How De Niro helped take Nobu to Israel

Update: Since this story was published, Nobu have changed their plans.

The global restaurant empire - and the first Nobu Hotel - will open in the Middle East's St Tropez in 2010. We talk to the businessmen making it happen

The restaurant chain Nobu launched a hospitality division to incorporate a luxury hotel and apartments in May. The first of them is to open at Israel's Herzliya marina.

So why did the new Nobu Hospitality Group - a collaboration involving Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa, actor Robert De Niro plus a selection of Israeli and US businessmen - pass on New York and London to settle on Herzliya to open the inaugural £90 million Nobu development?

Property developer Danny Rubinstein, 56, of the Marina Resort management company, which is responsible for bringing Nobu to Israel, says: "We know the Nobu restaurant does well in London, we know the English love Herzliya. It was obvious we should put the two together."

The first Nobu was opened in New York in 1994 by Matsuhisa and De Niro. Today, a well-known celebrity haunt, it has additional branches in Los Angeles, London, Milan and Hong Kong. The new Nobu development, a 225-room hotel, which will include 12 penthouses and nine duplexes and also be home to the first Nobu restaurant in Israel, is due to open in 2010.

And it is the Brits who are considered vital to the success of the project: "We have to have the right mix of people, and that means 70 per cent English-speaking," says Australian-born Mr Rubinstein. And he is relishing the challenge. "When I worked for Isrotel and bought the sanatorium that became Carmel Forest Spa, they said I was nuts."

Yet Herzliya, he says, with its marina, close proximity to Tel Aviv and selection of restaurants, is a no-brainer. "We could sell all the units to the Russians in ten minutes, but we wouldn't have the right buzz. The success of Nobu depends on creating the right atmosphere, so our aim is to sell only ten per cent to the Eastern Bloc, ten per cent to the French and ten per cent to Jews from other countries."

Are British consumers really going to want to fork out £500,000 for a one-bedroom apartment in the current financial market? "We sold the first 20 units we released even before we launched the project in May," he notes." It won't take much to sell another 150 to the UK market.

"It's a great deal. Instead of paying £500,000 for a flat in Tel Aviv, Brits can buy a suite on the beach in Israel's St Tropez, stay in it for up to 90 days and benefit from rental income the rest of the year, and all the capital growth."

According to Mr Rubinstein, Robert de Niro has been making regular visits to Israel over the past few months. "He sat in on every design meeting. I was staggered by the detail he went into."

Mr De Niro is credited as the driving force behind the decision to create hotel bathrooms to evoke the feeling of a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), where the whole idea of Nobu and company going into the hotel business was born.

"It was while we were enjoying the hot tubs that we came up with the concept of creating places where people could stay, as well as eat, Nobu style," says Richie Notar, managing partner of the restaurant chain. He says: "If Armani and Bulgari can expand their non-hospitality brands into successful hotels, why not a restaurant?

"We'll get a nuts and bolts hotel guy in who knows all about how to do it, then have him drink the Nobu Kool-Aid."

As for why Israel for the very first Nobu hotel - developments in New York and Corfu are expected to follow - it is less to do with Meir Teper, the Israeli co-founder of Nobu, than Adi and Irit Strauss of Israel's Marina Resort.

"They met chef Nobu two years ago at a Children's Hospital benefit and it all started there," explains Mr Notar.

"It was like dating: it leads to the first kiss and the hand under the sweater and suddenly you're engaged."
He is confident Tel Aviv foodies and Herzliya high-tech executives would keep the restaurant afloat even if there were no hotel guests: "They totally get what we call ‘dinertainment' - going out for dinner for more than food."

The Nobu Hotel will include a spa stretching across three floors, a pool with private cabanas and full Nobu room service. Mr Teper believes the Israeli economy will be instrumental in the success of the venture.
"Israel is booming. You can't get a room in Tel Aviv, and there isn't a proper boutique hotel in the country," he says. "Add to that all the Israeli clients we see at our restaurants in London and New York."

    Last updated: 4:49pm, May 4 2010