Raoul's is a bistro on Prince Street that's been there about 30 years or so, and it's great for fun group dinners—it has bench seats that work well for that. It's technically French, and they have an amazing steak au poivre. Then for Japanese there's Omen, which is quiet and where you usually know familiar faces. If I'm in a mellower mood, that's the place I like to go.
What does it take to make a nightclub great?
For me, it's a culmination of great design, great music, and a great mix of people and friends. I personally prefer smaller clubs, where it's much easier to control the vibe. I can play whatever music I like in my spaces and don't have to sell out to the masses and compromise the integrity of the music to fill seats with Top 40 songs. If I'm going to go to a big venue, I'd rather it be a big festival—Glastonbury is a favorite—rather than a huge nightclub.
What city has the best nightlife aside from NYC?
Nothing compares to NYC nightlife. I used to love going out in London, but it's just not what it used to be. That being said, I'd say probably Andre Balazs's new place [in London], Chiltern Firehouse, is the best thing going on right now. It's an old firehouse that was turned into a hotel, restaurant, and club, all in one, with about 26 suites. There's a great bar, great vibe, good food, and it's creative. There's even the old lookout tower where guards used to stand. From it, you can see across London.
Where do like to escape when you're looking to get away from cities and nightlife?
I really can escape in Thailand—I go at least twice a year. It's very hard for me to turn my phone off, but when I get over to the other side of the world, I can relax. I usually rent a house with a dear friend of mine in Koh Samui and we have boat access, so we can just jump in a boat and go to all the different islands for lunch. I can still practice my martial arts and do my Muay Thai out there in a front yard that extends to the beach, so it's a combination of vacation and training.
What do you look for when choosing a hotel?
I like an all-encompassing, “one-stop shopping” experience when I stay in a hotel: great rooms, great restaurants, and hopefully a cool bar. I'm a believer that if a hotel is done correctly, you wouldn't need to leave the property.
Any favorite hotels around the country or in the world?
While I love Thailand for a long vacation, if I don't have a lot of time to travel, I like popping down to Tulum for a quick four- or five-day trip. There's a cute spot down there I like called Coqui Coqui, a secluded little hotel that's only like seven or eight suites. Sienna Miller actually turned me onto it. There's a great restaurant in the hotel, but there are also a couple of good restaurant options literally within a couple hundred feet. One of them is Hartwood, opened by people from Brooklyn, actually.
What's your favorite drink and where can you find the best version of it?
I pretty much only drink sake. That's my poison. I keep all the good stuff in-house, but I'm the only person who drinks it in my places [Laughs]. Junmai Daiginjo is my favorite. But that's why I like Japanese restaurants. I figure I can always get a good one at my favorite, Omen. There's also Decibel, a little place in the East Village that's kind of underground.
What do you never travel without?
My phone and my jewelry.
Your jewelry is pretty hefty. How do you deal with it when you travel?
I love my jewelry and I collaborate on it with my friend Lazaro—he's got a store in SoHo, so it's all pretty special stuff to me. It's gotten to the point that I wear so much, I can't wear it when I go into customs, so it gets packed into a computer bag. You'd be waiting a half an hour in line for me to take it all off!
Have you ever lost any jewelry when traveling?
I used to put my stuff in trays, actually, but about three years ago on a trip down to Barbados, I had a $50,000 diamond bracelet stolen while going through security. I put it on the tray, it went through, and I tried tracking it down on the other side, but someone snatched it without me noticing. So now it's all gotta be locked up in the computer bag.
What's going to be the world's next nightlife hot spot destination?
It's hard to predict. Tokyo's got some radical stuff going on there. I've always wanted to do something in Tokyo. Or a Tokyo underground concept here in New York. Like really gnarly, underground Tokyo. But, you know, anything great can pop up anywhere. It just depends how creative people are. It should probably be in a cosmopolitan city, but you never know. There's probably a great rodeo bar in the suburbs that we just don't know about.