With sake and sledgehammers, Robert De Niro and Nobu Matsuhisa break ground on Nobu Atlanta

The star-studded event brought the actor, chef, Nobu and Simon Malls executives, and city officials to Buckhead on Thursday morning

Nobu Atlanta groundbreaking

Photograph by Ben Rose/Ben Rose Photography

Amidst a Japanese drum troupe, dense security, and throngs of media, Nobu co-owners chef Nobu Matsuhisa, actor Robert De Niro, and film producer Meir Teper gathered alongside Simon Malls executives and city officials Thursday on a parking deck outside Phipps Plaza to usher in a new era for Buckhead.

Nobu Atlanta groundbreaking
The VIPs take a sake toast.

Photograph by Richard L. Eldredge

After a sake toast, the dignitaries donned silver hardhats and took sledgehammers to a Styrofoam wall to symbolically break ground on the upcoming Nobu Hotel and Nobu Japanese fusion restaurant, a 24-year-old brand started by De Niro and Matsuhisa in New York City and now a global brand encompassing 40 restaurants in 20 countries and eight hotel properties.

The 440,000-square-foot mixed-use retail, hotel, and restaurant development, which includes a 13-story office building and the planned 10,000-square-foot Nobu Atlanta restaurant and 150-room Nobu hotel, will be built on the current site of the Belk store on the north side of the iconic Buckhead luxury shopping destination.

Nobu Atlanta groundbreaking
Matsuhisa and De Niro, center, take a sledgehammer to the ceremonial Styrofoam Wall as sparklers shoot over head.

Photograph by Richard L. Eldredge

Nobu Atlanta groundbreaking
Smashing the wall

Photograph by Ben Rose/Ben Rose Photography

Simon chairman of the board and chief executive officer David Simon told Atlanta magazine the success of the deal—over a year in the making—was thanks to re-acquiring the Belk property. The underperforming retail space will be demolished this fall with the Nobu hotel and restaurant debuting on the site in 2020 or early 2021.

“This will all come down,” Simon said, pointing to the hulking structure behind him. “We knew this was great real estate, but it was just a matter of getting the Belk store back. The mix wasn’t right, given our clientele here and the tourism this area attracts. Nobu is a great fit. They’re one of the highest-grossing restaurants in the world, they’re a global brand, and it’s just a great atmosphere to hang out. They’re very focused on the kind of real estate they select. They’re focused on great locations and great cities and Atlanta is among them.”

Nobu Atlanta groundbreaking Robert De Niro
Nobu co-owner Robert De Niro

Photograph by Ben Rose/Ben Rose Photography

Wearing sneakers and shades, De Niro, a man of few words, strode to the Phipps Plaza podium to say: “It’s going to be great. Thanks, everybody!”

After his ceremonial sledgehammering, De Niro hung out, posing for selfies with executives and media types, so we attempted to get a more measured and nuanced response from the two-time Oscar winner, who has shot multiple films in the metro Atlanta area and is frequently spotted dining at Buckhead’s current premier sushi destination, Umi.

“I think it will work very well in Atlanta,” De Niro told Atlanta magazine. He allowed that part of the attraction for him is having a new place to relax and dine while filming on-location here (while reaping a few profits as a part-owner). “I suppose that’s part of it,” he said grinning. “But I just know that Nobu will work very well here.”

Nobu Atlanta groundbreaking
Matsuhisa and De Niro greet each other at the groundbreaking.

Photograph by Ben Rose/Ben Rose Photography

Nobu Atlanta groundbreaking
Drummers play at the ceremony.

Photograph by Ben Rose/Ben Rose Photography

One logistical challenge for the project that city and Simon executives tackled behind the scenes was the relocation of a Buckhead fire station that is currently housed below in the bowels of the parking deck. Given the current price of real estate in the zip code, the initiative became a top priority for District 7 Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook, who announced that the fire station will have a long-term, state-of-the-art new home in the same vicinity.

Other dignitaries present for the groundbreaking included Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts, former Atlanta mayor and current Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell, and Atlanta Mayor Chief of Staff Marva Lewis, filling in for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who couldn’t make it to the event.

Nobu Atlanta groundbreaking
Chef Nobu Matsuhisa

Photograph by Ben Rose/Ben Rose Photography

De Niro and Matsuhisa are the latest celebrity names to enter Atlanta’s highly competitive hospitality and dining scene. More than two decades ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone once opened (and eventually closed) a Planet Hollywood location downtown. Buckhead has also seen the opening and closing of eateries by Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, whose Craft Atlanta and Craftbar fizzled in 2010, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, and perhaps, most notably, Emeril Lagasse’s rare restaurant failure Emeril’s Atlanta, which closed a few thousand feet away from Thursday’s groundbreaking in 2008.

Perhaps Nobu CEO Trevor Horwell was taking those high-profile, celebrity-fueled flame-outs into account when he told the assembled late Thursday morning: “We don’t want to come into Atlanta with an ego. We want to embrace the local community. We want to create a social destination that’s exciting. When you walk into a Nobu restaurant and hotel, it comes alive with an energy that is brought about from the locals. We’re very proud today to be embarking on something we think will be a landmark project for Nobu.”

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