On Saturday, ’Merica NYC, New York’s first restaurant celebrating everything ridiculously American, soft-opened in the East Village. The not-so-subtle spot is decorated with (what else?) a red, white, and blue color scheme; decommissioned assault rifles; a taxidermied reindeer head adorned with a red, white, and blue boa; satirical political drawings, and so on. The all-American menu features the “Rambo,” a New York strip basted in Alfredo sauce and served with mashed potatoes. In other words, the place is insane. It’s just the latest super-themed business from Zach Neil, who, along with partner Brian Link, has also opened bars devoted to Will Ferrell and Tim Burton. Grub spoke with Neil, who doesn’t want to slow down, about his vision for ’Merica and why he thinks New York’s food industry takes itself too seriously.
How’d you end up opening these places?
It started with my best friend since we were kids. His father passed away, he went into a massive depression, and he also inherited a bunch of money. Which he didn’t really know he was getting, so he became a millionaire overnight. He quit his job and was not doing well. We opened Stay Classy to give him something to do and for fun. Him, and I love Will Ferrell. I was like, “Dude, let’s open a bar in the city and we’ll do it like a Will Ferrell theme bar.” That’s what got him off the couch and not drinking himself to death — opening a bar, ironically enough. We both invested a little money into it; it didn’t cost us that much money because we’re kind of in a scurvy neighborhood.
That got really popular and we talked about, like, “Wow, imagine if we could do more places like this.” We saw the opportunity for Beetle House. There was an ad on Craigslist; a lady was losing her business. She was trying to sell it and she started crying and saying she didn’t really want to but was behind on her rent. So we just offered to help her get caught up on her bills and become our partner. We had the idea, we said we’re huge Tim Burton fans, the next thing we want to do — we had this idea of a cosplay restaurant where a guy dressed like Beetlejuice is running around pranking people. But he’s vulgar. He curses, he’s totally gross, he’s on you and being disgusting and eating off your plate. She liked it, so we went into business with her. It didn’t cost much for us because we didn’t have to invest hundreds of thousands of dollar into rent and all this stuff. We just had to pay some back bills off, remodel some things, and I met Radouane through that.
You opened Stay Classy last October, Beetle House in May, and now ’Merica NYC. How have you done this in one year?
Well, I have great partners and I’m self-funded. I have no investment group behind me. I don’t have any money. Somebody wrote in one of these neighborhood blogs at some point that I’m a really rich guy from New Jersey. First of all, I’ve never lived in New Jersey my entire life. And I’m not a millionaire. I’m from Pennsylvania. I’m backwoods, man. My dad never made more than 30 grand in any year of his life.
As far as how I keep up with it? I don’t know. I don’t sleep. I work seven days a week, I have really good business partners. Radouane comes from the Plaza Hotel in New York, Disney World before that, he’s an educated man. He’s had a restaurant in New York City for 13 years. I have a great partner here, a hardworking partner at Beetle House, I have a good partner at Stay Classy. It’s not that bad. I’m probably going to do another one before the year is over, too.
So you and Radouane met through Beetle House.
We’re on the same block, I ended up coming to meet him. Say-hello-to-the-neighbors kind of thing. We started talking about politics. Radouane is a Muslim from Morocco, and I’m a white guy from the Northeast of America who was raised Christian. We both have questions about each other’s cultures. Like when you were coming in, I was asking him, “What kind of money do they use in Morocco? Is there college there?”
We were talking about stuff and I think he asked me if I was going to do anymore restaurants and I said I had an idea. I asked him if he was tired because he’s had his restaurant for 13 years, which in New York City is like a thousand lifetimes. So to be open that long, he must be doing something right. He said it was time for something new. He said what do you have in mind, and I was like, “Well, I want to do an American-themed restaurant. But I want to do it satirical.”
So people shouldn’t take this seriously.
