It’s around 1:30 am at the Up & Down in New York City, and Richie Akiva—the nightlife maven behind Butter Group, which has a portfolio of nightlife venues that include 1 OAK, Up & Down, and Butter—is holding court at a table filled with tall, thin models, and assorted cool guys. “It’s not my usual table,” he tells me. He thought he was going to be out of town and had promised his usual spot next to the DJ booth to a friend, but he changed his plans last minute. “I always keep my promises,” he said. That night, rapper 2 Chainz was slated to appear, and the club was packed like a can of sardines with patrons anxiously waiting for him. Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” started playing over the loudspeakers, and immediately everyone started swaying their bodies, enthusiastically bobbing their heads to the music.
Akiva got on the mic to hype up the crowd, and when 2 Chainz finally appeared, they went wild, immediately scrambling towards 2 Chainz’s table. “This is the closest I’ve ever been to a rapper!” screamed one of the scantily-clad women. While that night would be one of the most memorable for several club goers, for Akiva, it’s just another night. Last May, he co-hosted a Met Gala after party at Up & Down with Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, Travis Scott, Trevor Noah, Serena Williams, and more. This week is New York Fashion Week, and over the weekend fashion designers Danielle Guizio and LaQuan Smith had their post-show parties 1 OAK.
A few weeks after 2 Chainz appeared at Up & Down, I met Akiva for dinner in the private dining room of Butter Midtown, his American fine-dining establishment helmed by Food Network star and chef Alex Guarnaschelli that once also had a location on Lafayette Street downtown before moving to 45th Street. Akiva—who has long been considered the king of New York nightlife, is still partying, but he’s entering a new era dedicated to health and wellness that includes a new restaurant in the Meatpacking District called Davide, named after his late best friend Davide Sorrenti, and BIA Force, an upscale boutique workout space that offers classes that combine cycling, boxing, and resistance band training.
A true born-and-raised New Yorker, Akiva grew up in Tribeca. Anyone who has seen Kids—the 1995 coming-of-age film about a group of teenagers running around New York directed by Larry Clark and written by Harmony Korine—has an idea of the sort of life that Akiva lived during his youth. “Harmony made the movie about my friends,” said Akiva.
The nightlife entrepreneur was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder at a young age, but rather than take medicine, he embraced it, using it as fuel to partake in a number of creative endeavors as he was immersed deep in the city’s youth culture. “You grew up in New York having a rap group, having a clothing company, going out, being skaters trying to do all these different things,” said Akiva. Although they were underage, they would bypass the doorman and sneak into clubs like Tunnel, where they first got a taste of New York nightlife. “We were like cool little kids, so we would find a way to get in,” said Akiva. At Tunnel, there was an S&M room, a hip-hop room. A DJ played in the bathroom where celebrities and musicians gathered. Drag queens would run around. It was a melting pot of fun in which anybody who could get past the door could partake. “It was an escape from what real life was, it was almost like a wonderland. And that’s what made me fall in love with it at a young age,” he remembered.
There was the t-shirt label Danücht that he founded with Sorrenti, Shawn Regruto, and Justin Salguero. One of the t-shirts carried the words MODELS SUCK. It caused a stir when Naomi Campbell was spotted wearing one. Editors at Vogue and The Face noticed and featured it on the pages of their magazines. He got signed as a rapper with the stage name Calamity Kid to Prince’s record label Paisley Park Records.
Akiva’s life would change when Sorrenti—a budding photographer and brother to the famed fashion photographer Mario Sorrenti, and son of their mother Francesca, who is also a fashion photographer—passed away at age 20 in 1997 due to a blood disorder called Cooley’s anaemia and a heroin overdose. He threw a memorial to honor his close friend, and he filled the space with models, musicians, and other assorted scenesters. The owner asked if he could do it again, and a nightlife maven was born.
Akiva would have a stint at New York hot spot Life. “It was probably one of the best clubs ever to exist in New York,” he explains. He tapped Mark Ronson and Q-tip to DJ a hip-hop room, and celebrities like Janet Jackson, Prince, Diddy, and Mariah Carey crammed together in the small space. There was also another room that played rock and roll that attracted the likes of Jane’s Addiction and Mick Jagger.
But, says Akiva, those days when New York nightlife was a magic alchemy of debauchery, dancing, and celebrity are long gone. “Nightclubs were an escape for people,” he said. “It’s like if you were having a bad day, if you were going through a divorce, if you had a bad day at Wall Street on the stock market, you would go out—or if you had a great day. You’re going to go to escape and just let loose and dance and have fun and grapple with each other and dance with each other. And nobody was watching you and nobody could film you and nobody can do anything. And you could do what you want.”
