'We wanted to go where we could be part of that buzz'

City Winery's Michael Dorf talks Nashville

Michael Dorf is founder and CEO of City Winery, a New York-based restaurant and live music venue company that recently purchased a SoBro property with plans to retrofit the space and open a Nashville outpost by September.

Late last year, City Winery Nashville LLC paid $2.56 million for the 1.56-acre property, and Dorf said the team has about $2.5 million to spend on upgrades.

Post Managing Editor William Williams recently chatted with Dorf to get his take on Nashville.

WW: Why Nashville for the next City Winery and not, say, a much larger, more cosmopolitan city? You do not have a City Winery, for example, in Los Angeles or Miami.

MD: Both of those markets have some challenges. A concept like ours might get lost in some really big markets. More specifically, the music scene in Miami is not quite as conducive as Nashville to the singer-songwriter scene we often offer. And L.A. sometimes doesn’t have the concentration of musicians we want. Nashville has the elements we like: enough wealth for the luxury concert and a passionate artistic community. There are a lot of musicians from the rock, funk, singer-songwriter communities finding Nashville to be a great place to live. They are relocating there.

That creative energy is also happening on the culinary side on a level that is even outpacing [that of] Miami or L.A. Nashville is exploding. The combination of the culinary scene, the music, the interest in luxury — and with the real estate opportunities — there is a buzz. We wanted to go where we could be part of that buzz.

WW: The building you have purchased is a nondescript warehouse. How will its exterior look when finished?

MD: The main façade will be clad in wood and feature an exterior balcony for outdoor dining. We’re creating a mini-tower for signage.
It will be a cool exterior. You will not recognize the interior. It will be completely transformed. I’m very involved in the design. Our architect, Chris Warnick, did our New York and Chicago spaces with Phil Katz. We learned a lot with our New York City Winery, which is a 20,000-square-foot space. Chicago is our 2.0 version.

WW: You founded in 1987 with Bob Appel The Knitting Factory. The club originally specialized in jazz and experimental music and then expanded to showcasing multiple genres of music, performing arts and comedy. It seems very different than City Winery.

MD: I sold my interests in 2003. In 2004, I made a barrel of wine in California and caught the buzz. I always loved wine as a consumer but winemaking is a whole other animal. Getting the chance to get my hands dirty in California was great. What could we do to incorporate the winemaking experience and tie that into the experience of a live music show? We don’t want to just throw somebody into a seat even if the music and atmosphere are enjoyable.

WW: You plan to offer a 350-seat live music venue. What type musical genres will you have?

MD: My Knitting Factory background was toward adventurous music like jazz. But it’s hard for many jazz artists to sell 300 seats. We need to look at artists that can do multi-night runs. We might do three to five nights in a row. We’ll certainly have a lot of singer-songwriter artists. What we do in New York and in Chicago we expect to do in Nashville.

WW: Who have been some well-recognized musical performers who have played your New York and Chicago facilities?

MD: Last night we had Jackson Browne at our New York location. Steve Earle plays our New York space often. We are close friends with  Suzanne Vega, Aimee Mann and Joan Osborne, all of whom are excited to play our  stage in Nashville. Fans will pay a little more to have a high-end experience.

WW: Where will the access points to your building be and wow will parking work?

MD: The main access is a 30-foot-wide driveway  that goes all the way to Lafayette Street. About 75 parking spaces will be in front of the building and along Ewing.

WW: Some folks might contend — rightly or not — that this part of SoBro is known for various problems stemming from transients. What will your security be like?

MD: We are creating a nice landscaped entrance that will be fully fenced with interesting wood elements and planters. We will have a lot of landscaping in front, too. We are having conversations with the folks at the Nashville Rescue Mission to coordinate with the landscaping they are doing. There will be some overlap with security. We want to have a positive relationship with them. We are excited about being a neighbor to the Mission. We don't see it as problem, but something that is part of our world that we will embrace.

WW: What artist might open the venue?

MD: I would love to have Jack White, The Black Keys and the Kings of Leon anytime. There are so many great musicians in the community that I hope will enjoy our facility.

WW: Who is the competition in Nashville? Would you consider The Hard Rock Café or House of Blues (if Nashville lands one) as competitors to some extent?

MD: The national chains would not feel competitive to us. They are really theme restaurants with music. While we are starting to establish a national profile, we are much more local-focused, acting as a younger, more dynamic organization. Our focus is a sit-down environment with high-end food and service, a great wine list and a beautiful setting. The attention to this detail is not what a large theme restaurant is able to do. Nevertheless, just the fact they are looking at Nashville is confirmation the city has made the big leagues. So that is great they are coming.