DJ Eli Escobar Is Tired of Hearing About the Glory Days

Eli Escobar

Eli Escobar, photographed by Eloise King-Clements.

“This is going to be our new home,” says Eli Escobar at the opening of Gabriela, his brand new club. A native New Yorker, Escobar is considered DJ royalty, having cut his teeth at every spot you love(d) since the 90s, like Bungalow 8 and House of Yes, and been sought out by stars like Lana Del Rey for remixes. This new club is dedicated to his late friend, Gabby, and opened last week in partnership with his childhood friend Rafael Ohayon, of the downtown watering hole Cafe Mogador. On a Friday night in Greenpoint, as a line snaked down the block and into the darkness, Escobar’s friends and admirers gathered in the three-room, Moroccan-style space equipped with specialized light techs and a vintage sound system. “I just want it to feel really cozy,” says the DJ. The space has all the ingredients: satin booths, a spiral staircase, and a steamy club room. Minutes before doors opened, as staff raced around and Escobar prepared an eight-hour set, I followed him up to the mezzanine to talk about his love for New York Clubs like Basement and Good Room—and why he wanted Gabriela to be nothing like them.


ELOISE KING-CLEMENTS: Have you always planned to open a club?

ELI ESCOBAR: Yeah, around 2009 I started imagining it in the back of my head. At the time I thought “I can’t be DJing forever,” but now I feel I could forever. My good friend Gabby, who we named the club after, was running Submercer in the basement of the Mercer Hotel. She’d have me play on Thursdays, and we started talking about opening a club. We didn’t have any money, but she was very savvy. We dreamed about that for a really long time. During the pandemic, my friend Rafael, who is one of the co-owners here, and I were constantly texting about when things reopen, how it would be so amazing to have a place and how meaningful music and dancing would be. We missed that moment a little bit, but it took us a while to find a place that we were really in love with. This was the place we’d decided on.

KING-CLEMENTS: Why this place?

ESCOBAR: The three separate areas were really appealing. I DJ’ed every Friday night at Bungalow 8 for seven years and this place reminded me of it. There was an upstairs like this, and there were regulars who’d show up at 2:00 AM, come right up to the top and just stay there. Architecturally, it’s just an interesting space. We have this mezzanine up here, which gives us really low ceilings down there, which is optimal for the best sound. We figured we’ll make that bottom part the clubroom, and that can be dark and smoky and really loud, and then the rest more nice, slightly upscale, not like a dive bar. You know?

KING-CLEMENTS: Totally. Did you ever have an experience in a club like, “Oh, I want to do something like this?”

ESCOBAR: It’s a combination of things. My partner is Moroccan, he owns the restaurant Cafe Mogador, and my friend Gabby, she passed away, that’s why we dedicated it to her, but she spent the final years of her life in Morocco and was really obsessed with Moroccan architecture. It was amazing, the combination of my partner being Moroccan and owning this restaurant down the way.

KING-CLEMENTS: I love Mogador.

ESCOBAR: We’re childhood friends. And when we first met in the ’80s, his mom had recently opened up the one on St. Mark’s place. In junior high school, we were in a punk band together. We would practice and then just go eat at Mogador every weekend.

KING-CLEMENTS: When did you become business partners?

ESCOBAR: When things started to open up, we began looking at places, and we literally made a mood board on Pinterest. It was like, let’s just collect lots of images of stuff that we’re inspired by. And it looked just like this. It’s really, really true to our initial vision. The colors, the dance floor, the size. 

KING-CLEMENTS: Do you remember anything that was on the Pinterest board?

ESCOBAR: It was a lot, actually of screenshots I took from my friend Gabby’s Instagram. She would be in Morocco and just take these really beautiful photos of different architecture and rooms and layouts of rooms in Morocco. Aside from that, there’s some clubs in Germany that I was inspired by for the dance floor. The woman that’s doing all the lighting stuff, I worked with her for years at Le Bain, so I took some screenshots of lighting she did. I really care about lighting. A lot of people don’t even think about it, but it’s a passion for me. If you’re in a place that’s got a red light or a disco ball with a little circle going on the floor, that’s fine. But if you go somewhere that really has amazing lights, you notice it.

KING-CLEMENTS: Other than this place, what are your favorite clubs?

ESCOBAR: I really love Basement. It’s my latest favorite club. And the outdoors at Knockdown, too. I have a party I do there in the summer. But I purposefully didn’t want Gabriela to have anything in common with a club like Basement. There’s already one and we don’t need another. I like the idea that a place like this and Good Room and Basement and Paragon, we can all exist and be in a community together and have our own individual identity.

KING-CLEMENTS: Yeah. So if those clubs have certain vibes associated with them, how would you describe Gabriela?

ESCOBAR: I just want it to feel really cozy.

KING-CLEMENTS: I love that.

ESCOBAR: This is going to be our new home. I remember a lot of people ended up at Bungalow. That’s a good place to carve out nightlife. There’s always going to be other stuff going on and competition. To be the place, at the end, that people will say, “All right, let’s just go to Gabriela.” We don’t have tickets. I’m really not into that whole culture of tickets for clubbing and stuff.

KING-CLEMENTS: It’s just the door guy.

ESCOBAR: Just show up, yeah. We’re going to have a little cover. It’s cheap though. It’ll be 20 bucks, just because it’s expensive to have a club. We’re going to do membership cards too, so that people who are always here can skip the line. I’m more into the old-school way of clubbing where you just go and hope for the best.

KING-CLEMENTS: Is there a particular era whose energy you want to evoke?

ESCOBAR: I’m careful about that, because I really like nightlife right now. And a lot of people in my age range go on and on about the old New York and it bores me to death. Because it’s not going to come back. Right now, it’s holding its own. I think we’re in a great place. So I don’t really want to bring anything back. The stuff that is timeless about clubbing is really, really good sound and a comfortable space and great staff.

KING-CLEMENTS: That’s awesome. What do you do to prepare for a gig?

ESCOBAR: Well, I’m just really obsessive about buying music.

KING-CLEMENTS: Do you have any favorites right now?

ESCOBAR: There’s a lot. I’m really into music coming out of Mexico right now. It’s super awesome, genre-bending dance music coming from Mexico. That’s really inspiring for me. I’m constantly making playlists in Spotify that have lots of different categories for new music. On Fridays, I sit down and buy everything on Bandcamp or iTunes so that I have it to play. And I still go record shopping about two times a week.

KING-CLEMENTS: Where do you go?

ESCOBAR: A-1 or Academy.

KING-CLEMENTS: That’s dedication.

ESCOBAR: I’m just obsessive about it.

KING-CLEMENTS: How do you unwind? Do you unwind?

ESCOBAR: No. Disco naps. I’ll take a disco nap between 6:00 PM and 8:00 or 9:00 PM. That’s not really unwinding, that’s just rest. I usually unwind on Mondays. I go to a record store, walk around. I still live in downtown Manhattan. I don’t care what happens in Brooklyn, I’m never leaving Manhattan. I’ll just walk around in the village and get some records, drink coffee.

KING-CLEMENTS: I love that. Thank you for talking to me.

ESCOBAR: It’s really an honor. I’m bugging out, for real. I called my mom like, “Guess what?!” At my mom’s house, in my old bedroom, I still have stacks of Spin Magazine, Interview, Details, all that shit. I was a magazine fanatic as a kid. Magazines and music. That was it.