4.26.18 / New York / New York

With Primo’s, Mr. Fong’s Aisa Shelley Recreates the Classic New York Haunt

Bringing the energy of the popular LES hangout to a Tribeca hotel

When Mr. Fong’s opened three years ago, Aisa Shelley found himself with a surprise hit. New clubs would enter the scene, stay hot for four months, and by the time another fashion week rolled around it was dead. Rinse and repeat. But Fong’s, a tiny dive-y bar deep into Chinatown managed to have the right alchemy to become a new standard in NYC nightlife, still as popular today as it ever was. Now Shelley is about to open up his follow up, Primo’s at The Frederick Hotel, where he’ll try to recreate the magic once again.

Spending his entire adulthood in hospitality, Shelley had a lot to draw upon when creating Fong’s with his partners. Navy, the Waverly Inn, Rucola, the Wythe Hotel, and Freeman’s are just some of the places he worked, paying attention to all the aspects of operation. “I always had an idea that I wanted to open my own place,” he recalls, “so after a couple of years I started working on how I was going to do it, learning the ropes of what I needed to learn to get it done, and yea I just took the plunge. I was confident that I could do it right, and I did it.”


[Photo: Adrian Mesko, Courtesy of Primo’s]

Shelley is quick to credit his team of investors and partners for its success. “It was a good grouping of people to get together and do something.” With investors from the worlds of fashion, media, and music, Fong’s established itself as a hub for creatives and drew an eclectic crowd. Now at Primo’s, the team is key once again, with designer and model Camilla Deterre receiving much of his praise. Deterre and Shelley first crossed paths when they were at Navy, but it wasn’t until they found themselves simultaneously opening Mimi and Fong’s, respectively, that they really connected. “I love what she did with Mimi. I was really stoked…when Mimi opened, 3 months after Fong’s I think, and I love Fong’s, but I was like I wish I opened this.”

Deterre used her deft touch to capture the particular look Shelley had in mind. “I wanted it to feel like you just found it, but it was already here; I was like, now imagine that the grandson of that person who opened it in the ’20s took it over in the ’80s.” The colors, textures, and lighting all stay true to that, and captures the different eras of New York. A little bit of the Art Deco ’20s, some midcentury modern art, and a little ’80s nightlife flair. The menu reflects that mix as well, with both classic and house cocktails, as well as selection of coffee cocktails. “One of the things about being in a hotel bar is that you need to offer comfort on a lot of different levels. The hotel is suppsoed to offer you everything. I want coffee in the morning I want a drink at night, so I wanted to really offer a menu that represented that variation of hotel comfortability, in a fun way.”

[Aisa Shelley, Photo: Adrian Mesko, Courtesy of Primo’s]

Even with that passion for hotels, and an understanding from working with a few of them in both New York and San Francisco, Primo’s was still a completely new experience for Shelley. “It’s been a learning curve, I’ve had to deal with things I’m not used to dealing with,” he admits. “Definitely some corporate stuff that I personally would rather not deal with. But I get an opportunity to work with people I really want to work with, with a budget to do really fun things, and I’m really excited about that.” Still, he’s incorporating the best elements of both worlds, capitalizing on the level of detail a hotel bar requires, but combining that with the easy-going vibe he’s known for.

“I’m trying to walk a fine line. In the same way I that I walked a fine line between a dive bar and a cocktail bar at Fong’s, I want to walk the line between being a Tribeca bar and a fun bar.” Though Primo’s is a stones throw from some of the more famous Tribeca hangouts like The Odeon, the area still feels geared towards locals or the after-work crowd. Shelley wants to change that. “the same way the Bowery hotel when it first opened, and even now, offered a level of comforatbilty and also fun, in a neighborhood that wasn’t associated with that, I want to do that in Tribeca.” His plan isn’t to reinvent the wheel or offer novelty ways to pull a quick buck, but simply focus on the hospitable part of hospitality. “Hotels typically want to draw that line where you’re still there for service. Absolutely you are, you’re there to offer an experience in hospitality, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t do it as a friend, and enjoy the experience with them.” It’s a formula that worked once before, and even in a new industry and a new neighborhood, Shelley is putting the pieces together to find that magic once more. “We’re still going to offer comfortable environment, comfortable service. But your bartender isn’t going to be your bartender from Bemelmans, he’s going to be your bartender from Fong’s.”

Primo’s opens on May 1st at The Frederick Hotel

[Photo: Adrian Mesko, Courtesy of Primo’s]

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