A Lover of Culture Brings Back the People to Flavor New York and London’s Chicest Neighborhoods
Interviewed by Shirine Saad / Photographed by Therese + Joel
A blonde waiter with carefully tousled hair nonchalantly picks through fresh mint leaves behind a red counter; behind him, shelves burst with pineapples, mangoes and papayas. Soft reggae beats fill the space; pastel curtains filter the intense sunlight. Facing the entrance, on the orange tiled wall, next to a kitsch flower lamp, is a photograph of a striking woman with the word JAMAICA painted on her breasts. Serge Becker, the owner and designer of Miss Lily’s, a vibrant Jamaican-style diner in the West Village, is sitting nearby with his team.
Becker leads me up a narrow staircase, through a buzzing loft office space and to the terrace where we sit on steel chairs. The crisp spring breeze carries whiffs of barbecue jerk chicken and curry spices. Right across the wooden fence is a private garden whose members, including Anna Wintour, have tried to prevent the opening of Miss Lily’s, citing noise and safety issues.
“Everything in this city is overregulated,” says Becker, a man with perpetually tanned skin, a warm grin and salt-and-pepper stubble, speaking in his gentle voice. “It’s Kafkaesque. We can’t work in this industry anymore.” Becker, a Vietnamese-Swiss art director who helped build the iconic Area club in TriBeCa after moving to New York in the eighties, has witnessed – and influenced – the rise and fall of New York’s once notoriously gritty nightlife scene.
Becker has launched a series of bars, including Bowery Bar, M.K and Fez, establishing his reputation as New York’s most creative nightlife entrepreneur – a director creating perfect environments and ambiences for the city’s beautiful people, whom he has on speed dial. He was the mastermind behind La Esquina, a secret Mexican restaurant described by the New York Times as “like Studio 54 with chipotle instead of cocaine.” After retiring from the scene for a few years Becker created The Box, a posh and slightly naughty bar, establishing the upscale burlesque trend. Now, after opening Miss Lily’s and SuperLinda, a neo-Mexican restaurant in Tribeca, Becker is looking to grow overseas. In April he opened La Bodega Negra, a Mexican restaurant in the back of a London sex shop. “There are more opportunities in London for restaurateurs,” says Becker, who is the father of four and whose Ethiopian wife Meriem Soliman, an attorney, lives with him above Miss Lily’s and the office. “It’s less regulated.”
When 21-year-old Becker came to New York from Zurich seeking work and fun – with barely any luggage except his music records, he landed at Area, the outrageous club known for organizing thematic parties that involved anything from live rats running amok to invitations hidden in hard boiled eggs. Drawing on his artistic background, he dreamed up dramatic settings for the club with Eric Goode, now the owner of the trendsetting Jane and Bowery hotels. Area’s velvet ropes were notoriously hard to pass, but the club brought types from across cultures and backgrounds to the then no-man’s-land of TriBeCa; Becker loved the multiculturalism and freedom, which was sorely missing in his native Switzerland. ”Downtown was the frontier,” he remembers. “It was largely undeveloped. It was an industrial area where artists like myself moved in from all over the world. And it was an unregulated environment. The freedom we had was unheard of, and it will never happen again.”
When Becker opened La Esquina, creating a secret entrance through a dark diner and a loud kitchen into a dark candlelit room, he launched the speakeasy trend that has now become global. Entrance was reserved to those who had called the secret number; the raw, slightly illegal feel of the room was enhanced by references to Low Rider and Chicano culture. “I like to deliberately build in flaws and irregularities, to make my spaces less precious,” says Becker, who wears plaid shirts and jeans. “There’s an appeal to these humble intimate spaces that are very low key and don’t thrive on ostentatious display of wealth or social ranking. But then our clientele is very sleek, and that is the interesting contrast.” Becker sees his crowd as the center of the setting, mixing celebrities, media moguls, models and downtown artists to create a uniquely festive vibe. He also throws in a diverse and stylish staff; Ajang Majok, the South Sudanese hostess at Miss Lily’s, is a sculptural model who wears lime green minishorts and tribal printed minidresses at work; his famously attractive staff members have perfected a cool, laid back attitude, flashing generous smiles as if they’ve invited you to their own party.
And while Becker has lost interest in the debauchery and adventure of his early years, he still loves to explore tropical countries, where he devours local dishes, researches the history and art of the country and reads extensively. “I’m a warm person and I’m attracted to what’s warm in every sense of the word,” he says. “I’m into lively cultures and certainly not into the Swiss protestant restraint.”