On the outside looking in, Los Angeles’ upscale nightlife can seem pretentious and business-driven, concerned mostly with big names, bottle service and bottom lines. A lot of it is. But for one of the biggest players in the game, it’s quite the opposite. It’s about long-held friendships (OK, a lot of them with famous people), creating welcoming environments and paying attention to even the most minute details within them.
With his nightlife company the H. Wood Group, John Terzian helms a handful of L.A.’s hottest nightclubs and restaurants, among them Bootsy Bellows (with David Arquette), the Nice Guy, Delilah, Shore Bar in Santa Monica and newish live-music spot the Peppermint Club. It took a lot of struggle and sacrifice to get where he is now, but savoring the sweetness of success doesn’t mean he’s about to slow down.
Terzian’s career path started with the relationships he established growing up in the Westwood area of L.A., attending first the private Harvard-Westlake school, then USC. “I basically built my whole business mentality and framework around catering to the people I grew up with,” the 37-year-old tells me on a warm summer evening over dinner at the Nice Guy, his restaurant and lounge on La Cienega Boulevard.
At USC he almost had a career as a quarterback in football, until he got “too many concussions” and had to stop playing. But he was good at recruiting. “They would have me talk to players who wanted to come in, so I would find a restaurant that wasn’t doing well and take it over for the night and fill it with people to do that,” he recalls of his first gatherings. “I built it into a pretty big events company at the time.”
While Terzian has been throwing successful parties and one-offs since he was in his teens, it would take years of near-hits and total misses before he turned his talents into a viable business like the one we’re eating dinner in. Nightlife was his calling, but in an attempt to follow in his Armenian-American lawyer family’s footsteps, he went to law school. “But I got out of law school and didn’t pass the bar. I didn’t know what to do next. I went on probably 100 job interviews and couldn’t get a job. It was rough,” he recalls.
As it would many times throughout his career, friendship steered him in the right direction. DJ culture was starting to explode and Terzian’s childhood pal Adam Goldstein (a local who attended Uni High nearby) was on the forefront, making a name for himself spinning at parties all around the world under the moniker DJ AM. As one of AM’s assistants, Terzian did everything from offer legal advice to book flights, and eventually helped his buddy with branding and acquiring his own nightclub, LAX, in Hollywood. He also helped him license the concept in Las Vegas at the Luxor, where it remains to this day.
Eventually, though, the young upstart realized he wasn’t as good working for someone as he was for himself. “I’m an entrepreneur at heart,” says Terzian, who majored in art at USC even while playing sports. “My thing wasn’t going to be management but creating things.”
With money raised from family and friends, Terzian took his first step toward proprietorship, transforming an old Burger King on Orange Avenue in Hollywood into a trendy lounge and restaurant called H. Wood (later used for his company name). He also convinced another friend, Brian Toll, who had also been doing events, to join him, and soon after, added a third partner, Markus Molinari, whom he met through Katy Perry before she was a pop star. A fourth partner (and pal), Adam Koral, came on later.
H. Wood seemed to be a hit, but Terzian admits he overspent. The tiny, VIP-focused Tea Room next door came soon after, followed by Las Palmas in the old LAX space. Despite long lines to get behind the velvet ropes and popularity with the starlet contingent, Terzian says little money was being made — plus he alleges that he and his partners were unfairly targeted by the area’s police. “I ended up losing everything,” he says. “I was young and brash. I didn’t know how to play the politics game, and the city kept harassing us because of noise complaints, so they shut us down.”
Terzian says it was the worst time of his life. He was so broke that he had to move back in with his parents. He went back to promoting events for a while but, despite his bad luck in Hollywood, his honest approach to the business kept his core investors believing in him. He gave ownership one more shot with Shorebar in Santa Monica, which became a huge success and remains one 10 years later, known for its private, members-only hangout upstairs and bustling, open-to-the-public bar downstairs.
“Shorebar is my baby,” Terzian says. “We did it all by ourselves with our backs against the wall, and it forced us to learn how to operate a business right.”
Soon after, Terzian met actor David Arquette, who was getting out of his dealings with Beacher’s Madhouse at the Roosevelt Hotel. Arquette wanted to showcase cabaret-style entertainment within a club environment, and Terzian saw its novel potential. H. Wood and Arquette joined forces on Bootsy Bellows (named after the actor’s pin-up model mom), taking over Guy Starkman’s Trousdale space at the western end of the Sunset Strip and solidifying the H. Wood group as an unstoppable nightlife force. They also opened Hooray Henry’s, a club in the old Guy’s space, after Bootsy. Though that spot didn’t last, it was pivotal in helping Terzian refocus his vision and strengths.
“We realized we didn’t love doing traditional nightclubs as much as alternative environments. We liked the idea of bringing people together, but social media and the paparazzi stuff kind of took over with that one,” Terzian explains. “So I had the idea to do a private place. A restaurant. Invite only. You have to know me to get on the Rolodex and make a reservation.”
Terzian references his Rolodex a few times during dinner, and how it contains about 3,000 names. It's what keeps the Nice Guy’s dark and cozy booths full every night, he says. Non-Rolodexed restaurant goers can make reservations if they call ahead and score a night not earmarked for a private party, and of course many who do are hoping to see the famous regulars they’ve read about in gossip rags. Still, the vibe is shockingly chill here and the restaurant’s “no cameras” rule makes sure it stays that way.
As a live jazz trio starts to play in a softly lit corner, Terzian attempts to explain the philosophy behind all his locales, which right now include the Blind Dragon, an Asian-themed karaoke bar and restaurant (franchised in Dubai as well) on the Strip; the Gatsby-themed supper club Delilah, at the infamous former fetish club space Voyeur/Peanuts/7969 in WeHo; and the Peppermint Club, H. Wood’s recently opened live-music space, created with Terzian’s friends at Interscope Records to showcase up-and-coming music artists. He promises more to come in L.A., too: a Mexican-themed taqueria, a barbecue spot to be called Slab, and another new take on nightclubbing called Poppy. Hakkasan Group became a majority investor a couple years ago, allowing for well-funded expansion and exploration of Terzian's countless conceptual ideas.
He may have grown up an L.A. kid of privilege but Terzian’s work ethic is palpable. Having learned what it's like to fail, he now seems to approach everything he does with humility and enthusiasm. His clubs may offer bottle service and attract a lot of reality TV stars, entertainment bigwigs and rich folk, but the former art major claims to be more interested in the aesthetics and atmosphere of his spaces than in the wealth or celebrity of the people who spend time in them.
“I have been fortunate to know the people I know. But celebrity is not what drives any of these places. It’s the feeling you get when you’re inside,” he says, sipping a cocktail and getting contemplative. “I believe that I cater to a clientele that cares, loves and respects design and art and atmosphere as I do. It really has a lot more to do with their taste level then their bank account. I know this is a luxury and not a necessity for a lot of people. If I'm not offering something that makes them want to spend their hard-earned dollar here, then I'm doing something wrong.”
Los Angeles native Lina Lecaro has been covering L.A. nightlife since she started as a teen intern at L.A. Weekly (fake ID in tow) nearly two decades ago. She went on to write her own column, “Nightranger,” for the print edition of the Weekly for six years. Read her “Lina in L.A.” interviews for the latest nightlife news, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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