It would practically be un-American to suggest you don’t know who Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek is, but the quizmaster, 79, always shunned a showy celebrity lifestyle in favor of being a family man and homebody, raising two kids with his wife Jean Currivan in Los Angeles.
Equally un-showy is his son Matthew Trebek, 28, a successful restaurateur in New York, who is building a respectable mini-hospitality empire in Harlem, the neighborhood where he’s also lived for five years.
Nearly four years ago, Matthew Trebek and his business partner Nodar Mosiashvili, along with Chef Cassandra Rhodes, opened the popular Mexican street food restaurant Oso; in April of this year, they expanded their business in an adjoining neighborhood with the cocktail bar and event space Lucille’s, as well as a take-out pizza joint next door called Pizza By Lucille’s.
“I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” Trebek tells PEOPLE of his love for his uptown neighborhood. “Just after we opened Oso, we looked into doing another restaurant project outside of Harlem, and it didn’t feel on brand for us,” he says. “I think there is something to be said about being a part of the community, rather than just being another restaurant among so many restaurants.”
The neighborhood seemingly agrees. Trebek says the place is usually packed with neighborhood regulars, with whom he’s become close over the past three and half years—and being located across from City College has also brought in a ton of students, which has helped with the lunch crowd. Plus, there’s something to be said for the food’s authenticity. Before opening, Trebek and his partners went to Mexico City where they sampled the street fare and worked with local families, learning how to make the best of the area’s tacos, fruits salads, and homemade tortillas.
“We wanted the menu to be geared around the street food of Mexico City,” Trebek says. “And we wanted a menu that was smaller in size, and simplistic in a way it would be if you were walking around the streets there.” (Some examples of popular dishes include flautas, a variety of a la carte tacos, and fruit salads like the watermelon and jicama salad, recently featured in PEOPLE.) “There are only a couple of elevated dishes that you might not find on the street, like the whole fish or octopus dish.” Oso also boasts some of the best margaritas in town, owing to Trebek’s time working as a bartender around New York. Below, more things to know about Matthew Trebek, Oso, and the newly opened Lucille’s.
1. Trebek got into the hospitality industry after bartending during and after college
Trebek credits his time spent working as a bartender with realizing he wanted to stay in the hospitality industry and open a restaurant. It was during that time that he also met his future business partners. Nodar Mosiashvili had been his bartending mentor at the Library Hotel when they worked there together, and Trebek later met chef Cassie when they worked together at the restaurant Willow Road in Manhattan. “The connections were all made working at prior restaurants,” he says of the dream team behind Oso.
2. His father wasn’t thrilled he was getting into the restaurant business—but now he’s a fan
Trebek says that when he first told his dad Alex that he was thinking of opening a restaurant, Trebek Sr. wasn’t so sure of the plan. “Yeah, he was not on board at first,” Trebek says with a laugh. “He was just thinking of the success rate for restaurants, which at the time was something like 80% of them close within the first year. But then once he came to the space and saw it all panning out and unfolding, and the way Nodar and I were working towards it, he really got on board.” Trebek adds, “Now he’ll come in at noon and enjoy his double margarita!” As for why he never intentionally capitalized on his dad’s fame or name, he says it simply wasn’t something he thought about one way or the other. “I think some people care more than others about who my dad is, but that’s just how it always is with people in the spotlight,” he says.
3. The secret to his success is consistency—and having happy colleagues
Trebek is often found at the restaurant managing the show several nights a week, and thinks the secret to its success is staying hands on. “It’s about keeping everybody excited to continue to come in, make the food, and build towards something successful together,” he says. “I think we got very lucky with the staff we have. They’re so great and genuine, just genuinely nice people, the kind tor people that so many of our customers love to talk to. I think that’s a huge asset.” He also make sure the food stays consistently, and always above standard. “Making sure the food and the drinks stay consistent is important,” he says. “It’s really just about putting together a well-rounded experience for someone.”
4. His new cocktail lounge Lucille’s is many things all at once
When Trebek and his partners decided to open a cocktail lounge at 26 Macombs Street in Harlem, they didn’t just want to make it a typical neighborhood bar. While the focus at night is on expertly mixed drinks, Lucille’s, which was built by Matthew and his colleagues themselves, they also offer small menu items like Cuban sandwiches by Chef Nick Cerda. “It’s kind of a unique concept,” says Trebek. “It functions as a coffee shop from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and then transitions into a cocktail bar. I thought the space could also be an open format space where people could come in and treat it as an extension of their living room.” (Yes, it has free Wi-Fi, and yes, plenty of local freelancers spend their days there working off their laptops.) “We now have someone who wants to do a pop-up yoga class in the mornings, and while we’re not a music venue, we host a residence DJ once a week. We’re starting to do more with jazz musicians and old school DJs. Nothing overpowering, just something in the background that’s pleasant for people to walk into.” They’re also starting to see an uptick in people wanting to host private events and parties in the space.
5. He has no desire to leave Harlem—but may eventually open another space up there
“I became familiar with the location because of Fordham,” Trebek says of his university days. “When I was scouting for a restaurant spot, it just seemed that there was an opportunity for more neighborhood restaurants. And there’s a very strong sense of community here,” he says. He’s also lived there for almost a decade. “When I walk from home to work, you see people on the street and you say hi,” he says. “I grew up with that in Los Angeles, and I think that definitely gets lost downtown.” The familiarity also means loyal and friendly customers, although that’s rapidly changing as word spreads about the two hotspots. “At first we relied heavily on our regular clientele base, but now we’re able to attract people from downtown or Brooklyn,” he says.
Oso is located at 1618 Amsterdam Ave. an 140th Street
Lucille’s is located at 26 Macombs Pl. and 150th Street