Philadelphia's newest nightclub, NOTO, wants to raise the bar.
Philly has a nightclub scene, but there's nothing like the Callowhill club NOTO. Sure, there are the intimate clubs, like Center City's Rumor, or DIY spots, such as West Philly's Live! at William Street Common. But NOTO is straight-up bigger, fancier, and flashier than a lot of Philly's nightlife offerings.
When you step inside NOTO — which stands for "not of the ordinary" — you feel as if you're in Las Vegas or New York. But you're not. You're on Vine Street. The club lives up to its name, from its massive 20th-century chandelier made of perfume bottles to the high-profile DJ bookings. This month, the club hosted the legendary DJ Jazzy Jeff. Before that, the renowned house-music DJ Steve Aoki spun to a packed venue. Next month, DJ Esco, who spins for the rapper Future, is set to take over the ones and twos.
James De Berardine, 25, an entrepreneur from Toronto, saw that Philly was a major city with no big-room nightclub. Philly "is definitely coming up in profile," he said. " I see a lot of drastic improvements, and it's becoming more cosmopolitan."
He wants to create "one big party."
De Berardine purchased the building that housed Wakisha Charter School, which closed in 2014, and in eight months transformed it into a two-story nightclub with a 996-person capacity. He teamed with Philly nightlife veteran Ryan Dorsey, owner of Center City's Dos Tacos and cofounder of Recess Lounge. Dorsey, who also managed Zee Bar on Spring Garden, said he has been in the game since the Delaware River waterfront was populated with nightclubs.
"It's time for Philadelphia," Dorsey said. "We've always had middle-child syndrome. People go to D.C., New York, or Atlantic City to party."
Dorsey wants Philadelphians to stay here.
Zach Seidman, NOTO's director of hospitality and marketing, said he and Dorsey relied heavily on relationships established before they started working at NOTO to pull in those big-name acts.
"The DJs are the new rock stars," said Seidman. "If they like the venue, if they like the crowd and they like the sound system, they come back."
"I don't think we've ever had a club in Philly that's operated like" NOTO, DJ Jazzy Jeff said in an interview before he came to spin at the club. "Most of the guys who have played there are friends of mine, and they're raving about the club, like, 'Oh, my God, the sound system was so great.' " The state-of-the-art L-Acoustics PA system is standard at popular music festivals like Coachella, Stagecoach, and Belgium's Tomorrowland. There's even a studio exclusively for DJs to lay tracks or record before or after their sets.
While DJs are geeking out over the sound system, club owners want to give that same experience to guests. NOTO has 24 VIP booths, a VIP room, three bars, and 27 bathrooms. A disco ball, with a diameter of almost two yards, spins above the crowd. From the second floor, you get a panoramic view of the dance floor below. Thick, silver double doors, salvaged from a Broadway theater, prevent noise from leaking out into the Callowhill and Chinatown neighborhoods. NOTO staff walk by carrying bottles with sparklers to a VIP booth. When a drink is spilled, staffers immediately run in to buff the floor.
For De Berardine, an art lover, the experience is in the details. In each VIP booth is a slideshow of original artwork by Jenna Marsh, the artist who recently designed the cover art for Kanye West's single "Facts," commissioned by De Berardine. On the left side of the club is an intricate sculpture of a running man called Apollo, constructed of chicken wire by the U.K. artist Derek Kinzett.
On the night Jazzy Jeff spun, there was a mixed crowd in attendance. Jeff's fans stood near the front, while the post-Center City Sips crowd looked to continue to unwind after its extended happy hour. The floor began to fill around midnight, and people danced in tipsy circles. Near the last hour of Jeff's set, there was a burst of confetti, and NOTO girls walked up with placards spelling out "J-A-Z-Z-Y."
Is NOTO too boojie for Philly, a city still figuring out what to make of the new spot? This is a place, after all, that offers on its bottle-service menu a 15-liter of Veuve Clicquot for $9,500.
Seidman has heard comments about the nightclub's being too upscale for a city known for being blue-collar. But NOTO, he said, still maintains the city's essence. Besides, those very people "leave Philly to be boojie in N.Y., Miami, or L.A."
For Dorsey and Seidman, NOTO is an opportunity to keep Philadelphians in Philadelphia. Seidman in particular came back home from Atlantic City for this project. He has found himself working in other markets because the developers here haven't believed the nightlife scene was lucrative.