When restaurateur Ariel Arce called me a few weeks ago, just before the opening of her new business Special Club, she sounded a bit hoarse. She was sipping tea and hot soup in bed after coming down with a head cold—the stress of working through the weekend in anticipation of her latest venture, which harks back to what Arce described as the lost art of seeing live music while you dine. It’s the fourth venue that she’s opened on MacDougal Street in New York City in three years, which sounds like an incomprehensible feat for anyone, let alone someone barely over 30 years old (Arce is 31).
Special Club is very much in the same spirit as her other spots on MacDougal (a geographical coincidence that she says she would never in a million years have predicted). There’s Air’s Champagne Parlor, her first, devoted to her love of the titular bubbly; Tokyo Record Bar, a small izakaya where guests choose the playlist from a vinyl jukebox; and Niche Niche, a supper club with a curated wine tasting developed by a different person each night, chosen from Arce’s extended network of sommeliers. “It feels like a little party that we throw, like you’re welcome into our home,” said Arce of Niche Niche, a sentiment that one could reasonably apply to each of her projects.
Arce spent the first half of her life working as a professional actor, but the restaurant industry has always captivated her, thanks to her father’s stories of working in dining establishments in his hometown of New Orleans. It wasn’t until she moved to Chicago that she delved headfirst into the hospitality business—her first job was a humble catering gig—which coincided with her burgeoning interest in champagne. “Being young and being a woman in this industry can be difficult because you often don’t feel your self-worth, and you work really long and hard hours,” Arce said. “That’s actually how I ended up falling in love with champagne—on the sixth or seventh day of your workweek after working tons of hours, I would buy a bottle of champagne, and then the next week it would turn into two bottles, and two bottles would turn into a vintage.”
This early interest in champagne led her to the long-standing Pops for Champagne bar in Chicago, where she cut her teeth. It’s a beverage that Arce acknowledges is not necessarily trendy or cool, but one that’s inherently stable. People always turn to the bubbly wine for special occasions, but Arce also wanted to prove that it’s actually much more versatile than one might think. “It’s this beverage that is so much more than bubbles in a glass. It’s really wine first and it doesn’t have to be incredibly expensive—you can drink it every day. You can drink it with lunch, and you can drink it with dinner.”
Every day is different for Arce. She might be going over reservations, managing construction sites if they’re in the process of building out a space (she says that her father, who is also her business partner and a skilled woodworker, builds most if not all of the restaurants by hand), or working on the floor, sometimes DJ’ing at Tokyo Record Bar or pouring champagne at Air’s. Most days she’ll work from 8:00 a.m. until at least 1:00 a.m. Shopping gets squeezed in whenever she can. “I’m totally the type of person who relaxes through retail therapy,” Arce said. “There’s nothing more fun than when we’re building a new restaurant and I can break away for a while and go out and look for new glassware or light fixtures or textures for the banquettes.”