“Camera phones, social media, and bottle service is what took away the essence of real night clubs should have been and what we’re about,” he said. He opened 1 OAK—an abbreviated version of one of a kind—with Ronnie Madra and former partner Scott Sartiano in 2007 right before the financial crisis killed the mood of the country. “I learned from the Ian Schragers and Peter Gatiens and I tried to take what they did and do it in my own way,” he said. There was no bottle service, no minimums—the only thing that was hard was getting past the tight door. Once inside, it was magic. Girls would pass by in roller skates, a symphony orchestra would play with the DJ, drag queens ran about. Bold names like Calvin Klein, Jay-Z, and Giorgio Armani would spend their nights there, and his close friend Jay-Z would immortalized in numerous lyrics, including “Beach Is Better,” where he rhymed, “Started out at The Darby/Ended up at 1 Oak.” “Nightlife wasn’t about money,” said Akiva of his early years in the business. “Now the rents the business, it’s all changed. Because now you have to make money to afford to operate nightlife. The rent on nightclubs before was $5,000, $10,000 $10,000. Now the rents are $70,000, $80,000, $90,000.”
But, unlike most nightclubs—apparently 80 percent fail in their first year of operation—1 OAK has managed to stay open for nearly 15 years. Akiva and his business partners scaled the club, bringing it to Mexico City, Aspen (that has since been shuttered), Dubai, and Tokyo, with pop-ups during summers in the Hamptons, Coachella, and Art Basel in Miami Beach. “No one has ever scaled a nightclub brand,” he said. “Not even the best of the best.” A report in Bloomberg says it made $250 million over a decade. Akiva has even bigger dreams for it, and he trademarked the named for an alcohol label, a clothing brand, and a record label. Soon, there will be another 1 OAK in London.
If Akiva were to write a memoir, it would have juicy anecdotes of practically every celebrity who dabbled in New York nightlife. But, Akiva does not gossip about his close celebrity friends, who include Jay-Z, Rosario Dawson, and Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s the exact reason why they’ve stayed friends with him all these years. They know that he wouldn’t leak details of their nights out on the town to Page Six, even though Akiva played witness to a number of pivotal moments in pop culture. He was there the night of the infamous shooting in 1999 at Club New York, where Sean Combs and then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez were leaving when shots were fired after a scuffle. He was there when Jay-Z put a chain around Kanye West to welcome him to the Roc-A-Fella Records family and the night when Jay-Z met Beyoncé. He was also there when Robin Thicke met his fiancé April Love at 1 OAK.
Despite being surrounded by it every night, Akiva has managed to stay away from nightlife’s temptations, seldom drinking except for an occasional shot, and avoiding drugs, due in part to Sorrenti’s tragic death. Sorrenti’s legacy lives on in Akiva’s world, as the inspiration for the name Butter, a word his friend loved to use. Akiva recounted the ways how: “‘Oh, I just shot this butter girl or I just got this Leica, it’s so butter.’ Anything that was really amazing, like, that’s butter,” he explained. Now, Davide is the inspiration for his latest venture, an 11,000-square-foot restaurant in the former Spice Market space dedicated to healthy eating fit for up to 230 people that will open this fall. “He lived every day as his last,” said Akiva. “Davide, he was such a beautiful soul. He was very tough. He was probably going to be bigger than his brother.”
Davide will feature Italian-Mediterranean cuisine with a kitchen helmed by father-and-son team Larry and Marc Forgione. It will showcase a very clean way of eating, with grilled steak and fish, and a small pasta and pizza menu. There will be a large open kitchen where diners can observe fresh pasta and fresh mozzarella being made by the chefs. There will be a greenhouse where fresh lemons can be picked to squeeze on salads. Visitors will be able to hang a pot on a fireplace behind their table to heat something up. “Right now, everything in the service business has become about experience,” he said. “So people are paying for experience.” Although Larry has a James Beard Award, and Marc has a Michelin star under his belt, Akiva says he has no plans to turn Davide into a Michelin-starred establishment, “because you can’t scale a Michelin-starred restaurant,” he said.
Akiva then shows me photos on his phone of BIA Force, the luxury gym he’s opening in NoHo, and with its marble bathrooms, and leather boxing bags, it looks nicer than even the nicest upscale health clubs. There’s a sauna, steam room, and even a cryotherapy chamber. “It’s probably one of the most beautiful gyms in the city,” he said of the space, which was a collaboration between himself BIA Force co-founder, artist and designer Roy Nachum of Mercer Project. Nachum is also designed 1 OAK, Up & Down, and Davide.
Next up, Akiva has his eyes set on opening a hotel, and says he has shed the big ego he had during his youth, but that when it comes to business, he turns it on. “I am literally comfortable with exactly who I am at the moment,” he said. His biggest takeaway from