Two men are seated in a booth inside 3 Guys Restaurant, on Madison Avenue between 75th and 76th Street, talking about transactions. One with a toned figure, black suit and dark sunglasses looks more like a US Secret Service agent than a financier.
His companion is bulkier and is dressed more casually. From what I overhear they are dissecting deals and the venture capital industry while casting aspersions on the investment capabilities of a colleague or associate called Charlie who they do not reckon is at all a good thing for wealth creation.
Deals tend to get done in boardrooms, conference rooms of law offices or on the phone. Yet 3 Guys Restaurant (not to be confused with the Five Guys burger chain) possesses a special hold on the workings of New York’s elite financial aristocracy.
Michael Bloomberg, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, JP Morgan Chase President and CEO Jamie Dimon, scandal-prone former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer and hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson are all regulars at the 35-year-old restaurant which, despite its name, is more of a diner in food and feel (“it’s halfway between a diner and an upscale restaurant,” notes co-owner Spiro Argiros.)
“What’s happening in 3 Guys?” is not going to replace “Call Warren Buffett!” as the collective Wall Street cry come the eruption of the next financial crisis but the venue is a hub of deal-making activity. “Many of the biggest deals were made in here over breakfast and lunch,” says Argiros. “People come here, make deals and then we read about them in the paper in the next few days.”
Argiros says Blackstone, one of the largest global private equity firms, has forged deals in 3 Guys, and that it’s a popular haunt for hedge funders to talk shop. The 3 Guys is reputedly where Michael Bloomberg and outgoing Chief Executive Dan Doctoroff met with New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin to tell him the news that the former Mayor was returning to run his company (Sorkin did not respond to requests for a comment).
“You do hear constant murmuring about deals in this place especially during breakfast,” says an elderly 3 Guys regular Bob Russell. “It’s like the global economic crisis never happened.”
3 Guys has also in the past served as an arena for NYC conflict resolution. In 2003, Spitzer, then Attorney General and who has been frequenting 3 Guys since his twenties, met at the venue with Goldman Sachs executive Richard Friedman, who headed a consortium that owned the TV rights to broadcasting the New York Yankees’ games, in order to broker a compromise that prevented a TV blackout of the Bronx Bombers’ baseball exploits.
3 Guys is a cut above the usual diner. It doesn’t reek of cheap hustle the way other diners do and the food is good (the omelets and the Corfu Salad with chicken are particular favorites). It’s also more expensive than an average diner (both a Santa Fe omelets and pancakes with fresh berries will set you back $16).
It’s not inexpensive and the red awning lends it an attractive exterior but why is 3 Guys perpetually popular with power brokers in a city that houses more glamorous alternative eateries such as The Four Seasons, A Voce, Michaels and Cipriani?
According to owner Argiros, the answer is amiable discretion. “We have good food and service and we’re friendly. Very friendly. It’s all about friendship, food and hard work.” He also thinks millionaires like eating there so they can be Just Like Us: “We treat everybody equally. We don’t treat them as financial players or movie stars. This way they come back.”
William D. Cohan, business writer and author of Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World, thinks many on Planet Finance are seduced by the contrarian charm of its down-to-earth style.
“It’s a cliché that Wall Street types constantly meet at restaurants like The Four Seasons,” says Cohan, who has met banker sources at 3 Guys. “Some do but that appeals to an older more establishment-type banker. There’s a ‘reverse chic’ sensibility to meeting at a place like 3 Guys. It’s close to where many financial guys live and it has a folksy appeal.”
While perhaps not the utopian paradise its owners like to paint it as, the time I spent inside 3 Guys indicated a cross-section of New York society frequent the establishment at different times of the day. Bankers tended to go there for breakfast or lunch. During the day a more cultural set enters 3 Guys, wandering in from the nearby Whitney Museum and literary hangout the New York Society Library.
It’s tempting to think that some of the mothers who enter 3 Guys in the mid-morning are spending modest sums of money on food and drink reaped from previous business discussions their husbands had at the same venue.
The yummy mummy set patronize 3 Guys to the extent that socialite and author Jill Kargman cited it in her 2007 novel Momzillas: “This was the epicenter of mommypalooza. All roads lead to 3 Guys.” (Momzillas has been optioned by Bravo as a comedy satire so look out for 3 Guys on TV).
The demographic shift in 3 Guys’ clientele continues as the day moves on. By 3pm it’s predominantly young schoolchildren and their nannies dining.
The 3 Guys is also popular with the A-list Hollywood crowd. Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro, Madonna, Tom Hanks and Gwyneth Paltrow are among those who have eaten at 960 Madison Avenue. Late comedian Robin Williams, according to Argiros, was a friend of 3 Guys: “He was not just a customer, but a good person and part of the family.” Unlike restaurants that proudly display yellowed cuttings from the New York Post’s Page Six in their window, Argiros says, “If a movie star comes in we don’t call the papers.”
Warming to his theme, Argiros adds, “All human life passes through here- the good bad and the ugly.” Including Clint Eastwood? “Yes, he used to come here with Richard Harris. What a lovely man Richard Harris was. He used to bring his dogs at 7am and feed them lamb chops.”
These are precarious times for diners. UES Lexington Avenue staple Soup Burg recently shuttered. Though its lease expires in four years, the constant traffic inside 3 Guys and the wealth of its patrons should ensure its continued existence in the event of a real estate emergency.
I ask Argiros to recall the most thrilling moment he’s ever experienced at 3 Guys. The answer was as unpredictable as the clientele. “When I was a kid who had just moved here from Corfu, I used to watch the Man from U.N.C.L.E,” he says. “I couldn’t speak any English and my friend would write down on a piece of paper who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. So the most exciting moment I had was that day in 1979 or 1980 when David McCallum [the New York-based Scottish actor who played the Russian secret agent] walked in here. I told him my story.”