April 12, 2021

Brad Johnson: The Hospitality King

AMBASSADOR DIGITAL MAGAZINE Editor- In-Chief Musa Jackson has an in-depth conversation with legendary restaurateur BRAD JOHNSON. As a New York native, second generation restaurateur and hospitality entrepreneur, Brad has opened some of the best bars, nightclubs and dining establishments in New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles over the past four decades.

  • Client

    Musa Jackson

A pioneer in the restaurant industry he helped cultivate and bring about fine dining safe spaces catering to an integrated modern urban multiethnic crowd in landscapes where none previously existed. Paving the way for the modern dining entertainment experience. He and his lovely wife and partner Linda have since relocated to Miami where he hosts an informative podcast Corner Table Talk chopping it up with some of his famous friends. Musa invites Brad to take us on his fabled journey to becoming a hospitality icon.

Paving the way for the modern dining entertainment experience.


MUSA Where did you grow up?
BRAD I was born at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York City. We lived for a short time in New Rochelle, NY and then my parents bought a small house in Teaneck, New Jersey. They eventually divorced and I split my time between the Upper Westside, Manhattan with my dad, and New Jersey with my mom.
MUSA You are a second generation restaurateur, son of the legendary late Howard Johnson. What did you learn from him before venturing out on your own?
BRAD I learned so much from my Dad. His style was really the first thing my eye gravitated to. My dad was a sharp dresser. He was the first African American clothing salesman in the fine men’s clothing store, Paul Stuart, back in the ‘60s. He had an eye and taught me about fabric. You didn’t have to have a lot in your closet, you just had to have the right pieces. I modeled my style after his. He taught me the do’s and don’ts in the business including how not to be led astray by what he called night talk, promises made in the evening over a gin and tonic that don’t see the light of day (laughs). We’ve all been there. Greeting people as soon as they walk in, thanking people as soon as they leave. So many of the basics, man. Not staying at a table talking to a guest once their food arrives, give them a chance to eat with their guests. And then there’s the G’s I met along the way like the late veteran actor Roscoe Lee Brown who gave me this quote I love “never mistake your arrival for the event.” That’s my mantra in the restaurant world. It’s about taking care of folks which I know you can relate to Musa, you do that quite naturally.
MUSA Thank you. Can you tell us more about the iconic restaurant The Cellar? Some of your personal experiences of working there?
BRAD My Dad bought The Cellar in ‘74. I was in high school at the time. My first jobs there were as a teenager washing dishes and bussing tables. It was right in the heart of the “Black Is Beautiful” period. So you had folks like Susan Taylor, Dick Parsons and Arthur Ashe, and other people who were well known locally but would later become crazy famous. Those rooms had beautiful style with people having fun with other Black folks in the room. There were no cell phones. Folks were drinking and smoking a lot of cigarettes. It was just this dynamic environment. After finishing college where I studied Restaurant and Hotel Management at UMASS Amherst, I joined my Dad full-time. My involvement really picked up. Everybody came through, from politicians to street hustlers, cats from Uptown to bankers from downtown. We all stayed in the same room. Black folks hadn’t ventured downtown. They ventured from Harlem to the Upper Westside but this was pre-Nells. We’re talking the seventies and early eighties. Not until the late restaurateur Alberta Wright opened Jezebel in the theater district did we really start to have any real presence downtown. Upper Westside was where it was at for Black folks from all over the country. That was the scene and I fully embraced it. To this day the memories, the lessons and the people that I came across in that period are the most important in my life.
MUSA Tell us what it was like to take over the mantle in the ‘80s ushering in a new era of Black restaurant ownership with spots like Memphis and 107 West?
BRAD I had recently broken up with a girlfriend and I was sitting in my apartment heartbroken. Then I was supposed to go to a Knicks game with another young lady. I’m living in Park West Village and we had answering machines but I didn’t have a beeper and so once the phone didn’t ring and it was 7:30p, I’m thinking it wasn’t going to happen. I got stood up. I walked down Columbus Avenue and I was never really a bar guy. I walked to about 75th Street and got to a place that had the Knick game on. I walked in, ordered a beer at the bar and met a young lady. I told her I really wanted to open my own restaurant. I liked this neighborhood and I really want to open something here.

She said ”I’m babysitting for Carly Simon and her boyfriend actor Al Corley just leased that building across the street. You should meet him.” And that’s how Memphis happened. What was significant was Uptown coming downtown. When we created Memphis, I was conscious of how black folks were going to feel in the room, how white people would feel in that area about Black folks coming downtown. An integrated kind of vibe and that was ‘83. What I’ve seen and observed during my career has been the migration of Black folks integrating into social spaces. Initially in New York, then out in Los Angeles. Even though I’m a little older than you. You can identify when the culture started to shift and go downtown.

I was not as cool as you.
I didn’t run with Basquiat
and Keith Haring.

MUSA So true. I graduated High School of Music & Art in ‘83. I went to Parsons School of Design in the village. In the early days of Soho I met Keith Haring, Basquiat, Madonna and Warhol. Besides Warhol who was always famous these folks I just named became almost iconic overnight in the span on 2 years. There were very few Blacks, myself included on the scene and fewer Black safe spaces. So people like yourself were so important to the shepherding and creation of that movement. You provided that safe welcoming space for us. So later you’d move onto L.A. opening the hot restaurant Georgia with partners Debbie Allen, Norm Nixon and Denzel Washington. What was that period like?
BRAD I was not as cool as you. I didn’t run with Basquiat or Keith Haring. I basically considered myself a restaurant guy from Uptown that was wearing a fake gold Rolex I bought on a vendor table from 125th Street (laughs). I was frontin’ (laughs). When I left New York, I had worked with singer / songwriters Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson at their restaurant 20/20 on 20th Street. Prior to me joining them, it wasn’t working so they came to me and I thought to redo it. Turn it into a cabaret and utilize all their music contacts and we’ll have a great spot.