You know I want to do it half-serious, half-satirical. The serious part is we really do love America and we still think that this country is the greatest place in the world. Absolutely. Even with its faults it’s still so much better than anywhere else. When people say that Europe is better, well then go there. Because it’s not better. It’s better here. Even with all of our problems, it’s 100,000 percent better. And some guy like Radouane, who comes from Africa, could tell you that. That’s why he’s here. Stuck-up, snobby Americans who were born with silver spoons in their asses and don’t really know what they’re talking about read things on a blog that says it’s better somewhere else and they believe it or just want to say it because they want to be snarky. But we really believe this. We have a big love for country. That’s the true part of this restaurant. Everything else is nonsense.
What do you want customers to get out of it?
It’s supposed to be fun and funny. I guess the idea is to make going out to dinner a fun experience again. Making going out to eat a good time. Something you can look forward to. You’re going to have good food and laugh, we’re going to make fun of all things equally. We’re going to talk about politics and sports and pop culture and music and everything. Everything that makes up America. We’re going to talk about it and laugh about it — a lot.
When I was a kid, I used to love to go to the movies. It was my favorite thing to do. I looked so forward to someone — anyone — who was willing to take me to the movies. The popcorn, the candy, the whole experience. I feel like going out to eat should be the same way. The places that I do, I do them with that in mind. Like, these are the things that I personally like. Every place that I have opened has been something I very much am into and like. I was looking for other people who are like-minded and want to enjoy the same kind of things. And leaving here saying the food was actually really great, but the experience was really great, too.
The places you’re opening do seem to be poking fun at overseriousness in the food world.
Yeah. I think people have gotten too pretentious and too snarky. Not the customers, but the people that open bars and restaurants. They’ve gotten way too serious, they take themselves way too seriously. At the end of the day, it’s food. You’re killing an animal and cooking its flesh and eating it so let’s not overcomplicate it. I don’t care what you call it, how many fancy names you put on it, this is what you’re doing. Or you’re cutting down a tree and eating it. This is the basic. [In snooty voice] Do I want the quail with the foie gras or do I want the caviar chilled? Mmmmmm. We can all do this at home. We all have a stove. So why go somewhere and pay six times the amount of money as what you would pay to cook it at home?
Then you feel like some people have forgotten that restaurants should be a good time?
It’s not the customers, because they want to have fun. When they come into my other places, the number-one thing we hear is: “I had so much fun.” And then it’s not just about eating. You can eat anywhere. There are a thousand other restaurants on the next two blocks. It’s not about the food. The food’s a big part of it, because you don’t want the food to be bad. But on top of that, what else are you offering? Because I can tell you that every single restaurant on this block and the next block has good food. I’ve eaten at all of them and they all have good food. Outside of that, I hope that you’re making your choice based on something else.
For us, I just want people to come here and just laugh and laugh and laugh. Not just at other people, but at themselves. ‘Cause there’s things in here that were decorated a certain way, we’re showing certain kinds of films, we’re putting certain things on our menu to make you realize we’re all the butt of our own jokes these days. Look at the two presidential candidates, whether you’re a liberal or a conservative we’re all the butt of that joke. No matter who wins in November, we all lose.
What do you dislike about trendier bars in New York?
They don’t care that you’re there. They don’t talk to the customers. The waitstaff in a lot of these restaurants is rude, the bartenders are snarky and pretentious. They make you feel unwelcome. I feel like the unpopular kid in high school when I go to a lot of these places. You have a very attractive male or female bartender behind the bar that looks you up and down when you walk in and makes you feel like you’re not good enough to be there. I don’t want to go into a place like that. I don’t want to represent a place like that.
Are you consciously trying to create something that’s anti-trendy?
I feel like it’s whatever people want it to be. We’re not even open yet and people are mad about it. They’re angry that this place even exists because their first thought was, Oh, these are Trump supporters, or something. Because they’re taking it in the literal sense like, “Oh, it’s America” [makes cartoonish gun noises]. And we’re on the other side going like, “We’re a growing nation still.”
