Friday night, restaurateur and hotelier Robert “Toshi” Chan opened the doors of his “Living Room” to the press and general public for a preview of this season’s hottest in food, drink, and entertainment.
I was, admittedly, a little skeptical at first. Though on my walks through Flatiron on my way home after work, “Toshi’s Living Room” had caught my attention, in my previous visits it seemed to lack sophistication. The live music and great crowd functioned as a sort of window display through the glass that surrounds the space to invite outsiders to inside, yet the mix match décor and bright colors seemed to undercut the ambiance of cool with cartoony.
“Toshi’s Living Room” presents itself as a one-stop location for affordable drinks and an underground alternative good time. Friday night they hosted the Unity Fundraising Concert to benefit Hurricane Sandy victims. Organized by A-MinorMusik Group, Gospel Unplugged, Melanie David and Life Church, 100 percent of funds raised were donated to FEMA, the American Red Cross, and the toshiNow Foundation.
Toshi said, “It is an honor to host the Unity Fundraising Concert at Toshi’s Living Room… As a New Yorker, I truly believe that it is our responsibility to respond in this time of crisis and devastation. I encourage our community to join together through music and aid in the support of those in need of relief from the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy.”
And though the venue was flying its flag of philanthropy, it still seemed to lack the sort of style you’d hope for in the world of unannounced/insider Manhattan arts and entertainment.
Then I opened the menu and on the first page saw a photograph of Toshi as a child, the second page stated his personal philosophy and the mission of the venue to be a second home of sorts, offering “unconditional love” to emerging entertainment. This intrigued me, but like a true New Yorker uninterested in greeting card sentimentality, I thumbed through to the drinks and appetizer pages.
The waitress, a miniature buxom vixen, uniformed in what seemed to be a spandex slip as loud as the bright red, mustard, and teal couches, brought me my cocktail, the champagne based Toshi, alongside fried Calamari, and new BBQ wing dish they were testing out that night. I’m not a total foodie (well, maybe a little), but as someone who dedicates a lump of his income to eating well in NYC, this food seemed to past the test. The cocktail sauce that accompanied the fresh calamari, and their version of what seemed to be Asian fusion BBQ wings did hold my attention as I eagerly waited for the headliner entertainment to start.
Toshi, the man, was a Wall Street mover and shaker, famous for his quick rise to the top, though infamous for his lack of interpersonal skills. The compromise was Toshi’s Parties, a venture he began while a student at Columbia University, which he parlayed into a full time business in the hotel and restaurant management industry.
Facetiously I asked him, “I love this event tonight, but how do you stay so ‘on trend’?” And he responded, “being on trend shouldn’t be about turning people away at the door. I’m not that kind of New Yorker. This, for me is about a good time, not about a bad attitude.”
He went on to share with me how he was often turned away at the doors of the hottest nightclubs in NYC and wanted to create a private off the radar space where people always felt welcome. Suddenly the mission statement in his menu had context, and I understood. Toshi grew up in NYC, the son of a Chinatown grocery store owner, his beginnings were simple, and from an uptown perspective, they didn’t essentialize “sophistication” as much as they may have “utility”.
Then I wondered, having always called New York City his home, what it must’ve been like to have been rejected by parts of that home? And that’s when I realized that “Toshi’s Living Room” is not just a second home for emerging entertainment, it is literally Toshi’s second home; his version of the slice of NY from which he had been excluded, but different, this home was inclusive.
“This space is about acceptance over hierarchy,” Toshi said. And true to form, a little research proved that it’s what made Toshi’s Parties a successful venture from early on in his career.
So in what ways is this philosophy of inclusion in action? Aside from a friendly and welcoming door policy, this philosophy is evident in the mix of musicians featured in his nightly showcases. You’ll find Broadway chorus boys belting their hearts out, and unsigned emerging soul and pop bands banging it out on weekend nights, then singer-songwriters to which he gives chances to feature on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
“I’m a performer curating and managing this performance space.” Toshi explained, “so I’m happy to give other artists the kind of spotlight and treatment I appreciate, as well.”
More than just copy for a greeting card, Toshi really believed in the mission statement he’d written inside the menus. He truly believed in what he had created, and somehow his belief seemed to be convincing me too. But then suddenly the clock struck midnight, and I had to hit my next event. I left in a rush, but was persuaded to return the next night for the band he promised would be “show stopping”.
Saturday night, the L Musik band took the stage, and launched into a variety of Top 40 cover songs. The lead singer, Julissa, instantly stood out with her renditions of Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved”, Kat De Luna’s “Whine Up”, and Donell, a Broadway crooner recently cast in the touring production of BOOK OF MORMON, who excelled on his rendition of John Legend’s “Green Light”. They served the crowd a pop mix with an extra spark, making their Living Room debut a few cuts above your regular family reunion or wedding band. L Musik brought the Living Room’s guests off the couches and on their feet.
Though I’m not personally a fan of the colorful couches, they did seat me comfortably both nights, with which the marble fixtures on the walls makes this a sort of hodge-podge art deco pillow palace. And I suppose it’s impossible to sell the idea of the venue as a “living room” without a sofa cushion or two.
I quickly realized that Toshi’s Living Room understood that words like “sophistication” and “trend” and “elite” couldn’t win out over “fun”, and “good times”. And though I still remain an avid patron of premium NY Nightlife, Toshi’s Living Room is definitely on my list as a top choice hotspot.
Check out the photos of venue, including highlights from performances of Bobbi & Winston’s Crew, Chris Norton, Jaime Cepero from TV’s SMASH, and Anthony Federov, a recent American Idol.
Toshi’s Living Room and Penthouse
9 W. 26th Street
New York, NY 10010