Nightlife Mogul Anton Posniak Had Plans for the OC Scene, But Now Has More Lawsuits Than Restaurants

Less of Mor
Hollywood nightlife mogul Anton Posniak set out to remake the OC scene. Now he’s got more lawsuits than restaurants here

Anton Posniak wears the uniform of every young, nightlife-loving entrepreneur: fancy jeans, a striped dress shirt and a firm handshake. Throughout an evening conversation at a table at Blanca, the harbor-side restaurant he opened earlier this year in Newport Beach’s Lido Village, he makes references to literature, sports and current events. At one point, Posniak exchanges pleasantries with Blanca’s sushi chef in what sounds like fluent Japanese, which isn’t surprising—he graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Asian studies and spent time in Japan. He later says that he tried picking up Mandarin. He makes eye contact, he listens, and he speaks with eloquence and conviction.

Seems like just the kind of guy to help lead a dining-and-nightlife renaissance, which is exactly what he did in Hollywood. As one of the driving forces of Star Group Management (SGM), he opened 10 LA hot spots, including Ivar, Nacional and Paladar—the kind of places that attract the best-known names, all of whom are dying to be on thelist.

Jonathan Ho
Robert Darvish, Irezumi investor now suing Posniak
Jennie Warren
Robert Darvish, Irezumi investor now suing Posniak

Posniak says he arrived in Orange County determined to do something similarly spectacular here under a new corporate banner: the Mor Project.

This was to have been a magical year for Mor (Gaelic for “great”), with five flagship venues slated to open: Irezumi, a sushi lounge; Blanca, a molecular-gastronomy-oriented Spanish-Italian restaurant; Revolver, a 25,000-square-foot club/venue/restaurant to replace the now-defunct Galaxy Theater; the Rustic Vine, which was to feature seasonal wine-country cuisine at the Irvine Spectrum; and Fleur de L’Age, with its Napa Valley region-centric menu.

Irezumi opened its doors this past spring inside Costa Mesa’s Metro Pointe shopping plaza. Its reasonably priced, irreverent menu—hot dog sushi?—was generally well-liked. (Even by us: see Edwin Goei’s “That’s Just How They Roll,” June 5.)

Blanca opened right around the same time to stellar reviews—chef Nick Weber’s decadent menu of crudo, micro greens and Wagyu beef was, critically, a hit. (See Edwin Goei’s “Crudo Crazy,” May 15.)

But now, months later, Irezumi has shut its doors, leaving vendors and employees unpaid, while Blanca has lost its star chef and drastically altered its cuisine to burritos and sashimi, with its own fair share of employees seeking back pay. Neither Rustic Vine nor Fleur de L’Age opened at all.

Many former and current Mor Project employees are placing the blame squarely on their CEO. A single post on a gossip website called the Dirty Newport became a lightning rod for Posniak’s local detractors; the Aug. 28 item dubs him the “biggest scum bag in LA/OC.”

The entry went on to accuse Posniak of spending investors’ money and say that he has no way of proving where the money had gone. “The two restaurants he did manage to open are losing sugnifficant [sic] amounts of money, and the other three he lost his lease on,” the poster asserts. It alleges Irezumi was overbudgeted and its subsequent revolving door of employees were unpaid. It links to a July 30, 2008, Daily Pilot story on the repossession of Blanca’s kitchen equipment. The Dirty Newport entry ends with a statement on Posniak’s supposed nonchalance and tendency to place blame on others.

The entry has garnered 85 responses, most of which were posted by parties involved, according to several sources—including former employees—who spoke to the Weekly on the condition of anonymity.

But others were not content to merely gossip about Posniak. One of his former partners has filed suit against him, as has the mighty Irvine Co.

If any of this controversy bothers Posniak, he doesn’t let it show. (He’s certainly no stranger to litigation, having been a party in at least 21 lawsuits in LA County, according to court records.)

“You know, I’m in a high-profile business,” a horn-rim-bespectacled Posniak says, sitting under a heat lamp at Blanca. “I’m the CEO. And if things don’t do well, if things aren’t on track, it is my fault.”

*     *     *

The now-36-year-old Posniak started SGM in 2001 with partner and fellow South African expat Alan Nathan. The two met as teenagers in San Diego and saw their first success in 1999 with a still-popular sushi joint, Tengu in Westwood Village. SGM set its sights on Hollywood, which was a virtual ghost town by the early 2000s, and played a major role in reviving the district’s nightlife, boasting the second, third and fourth liquor licenses in Hollywood at the time.

Posniak moved to OC in 2006, hoping to bring some of his Hollywood success with him. He founded the Mor Project in 2006 along with a friend and investor from Tengu named Brian Garbutt.

“I think we’re a creative force,” Posniak says of the Mor Project team. But even before his venues began to open, he saw troubling signs in the OC economy. “When we started taking possession, which was in the beginning or mid- of 2007, things started going a little sideways. Mortgages were on its way out, the credit industry was on the way down, banks were suffering,” he explains.

Next Page »