This is more like what we’re doing. When I look at our country, I laugh all the time. When I hear politicians and pundits speak, I laugh. Because I hear how ridiculous the things they are saying are, which they can’t possibly take seriously. Half of growing and moving forward is being able to look back at ourselves and laugh and go, “At one point we elected George W. Bush two times.” At this point, we have to laugh about it because the alternative is we all go jump off the George Washington Bridge. We have to laugh, because we have to say I’m so glad we elected Barack Obama, not because he’s a Democrat or liberal but because we elected a man who couldn’t say the word nuclear to the highest office in the land. And we did that two times. Now we’re talking about electing Donald Trump, the “You’re fired!” guy. The Apprentice guy. It’s like when Kanye said he’s going to be president, I laughed, and now I’m like, “Holy shit, Kanye might be the president.” If Trump wins, Yeezy might be president.
How have people reacted to your places?
It’s like the ridiculous people — not all, a handful — that live in this neighborhood and believe after year three that they’re the fucking mayor of the town. Like, “Well, I’ve been living in the East Village since upwards of 2007. So now I’m so aggravated by the gentrification in the largest city in the entire world.” The ridiculous mind-set that people get that your type of business wouldn’t be welcome somewhere because it doesn’t fit with the profile or the hipster or the pretentiousness of their neighborhood that they want to keep. That same kind of attitude that some Americans and some people in this neighborhood have, that you have some kind of extra-special right because you’ve been somewhere longer. Radouane was just as much an American the day he came to this country as when I was born here.
Yeah, someone was probably pissed off by the idea of Stay Classy.
When I opened Stay Classy, which was — ’Merica isn’t dumb, this is cool. Stay Classy is dumb. Let’s face it. It’s a Will Ferrell–themed bar. A Will Ferrell character bar. Our depth goes as far as Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby. Like my entire bar is fart jokes, glorified fart jokes. I have a drink on the menu called the Whale’s Vagina. I opened up in the Lower East Side, which is known for being an artsy community and pretentious and all hipsters and punk rockers and blah blah blah. And I had a million people that live there tell me how horrible of an idea it was and how it was going to fail. Then I served 45,000 customers in 90 days. Then I had lines around the block for seven months. Then I got so big I actually had to close down for days just to tell people I can’t take the business. It’s been a year and I’m doing a great business over there. Everyone who comes in says the same thing. They laughed.
There’s that folklore that people spread in New York that everything’s gotta be serious and pretentious. Older people here are guilty of it. If anything looks fun, they automatically start calling it a college bar or a bro bar or a frat bar. Because it looks fun. I’m like, “Hey, I don’t care if college kids come here. I want their business, too. Anybody who wants to have a good time is welcome to come here.” That kind of misconception because a lot of people also thought Stay Classy was going to be a college bar. You know what my average customer age is there? It’s 40. We don’t do a lot of young people.
I hear you’re going to have debate nights?
We’re debating here on Thursday nights. Customer-to-customer debates on any topic you can think of. Politics, sports, pop culture. Television. What was better, Friends or this show? We’ll pick topics, invite people to sign up. We’re going to film it and put it on YouTube; the show is going to be called That’s Debatable. They’ll be some food-driven consequences for the loser, like having to eat a Carolina Reaper pepper or maybe paying for the other person’s meal. Something prearranged and agreed upon.
Who do you expect — or want — to come in?
This is a judgement-free zone. If you’re from Texas and you carry a gun in your everyday life and you’re a super-conservative Republican, you’re totally welcome. Some of the jokes will be ironic to you and some of the things we’ll be able to agree with you on. Like, I’m super pro-gun. I really am. I’m totally liberal in all of my social leanings, but I’m a Second Amendment guy. I’m not a Republican, but I believe in guns. Our country got founded on guns. We wouldn’t have any of the things we have today without guns. I mean, George Washington didn’t march across the river and smack those motherfuckers high-five. He shot them — in their sleep. On the opposite side, super-liberal Democrats from right here will have a great time. There’s something for everyone. This is an everyman bar. Come as you are, dress how you want, we’re going to feed you, laugh with you, we’re gonna sing songs, we’re gonna watch Chuck Norris movies.