As the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve, it's business as usual at Privé, a new player in the Valley's hip-hop nightclub scene. The music is thumping, rattling the wall it shares with Seamus McCaffrey's with such force that liquor behind the bar threatens to topple.

Privé's staff has been told that the club will be hosting an extra-special event on this night. In keeping with the French translation of "private," the glass window-enclosed club has been draped with white curtains, blocking all view from passersby along the downtown Phoenix street it fronts. The party is top-secret, hush-hush, something Privé's employees have come to expect from this lounge. It debuted as a high-end restaurant this summer, then quickly morphed into a playground for twentysomethings seeking a J.Lo/Eminem-style extravaganza.

The under-wraps gala is to be way cool -- so appropriate for this luxe lounge striving to be a hip destination. (The place has been known for its merengue-salsa DJ nights and underground deep-house grooves; there's been hip-hop/R&B alongside "Love Mania Pimp 'n' Ho" dress-up events.)

Except that tonight, the only one invited to the party is Privé co-owner Stephen D'Amico. Staff members have been sent home. Parked in the alley behind Privé's kitchen is a U-Haul truck, and everything of any possible value is being loaded into the vehicle: Panasonic digital flat wide-screen televisions, leather couches, tables, chairs, china, kitchen equipment, silverware, even lighting fixtures ripped from the ceiling. The music is pulsing only to hide the noise of heavy equipment being dragged out the back door.

As dawn breaks on January 2, Privé is a goner.

In the wake of the clandestine shuttering, checks to vendors have been returned because of insufficient funds, Privé's employees have been stiffed, and D'Amico has beaten a hasty retreat to his hometown of Boston. Neither he nor his attorney could be reached for comment.

It might be the story of yet another failed business doing a financial hit-and-run, except in this case, Privé's landlord is a historically registered downtown Phoenix hotel, the San Carlos at Central and Monroe. And the U-Haul contained some booty belonging not to Privé, but to the San Carlos.

Not only was the club damaged during Privé's occupancy, but so were parts of the hotel, trashed by out-of-control partiers. Caught in the wake is local celebrity Andrei Nazarov, left wing for the Phoenix Coyotes and an absentee co-owner of the nightclub. And most bizarre, the owner of the San Carlos, real estate mogul Gregory Melikian, 77, says he doesn't exactly know how his hotel came to be landlord of a rowdy club.

"D'Amico promised to bring us a four-star restaurant," contends Melikian. "He promised us a dignified jazz club. What he did was so bad, so crude, so grossly, grossly improper. He's embarrassed me and my wife of 50 years."

Nazarov, he adds, is shocked, too. The hockey player has been out of town for games and isn't expected back in the Valley until after the middle of this month.

The San Carlos was built in 1928 and quickly became a favorite haunt to stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Spencer Tracy, Mae West and Clark Gable. Melikian has been an on-again, off-again owner for almost 30 years, fidgeting with renovations and hosting a revolving door of short-lived restaurant operations. Privé was billed as an establishment that would bring back the hotel's original elegance, tempting well-heeled diners downtown with an opulent French-Mediterranean menu of dishes such as portabello mushrooms stuffed with seafood salad and avocado vinaigrette.

For instance, "D'Amico promised us tanks of live New England lobsters," says Melikian.

Instead, the only creatures getting tanked were Privé's guests, who flooded the club for promotions such as "A Sleepover in Paris," a September party that began at 9 p.m. and continued until 4 a.m. by the San Carlos' third-floor outdoor swimming pool. "Water served sparingly, if you know what we mean," the event's flyer teased. Soon, the Privé crowd was spilling into hotel rooms, enticed by D'Amico's offers to "enjoy your own private atmosphere by booking a room for you and your friends to do whatever you want."

Hotel reservation staff said D'Amico told them he had permission to override the standard credit card deposit policy and became verbally abusive when questioned. Melikian, who hasn't exactly been a hands-on proprietor, says he never knew about the "do whatever you want" ads D'Amico was circulating.

Carpets and furnishings in rooms were burned, doors were caved in, and windows were broken. Hallways were littered with cocktail glasses.

At one point in October, Privé's party antics spilled onto the same floor that a Christian Debate convention was occupying. Instead of Jesus, the group found "Pimp 'n' Ho Superstar" DJ Miss Lisa celebrating her Causing a Commotion CD release party. A few days later, San Carlos management issued a memo banning Privé guests from the pool area, the lobby and from "wandering throughout the hotel."

D'Amico, Melikian says, "was letting punks and bimbos run around. The word animal' has come up more than once."

It's not the first time Hotel San Carlos has had difficulty keeping its restaurateurs in line. In 1995, Valley chef Nick Ligidakis, a longtime and frequently bankrupt restaurant owner, opened Nick's on Central in the San Carlos. Ligidakis alienated some guests by refusing to offer quick service so they could get to nearby theater or sports events on time, and he balked at filling room-service orders because he felt it compromised the integrity of his cuisine. His parting, too, was sudden and amid unpaid bills.

Currently, guests of the San Carlos find their dining options limited. Continental breakfast is being carted in. As a temporary fix, hotel management is supplying $5 coupons redeemable at McDonald's across the street. And Melikian is steering customers to his remaining restaurant, Seamus McCaffrey's, which he proudly states has been around for the past 10 years and has just signed a lease for another 10.

Interviews are under way for a restaurateur to take the Privé space, says Melikian. "Nobody here is sad to see D'Amico go. It's goodbye and good riddance."

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet