Feeling like Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole, I walked into Mister H, the marvelous new lounge at the Mondrian SoHo hotel in Manhattan. Run by Armin Amiri (who owned Socialista and manned the door of Bungalow 8, two infamous New York nightspots) this magical little joint at Chinatown's border evokes a Shanghai speakeasy circa 1930 -- or rather, a movie set of one.
"I thought, 'Where would Humphrey Bogart have his last nightcap before he goes to sleep?' Then I thought, 'Let's give this guy a name, Mister Hung," says Amiri, who is also an actor, about the concept's inspiration and fictitious host. "I also wanted to bring in a bit of Alfred Hitchcock, something dark and mysterious."
From red banquettes to hand-screened wallpaper, Persian rugs to checkerboard floors, the stunning room is an enthusiastic collaboration between Amiri and Morgan SoHo designer Benjamin Noriega Ortiz. It's a space that changes you as soon as you walk in, subtly working its hocus-pocus and making you feel like a welcome character in this film noir come to life. Cinematic touches include an antique birdcage, stacks of old books, photos of film stars. And Mister H has a sense of humor: A sassy homage to the Year of the Rabbit are two large-scale (slightly dirty) rabbit paintings by New York artist Gregory de la Haba. Chinese neon letters on the wall proclaim "Love Happy Drunk" (a fine state, indeed) while another sign announces that "This is Not a Brothel. There Are No Prostitutes At This Address." All these details -- plus themed drinks, telephones on each table to encourage socializing, and music by DJs Mia Moretti, Justine D, Miss Guy and others -- conspire to create an alternate reality of fantasy, fun, and happy times.
"When I was a kid I used to stand in the bathroom, I was seven, eight years old and I used to sing into the mirror and feel like I'm Elvis Presley or whatever. That element could still come up in grownups where you feel like you're in this fantasyland and you're just enjoying yourself," says Amiri, who anticipates a mixed crowd with personal style. "People with their own identity who want to get away from daily life and enjoy themselves where no one is pretending to be more fabulous than anyone else."
As an actor, Amiri is well aware of nightlife's theatrical element. "It's a bit like [the movie] Moulin Rouge," he says. "If you don't watch out it could eat your soul, so how do you keep that glow as a human being and be good and still do right by people?"
Doing the work to learn just that has allowed this Iranian-born 39 year-old who once lived in a refugee camp to remain dedicated to the positive sides of the business and to infuse his projects -- Mister H included -- with that energy.
"It can be a great opportunity to meet amazing people that you would never meet during the day and you'll have a much more open and relaxed conversation and get to see who they really are."
That's why he designed Mister H to promote interaction, even getting a Feng Shui expert into the mix. "I really wanted to design a bar that is for single people, that you don't feel uncomfortable. I want an open energy." For example, "If I'm in a room that lifts my imagination and makes me feel good about myself and have the confidence to ask someone out or speak to a director... the room can give you so much."
Amiri's first bar gig was at age fifteen at a gay bar in Vienna, Austria called Why Not. (He fled Iran during the revolution and lived in an Austrian refugee camp before moving to the capital, and is writing a book about these experiences.) Then, a "refugee mate" living in San Francisco said, "Why don't you come to San Fran?" So he did, immersing himself in its drum 'n' bass and house music scenes before moving to New York in 1992 to study acting. "I was a waiter," he says. "I hated that job because I could remember two pages of monologue but I could never remember the specials!" So, he bartended at legendary SoHo bistro Raoul's for many years. "I love that place to this day. I was introduced to so many cool things... I was meant to be there."
Certainly, life has its way of bringing us the experiences we need. "I'm not fighting it anymore cause I used to do that a lot, I felt I had to differentiate between acting and the bar business. It's now finally the same thing to me." A two year break from nightlife has helped him value what both passions bring to his life. "I've had the opportunity to sit back and see what I want to do next. It comes with a lot of doubt and insecurity but once you come out on the other side of the rabbit hole you're a much stronger person."
And as I exited the Mister H rabbit hole, I felt pretty decent, too.
Mister H is at 150 Lafayette Street in the Mondrian SoHo.