LAGOS — On a recent Sunday night at O’jez Chinese Restaurant, promoter Opa Williams was on hand to launch Nite of a Thousand Laughs Extra, the pan-African edition of his popular Nigerian standup comedy show.
Williams, widely known as the father of Nigerian comedy, worked the crowd between spring rolls and bowls of creamed chicken soup. Paper lanterns hung from the ceiling beside two crystal chandeliers. The walls were covered in Far Eastern bric-a-brac. The room — as is the custom in Lagos — was well-chilled by two standing air-conditioning units.
Next door, in a spacious sister restaurant selling grilled fish, beef stew and other typical Nigerian fare, a host of filmmakers had gathered to toast the success of veteran helmer Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen. Bottles of Hennessey circled the room. Tributes and beer flowed freely.
It was just another night at O’jez.
For 13 years in this economic and cultural capital of Nigeria, O’jez has opened its doors to the entertainment industry. Deals have been inked; pics lensed; departed legends remembered. For the Nigerian film industry popularly known as Nollywood — a sprawling, kinetic, chaotic biz that churns out more than 1,000 pics a year — O’jez has the comfy, lived-in feel of a childhood home. Directors back from frenetic five-day shoots can unwind with actors over cold bottles of Star beer. On the last Sunday of every month, members of the Nollywood community gather to honor one of their own.
The restaurants have become places for Nollywood stars “to come together and share ideas,” says owner Joseph Odobeatu, a heavyset, middle-aged man with a cheerful, cherubic face. “Everyone knows if you are looking for Mr. A or B, if you go to O’jez, you will get him,” he adds.
Odobeatu entered the business world in 1991, with his first venture, an engineering company, which he still runs today. In 1997, he opened a nightclub, and followed that two years later with his flagship restaurant.
Not long after, O’jez Chinese Restaurant followed.
“Before I opened this place, nobody could enter here,” says Odobeatu, from a balcony overlooking the restaurant’s parking lot. Thieves, known as as “area boys” in the local parlance, prowled around. Friends advised him to reconsider.
But Odobeatu was undeterred, and success came swiftly. Located in Surulere, a working-class neighborhood where many Nollywood stars work and live, the restaurants soon attracted a loyal following.
“O’jez means a lot of things to so many people,” says Justin Akpovi-Esade, a media consultant and long-time entertainment journalist. “It’s not just coming to drink and eat. It’s a melting pot.”
In a country where meager financial returns make filmmaking something of a blue-collar industry, Odobeatu continues to strive for mass appeal. While rising fuel costs, which led to nationwide protests in January, have spurred many restaurants to raise prices, O’jez somehow remains both glamorous and affordable.
A plate of coconut rice and chicken ($9) costs less than a meal at KFC. Star beer goes for $2 a pop; the Johnnie Walker Black Label that is so loved in Nollywood circles sells briskly at $45 a bottle, just a modest mark-up from the local liquor store.
The two restaurants are part of a growing empire. A new location is being planned in Ikeja, a tony neighborhood favored by expats and government officials. Talks are also under way to take the O’jez brand to Ghana.
The O’jez recording label, meanwhile, has become a hit factory for local artists encouraged by Odobeatu’s generous open-door policy. An aspiring star can bring his CD to the restaurant-cum-nightclub on a Friday night; the DJ will give it a spin. If the crowd reacts favorably, a deal might be signed before the night is through.
While Odobeatu has been celebrated as a patron of the arts in Lagos, he remains modest about his success. Others, however, are happy to sing his praises for him.
“If you’re not at O’jez,” says Akpovi-Esade, “you are not in Lagos.”