Be it the numerous pop and hip-hop song references, the myriad paparazzi photos, or the name-drop-worthy presence of co-owner Robert DeNiro, few restaurants encapsulate celebrity culture like Nobu. Synonymous with fame and luxury, the global sushi spot has become a go-to for stars — and aspiring stars — to see and be seen and celebrate. (To wit: When NBA star Kevin Love inked a recent blockbuster deal, basketball king LeBron James tweeted that Love owed him dinner at Nobu Malibu.) Often, a city’s food scene is deemed to have truly arrived once a Nobu opens its doors there.
Aside from the glitz and glamour, Nobu is still known for its fare. As CultureMap food editor Eric Sandler notes, so iconic is the restaurant that many of its dishes have been copied worldwide, such as yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño, crispy rock shrimp in a spicy and tangy sauce, and miso-glazed cod. But what sets Nobu apart is the pure buzzworthy appeal, thanks to its elegant dining room, polished service, soundtrack, and uber-stylish crowd.
So how frenetic was the reaction when Nobu opened here in The Galleria on June 1? Nobu’s director of operations, Brian Leon, recalls that his staff fielded at least 1,000 calls per day during the first week. “We were just trying to get to every call at that point,” says Leon. “Obviously, that booked us straight through July.”
CultureMap caught up with Leon as part of a new series, where we offer tips on how to procure a table at the hottest restaurants in the city. Speaking of tips: Does money talk when trying to woo the reservation staff? Leon serves up the details.
CultureMap: How far in advance do I need to book to secure a table between 6 pm and 8 pm on a weekday?
BL: On a weekday, I’d say you can book probably about a week out — if not even less — for a weekday reservation. For a prime time table, it’s the same time frame. If you’re more flexible with the timing, you can come earlier. We open the bar lounge at 5 pm, so you can quickly snag a table at 6 pm, if you talk to the maitre’d or hostess. So you can definitely get in with a little bit shorter notice.
CM: How far in advance do I need to book to secure a table between 6 pm and 8 on a Friday or Saturday?
BL: I would say we are still looking at between two and three weeks out.
CM: If OpenTable is booked, will calling the restaurant to ask about a table improve my chances?
BL: It definitely helps. We try to keep all of our inventory of what we have available accurate and up to date on the online reservation system, but occasionally we have last minute cancellations — or maybe we have a little bit more wiggle room. Maybe you can come a little bit earlier, or come a little bit later. Calling definitely can assist with securing a reservation.
CM: If I walk in, say, 7 pm on a Saturday night — no reservation — how long am I looking at to wait for a party of two or four?
BL: If you’re willing to sit in the bar and lounge — which we do full-menu dining there — it could be pretty quick. People are coming and going from there. If you’re waiting for a table, it could be more than an hour wait.
If you’re coming on the later side, we can usually fit people in around 9 or 9:30 pm. We’re able to accommodate a lot of people that are walk-ins on Saturday because the sushi bar has reservation requests, but we try to keep a lot of it open for people that do walk-ins without a reservation.
CM: Here’s the million-dollar (hopefully, not literally) question: Is there an amount of money I can offer that will shorten the wait?
BL: No. The Nobu brand has been around for a while and people are always pretty competitive to get a table or reservation, but we don’t prioritize reservations based off anything, or any of that type of behavior. We want to honor our reservations on our wait list. We think that’s the best strategy to retain our clientele and make people feel like it’s the most fair system possible.
CM: Do you have a favorite place to sit in the restaurant and if so, what makes it your favorite?
BL: I personally really like our two-top tables. Most of our two-top tables are corners, so it’s quite nice and comfortable to be at one of those for a date or something intimate with a friend. Also, the sushi bar is a great experience because of how interactive it is with the chef.
CM: Given Nobu’s rep, we have to ask: How many local or national celebrities have you seen since you’ve opened in Houston?
BL: We like to keep everyone’s information private, so I wouldn’t be able to disclose that. But we’ve been very lucky that we’ve gotten a great response from some of the trendsetters and really important people in this city.
CM: You gotta give us something.
BL: [Laughs] We’re definitely favorites of the local sports teams — that’s the best I can do. We feel very lucky that a high-profile clientele does enjoy our brand and what we offer. We think we’re doing a good job if people like that are coming out on a regular basis.
CM: How would somebody earn VIP status?
BL: All of our clientele is obviously very important to us. But we definitely do appreciate when someone’s a regular client and comes in on a regular basis. I think that’s the most important thing in regards to being a VIP. That’s what makes them important to us — when someone creates a relationship with us by being a regular.
CM: What do you consider a regular at Nobu?
BL: Honestly, it really varies. We have people that come in twice a week and sit at the bar and have dinner. We have some people that come once a year for their anniversary ... and that’s their tradition. I think we look at both types of guests in the same way, as very important.
We’ve had people drive in from all the way from Austin, which means a lot to us. What’s been great about Houston is that we seem to have a lot of Nobu fans from other locations who reside in Houston. They’ve all come up and told us that they’re happy to have a Nobu here.