Ayear and a half ago, Joey Allaham took on the restoration of the 100-plus-year-old Oak Room in New York’s landmark Plaza Hotel. For Allaham, whose culinary ventures prior to renovating the Oak Room characterized him as an explorer of disparate cuisines and cultures, the step was his most avant-garde by virtue of its being the most traditional.
Born and raised in Damascus, Syria, Allaham moved to New York in the early 1990s, intending to pursue a legal career. His love of food, however, drew him to the hospitality industry. In 2000 he opened Prime Grill, New York’s first high-end kosher steakhouse. Four years later, he debuted Solo, a Mediterranean-Asian fusion restaurant. Today he says the Oak Room presents an entirely different kind of challenge by requiring him to preserve the legacy and traditions of the historic location, while keeping it relevant to his modern guests.
You meant to pursue a career in law, but wound up in restaurants. How did that happen?
Growing up, being a Jew in the Middle East was not a lot of fun every day. So when we came here, I was around 18 years old, and I was going through a very difficult choice. I was going to have to waste 12 years of my life re-doing things all over again from high school and so on. I thought there was no future for me that way. I used to work for my dad in the summers, and I was always in and out of restaurants and hotels, so I always had that love for food.
How is running the Oak Room different from running your other restaurants, Solo and Prime?
It’s very different because people always compare it to the past. It’s always, “Why is the floor different? Why is the chair different?” People come in who are 80, and they still compare it to what it was before.
People have a problem with change. They get very demanding about [the Oak Room.] They want it to be perfect, and they have a lot of memories about it. It’s a much different experience because I have to be careful when making decisions. I can’t just be like, we’re changing something today, like the seating or the lights. People get very offended about it, so we have to be careful.FAST FACTS
EDUCATION: educated in SyriaBIRTHPLACE: IsraelHOMETOWN: Damascus, SyriaHOBBIES: “I have a crazy hobby—it’s working in restaurants.”PERSONAL: married; expecting a baby the first week of May
How has the economy impacted your business?
We don’t know how it is affecting us, because we don’t have traffic for the year before. I tell my staff, “We know that next year will be better than this year.” That’s the only way to put it, because definitely you don’t have much of the banquet business, you don’t have the parties that usually come in and bring a lot of money. So we’re living off tourists, and there aren’t a lot of them as well.
We’re trying to make the name, establish it to New Yorkers and bring people back. A lot of people had a lot of memories in there. We try to just manage what we are and make the best out of it until we get out of this whole mess.