MUSA Sounds like the precursor or warmup to Sugar Bar.
Our stories
BRAD We did turn 20/20 into a cabaret and had some success. We had fantastic talent, I mean like the late great Nina Simone. Unfortunately, the taxes from the previous year caught up with us and we had to close. I was humiliated to tell you the truth. To do the 20/20 project, I had sold my interest in Memphis and the other places I was involved in. Now, I was going to be working with my Dad again and I felt like I had failed. I needed a breath of fresh air so I moved to Los Angeles. Norm Nixon had been telling me if I ever came out that way, he would be interested in doing something with me. So, with Norm, the first place I opened up out there was Roxbury. That was very successful and helped me get my swerve back. I really wanted to get back into the restaurant business. Denzel and I wanted to open up a West Coast Jezebel. He and I were very close with the owner of Jezebel, Alberta Wright. That never happened so we decided to do Georgia. It was a weird time in L.A. because the Rodney King trial had just gone down and the racial polarization was palatable. And here we are trying to introduce an integrated room on Melrose Avenue across from Spike’s Joint. It was just a confluence of events. A lot of people from NYC, our crew had migrated to L.A. and it was the rise of the first group of our generation trying to crack the film business. The Hudlin brothers, Spike Lee, we were all out there. It was a really interesting time. Georgia became the room for that crowd.
MUSA You recently sold the top rated Post & Beam how hard was that to do?
BRAD Thank you. Post & Beam came about because I was approached by Ken Lombard, who was the President of Magic Johnson’s development company when they did the Starbucks and Friday’s deals. Ken was an old friend and part of a group that was repositioning the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall. An iconic mall in Baldwin Hills, which is adjacent to one of the wealthiest Black neighborhoods in the country, so there were a lot of really interesting people in the hills. Artists, doctors, a lot of Black folks of means but it bordered the hood. Where Denzel shot “Training Day” was across the street from our parking lot. So the contrast was deep. We were a free-standing building on the edge of the parking lot. What solidified the decision for me was the fact that the Debbie Allen Dance Academy was directly across our shared parking lot., formerly the legendary fried chicken place, Golden Bird. We converted the building into a mid-century modern Southern California vibe serving our take on soul food with garden to table influences. My partner was Chef Govind Armstrong, who had been on Top Chef and a part of the LA dining scene for some time. We hit it and folks responded. As you mentioned, Post & Beam became a go-to spot. We got a lot of people to travel south of the 10 freeway that maybe weren’t traveling there before and we got a fair amount of recognition and tons of local support. We sold the restaurant in the summer of 2019 to our chef and his wife, John and Roni Cleveland, a young African American couple who have managed it during the pandemic and kept the doors open. Two really wonderful people with a 4-year-old-son, Myles.
MUSA Here we are. You’re a 40-plus year veteran, you live in Miami with your wife/ partner Linda. You have a podcast called Corner Table Talk. Explain to us what that is about?
BRAD Musa, Corner Table for me is a metaphor. But I actually do love the literal Corner Table. We had a great one at Post & Beam. I would often sit there with friends. Friends would gather around. We would be six brothers deep sometimes on a Friday night. All the dialogue and the conversations. Man, I so miss that. I’m so anxious to get back to the room, see my friends and rub elbows. The Corner Table Talk podcast is representative of that spot where we can all kick it and talk intimately. I started by calling some folks who I’ve met over the years to be guests. As you can imagine, I have met a wide range of people over the years. So far, I’ve spoken with guests such as Jackie Jackson, Valerie Simpson, Norm Nixon, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michael Weinstein, the gentlemen who put B. Smith in business. Alvin Clayton of Alvin and Friends restaurant and Michael Vann who created The Shark Bar are coming on soon. I’m reaching for some people that are well known and some who are lesser known. But we all have stories. Our stories need to be documented. I love knowing that those of us who care, like you, are going to be documenting our stories. That’s really what it’s about.
MUSA What advice would you give a young Minority owned restaurant owner getting started in this new post Covid world?
BRAD It’s what I tell my son Bryce, a musician. I tell him he has to put in the work. Denzel Washington, my longtime friend says, “If it’s not on the page it’s not the stage.” You have to do the work. The first thing I would tell a young entrepreneur is to slow down. Look at the people who have done what you’re trying to do. Learn from the things they have done well. And learn from the things they haven’t done well. Talk to them, reach out. People are very happy to talk about themselves as you and I both know (laughs). You can flatter someone into a pretty informative conversation. By showing some respect for the trade. There are people who have been out there who have done this thing so there are some blueprints that you can follow. Take advantage of it.
MUSA The best thing about being a successful restaurateur?
BRAD Success for me is the love that you feel from the people you care about. The more kindness that you can spread, it comes back to you in many ways. Some days you feel it, some days you don’t feel it as much. But to me that’s really how I measure success. I know people who have a lot of money but are miserable and I know people who don’t have a lot of money and are miserable. Money is not the answer, even though we need it to live well. Having the love and the respect of the people who you have around you, that is how I define success. I am very fortunate to have a loving wife, loving son, strong circle of friends that I cherish. That to me is worth gold.

-Musa Jackson 
TALENT: Brad Johnson
Cover & Editorial Photographer:
Frank Louis @franklouisphoto
All Clothes courtesy of Brad Johnson
Classic Cadillac courtesy of Mike Pyatt “Born and Raised Harlemite”
Founder & Editor In Chief:
Musa Jackson @iammusajackson
Creative Director: Paul Morejon

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