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Co-owners of Sei Less on how their Asian fusion restaurant became a destination for A-list athletes, actors, and hip-hop artists

Business Insider logo Business Insider 8/4/2022 (John Lynch)
Sei Less co-owners George Karavias and Dara Mirjahangiry. Shareif Ziyadat © Shareif Ziyadat Sei Less co-owners George Karavias and Dara Mirjahangiry. Shareif Ziyadat
  • Sei Less co-owners Dara Mirjahangiry and George Karavias spoke to Insider about their Asian fusion restaurant and its rapid ascent to notability.
  • Opened in January, the Midtown Manhattan establishment has held listening events for several major hip-hop releases and holds a clientele of high-profile athletes, actors, and artists.

Midway through an interview with Dara Mirjahangiry and George Karavias, managing partners in the ownership group for the Asian fusion restaurant Sei Less, I learned that the private dining room we sat in had been the site of an impromptu listening party for the most recent Kanye West album.

In February, West and actress Julia Fox, who were then dating, came to the Midtown Manhattan restaurant to join 2 Chainz and Fabolous, who had been dining in the room we sat in, a graffiti art-covered space for around 25 people. Sei Less closed to the public following West's arrival, the co-owners said, and it stayed open privately until 5 a.m., as West played then-unreleased material from "Donda 2" for several hours to a small gathering that would include Dave Chappelle, Fivio Foreign, and a group of record industry executives.

"Once the press heard about that, everyone picked it up." Mirjahangiry said. "But for us, that was a regular night."

With private rooms segmented on two floors and equipped with separate sets of speakers for music, Sei Less is in effect built for such events. Similar and more formal listening parties for prominent hip-hop releases have taken place regularly since the restaurant opened in January of this year. 

At the restaurant last month, I spoke at length with Mirjahangiry and Karavias and briefly with co-owner and building art director Ivi Shano to get a sense of the factors that have facilitated the restaurant's rapid ascent and its elite and growing list of athletes, actors, and artists as clientele.

A table in the aforementioned "graffiti" room. Ivi Shano © Ivi Shano A table in the aforementioned "graffiti" room. Ivi Shano

A pandemic inception

Mirjahangiry, 39, conceived of the restaurant that would become Sei Less early on in the pandemic, and his designs were met with initial resistance from a familiar source.

"I'm Persian, so the way I was brought up, you were supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer or one of those trades," he said. "So even during the pandemic, my father was telling me, 'Okay, enough with the restaurant business. Time to get a real job.'"

Nevertheless, Mirjahangiry persisted.

Backtracking, he relayed that he had met Karavias years ago at a previous venture when Karavias' Dream Hospitality arranged a brunch party at the upscale restaurant that Mirjahangiry had managed on the Upper East Side. The pair subsequently went back and forth booking each other's clients and "quickly realized that at some point we were gonna go into business together," Mirjahangiry said.

The opportunity came together in the form of a Midtown restaurant space held by Joseph Licul and Dennis Turcinovic, owners of Harbor Rooftop Nightclub, where Karavias was handling promotion. Licul and Turcinovic offered the building to Mirjahangiry and joined him, Karavias, and Shano as managing partners and co-owners in the venture.

Mirjahangiry relayed the actuation of his vision for "a members-only club for the culture." He brought to it 15 years of professional experience in hospitality and a rolodex of countless clients in sports and entertainment that have followed him from one venture to the next.

He described landing on the name for the restaurant as the concept came together: "The name that initially popped into my head was Say No More. Say No More is obviously too wordy. So I was like, another way to say Say No More is to say, Say Less. So I wrote S-A-Y L-E-S-S on a piece of paper. And I was like, 'That looks really corny.'"

In the end, Mirjahangiry arrived at -sei from the Japanese honorific sensei as a replacement epigram, saying less.

The ownership group then turned to what Mirjahangiry called "a facelift and an aesthetic revamp" of the Midtown property's open-floor plan, one that would allow for his envisioned segmentation for private dining rooms and a range of distinctive design elements that Shano led the art direction for.

Karavias, for his part, relayed that his 18 years of experience in promoting New York City nightlife had prepared him well for the venture, though it was his first foray into restaurant ownership.

"I don't even know how to cook toast," Karavias joked. "I don't know anything about food, but I'll fill the seats. That's the big thing."

Prior to Sei Less' official opening on January 15, around 15 VIP parties took place to build buzz for the restaurant on social media, Mirjahangiry said, and Karavias' Dream Hospitality had a staff of 250 promoters putting in the groundwork of pushing the brand as it opened. 

Mirjahangiry's longstanding connections to record labels and NBA players and agents and Karavias' promotional savvy and clients from the music and nightlife scenes combined to allow the restaurant to hit the ground running in its first months with a torrent of noteworthy events and reservations.

Video: Yum China CEO on Growing a Sustainable Restaurant Empire (Bloomberg)

'I'm here for a good time, not a long time'

Kanye West's impromptu listening party aside, Sei Less has become known for hosting formal album release parties and private listening sessions for a growing list of high-profile acts.

In January, Gunna held the release party for his No. 1 album "DS4Ever" at Sei Less prior to the restaurant's official opening.

In June, New York City mayor Eric Adams wound up at Sei Less for French Montana's album release party. Lil Baby would later host a private listening event in the same room.

Sei Less' main dining room leading into the private room where French Montana and Lil Baby held listening events. Ivi Shano © Ivi Shano Sei Less' main dining room leading into the private room where French Montana and Lil Baby held listening events. Ivi Shano

Even more important than the brand awareness brought to the restaurant through its public-facing events, Mirjahangiry relayed, is the fact that his famous clients know they can expect privacy from their dining experience.

"That's who we are as a restaurant, that executive or politician or music executive or father, or whoever you wanna label him as, is still a person. And at the end of the day, they're gonna go somewhere where there's a great vibe with good people, great food, and their privacy is respected," Mirjahangiry said. "And that really highlights what we do. That's really what built our name as Sei Less is, you're gonna come here, and we're gonna say less about your experience here to other people."

In the restaurant's entranceway, a physical manifestation of that M.O. appears in the form of a Drake lyric, "I'm here for a good time, not a long time," which hangs in neon lettering on a wall that fittingly precedes access to a private room, where notable guests can enter and leave the establishment discreetly. "They're in and out. Nobody even knows they're here," Karavias said.

Still, the trove of celebrity appearances on Mirjahangiry's and Karavias' Instagram accounts offer a great view into the breakneck pace with which Sei Less has accommodated prominent clients in its just under eight months of operation.

Mirjahangiry and Quavo at Sei Less. Shareif Ziyadat © Shareif Ziyadat Mirjahangiry and Quavo at Sei Less. Shareif Ziyadat

'White glove service'

In addition to Mirjahangiry's deep ties to the NBA, the restaurant's proximity to Madison Square Garden has allowed Sei Less to become a go-to afterhours spot for NBA stars from teams on the road in New York.

Mirjahangiry described a particular form of "white glove service" that he'll extend on occasion to players.

"If they don't have the luxury of being here for the night after the game, sometimes they go to Philly or they go to Boston or Washington really quickly, I'll deliver the food to the stadium and they'll bring it on the bus to the plane," he said, noting that he had also once dropped food off at a helipad so that a meal could fly to meet a player at his next stop.

Tracing his generational connections to the league, Mirjahangiry noted that he had now had both Kenyon Martin Sr. and Kenyon Martin Jr. as clients. He had gained Kevin Durant as a client and befriended him early on in his playing days with the Oklahoma City Thunder and hosted Durant's 24th birthday party.

For NBA players and any other notable guests that do stick around the restaurant, Mirjahangiry said he's motivated by the opportunities to "just bring good people together and introduce them."

"Sometimes I introduce music artists that go to the studio and put together a hit album or a hit single from the introduction. And then, yeah, sometimes I just introduce athletes that might not know each other, the guy that's retired to the younger guy, and they have a connection, but they're not really friends. So I think that's one thing I have the ability to do. People trust me to make introductions, based on the relationships."

As an example, Mirjahangiry relayed how he recently introduced another friend, Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown, to French soccer star Kylian Mbappe: "Jaylen was here having dinner. Mbappe was here. I asked Jaylen if he knew him. He said, 'No, I don't know him, but I know who he is.' And I kind of just brought him in here. The whole time Mbappe was here, he was speaking French. I would try to talk to him; he wasn't really saying anything. I bring Jaylen Brown in, and he starts speaking English. And I was like, 'Oh, the guy speaks English." Obviously Jaylen goes to Paris Fashion Week often, so they exchange information and, at some point, I'm sure they'll connect down the road."

Food review

I'm no food critic.

Despite the subheadline, I have no business reviewing the food at Sei Less, except to say that it stuck with me in the best way.

In trying a spread of the restaurant's main dishes, I could see that the food itself was clearly as much of a draw for its celebrity clientele as the intangibles and conveniences that Sei Less offers.

Sei Less' chicken satay. Ivi Shano © Ivi Shano Sei Less' chicken satay. Ivi Shano

Mirjahangiry noted that a peanut-sauce-covered chicken satay was the restaurant's signature dish. It was great, but I was partial to the very flavorful Beijing chicken. The range of options on its family-style "fusion" menu are extensive — a factor of accommodating diets alongside a potential expansion of the brand.

"You could eat sushi a couple times a week, but eating Chinese food a couple times a week, most people can't do that," Mirjahangiry said. "So we try to give different options for the health conscious person. Also, as we want to expand to different markets, in Miami and LA and different markets like that, you have to be a little bit more conscious about, you know, putting on a bikini. So we've tried to model the menu for those future plans."

Future plans

In eyeing different markets for expansion, Mirjahangiry said Sei Less is taking "the pop-up route."

"We'll bring the concept to the market for a limited amount of time. It could be a weekend. It could be a month. Introduce it and then see how it works, determine if that's the right opportunity," he said. "Obviously making sure our flagship is always a priority, but we do plan on expanding the brand nationwide as well globally."

Another dream for Mirjahangiry and Karavias is to have a Sei Less with a "lounge" that can combine the ownership group's nightclub and hospitality experiences in one encompassing venue. 

For now, Sei Less recently opened daily for lunch hours due to demand, and Mirjahangiry sees it as an opportunity to target the "lunch executives" who aren't necessarily back in an office post-COVID. 

"A lot of high level people come here to conduct business. That could be having a meeting at the bar, having a private room, or just an overall dinner," he said. "Being in Midtown Manhattan, in the Garment District, I think there's gonna be some very special lunches that take place here."

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