Atelltale sign of Zack Bruell's longevity is the fact that three of his restaurants have landed on Esquire's annual list of best new restaurants over a span of 23 years. The first was Z Contemporary Cuisine, which introduced Clevelanders to the concept of upscale casual, way back in 1986. Fast forward to 2007, and his Table 45 in the city's InterContinental Hotel scored a place on the list. Two years after that he won props for L'Albatros, a French brasserie in an area dominated by arts institutions and healthcare complexes. The 57-year-old got his foot in the door in the 1970s, running a Philadelphia restaurant and then meeting future LA impresario Michael McCarty while studying business at the University of Colorado. Bruell ended up working the line at his friend's seminal Michael's in Santa Monica and eventually returned home to Cleveland, where he opened Z in the mid-1980s. Burned out from the demands of running his own show, he left Z behind a decade later and spent eight years working for the high-profile Ken Stewart's Grille in Akron. In 2004, he decided it was time to do his own thing again, and he opened Parallax, then Table 45, L'Albatros and, most recently, Chinato, an Italian spot in downtown Cleveland.
RH: Was Cleveland ready for Z when it opened a quarter century ago?
Bruell: It was crazy, but it worked. People were apparently blown away by it. It changed the dining scene in Cleveland. And that's not what I intended to do. I was just trying to do a great restaurant, on a par with what my friends had been doing. When I was at Michael's it was a who's who of the restaurant business: Jonathan Waxman, Mark Peel, Nancy Silverton, Roy Yamaguchi. A group of us spread out and opened our own businesses around the country.
I didn't completely understand what I was getting into. This is not New York or Los Angeles — it's a little harder to survive here. It was harder at that point to operate a restaurant just because the foodstuffs weren't available here. But having lived in LA, I'd made all these national connections with purveyors.
RH: What drove you to leave Z behind?
Bruell: I was working 90 hours a week on a line. I did that for 10 years straight, and I realized that when you work like that, physically it takes a toll on you. There's a burnout factor. I could tell it was time for me to stop. In the middle of a rush one Saturday night I was working and something went off in my mind: You went to work for this. What are you doing with your life? And I said that's it, I'm selling this place.
RH: What made you decide to go out on your own again?
Bruell: I liked it, but at the same time in the back of my mind I was thinking, “I'm not supposed to be working for someone else.” In Akron I worked with an incredible staff. We would do 30-35 specials at night because I couldn't go into a steakhouse environment and do somebody else's menu, and (Ken Stewart) let me. I learned from him. I learned how to do volume, and how to take the edge off, strip the formality away. I walked off the stage for eight years and people forgot what the image was. I was able to reinvent myself.
RH: Briefly, what was the thought process behind each of your current restaurants?
Bruell: With Parallax, I always wanted to do a fish restaurant. I felt you could make money with fish, plus there are very few fish restaurants in Cleveland.
Table 45 was an opportunity to hook up with a hotel company and possibly go somewhere else in the world. At that point I realized that I wanted to do more and I wanted to find a vehicle for growth. I had good people and if you have you good people, you have to grow, because you'll lose them. They'll go somewhere else, which is a natural thing.
I realized (the location for L'Albatros) was going to be available. I couldn't do something that was going to compete with Table 45 and Parallax, and a French brasserie was completely different from what was around.
Chinato is Italian. It's the first time in my career that I'm completely out of my comfort zone, which can be good artistically. I did a lot of reading and a lot of eating, and I went to Italy. I can sit in a restaurant and see and taste things and absorb all of that and then take what I want from it and mimic it in the way I want to mimic it.
RH: Your latest restaurant is a block away from two professional sports venues. Is that a mixed blessing?
Bruell: The Cavs' crowd is a moneyed crowd. They want good food and are willing to spend — although this is not an expensive place. I know I can get them. The crowd I want to get is the one that might be going to a concert or baseball game. Are they as sophisticated? Maybe not. Do they eat? Yes they do. Is it an opportunity to get a new customer and maybe change their dining habits? It certainly is.
RH: You seem to be a little more involved in the design than the average owner.
Bruell: Early on I always thought it was about the food. It's not about the food, it's about the experience. It's about the energy that you create in these spaces, and that energy involves people. You have to give them something that they're comfortable with. Each one of these spaces are to me unique and different from anything else in the city of Cleveland. The idea is you're trying to take someone somewhere else for two hours, to escape. That's what this is. Part of it may be the food, but it's the whole experience. I don't pretend to be an architect or designer. But I do know what I want these places to feel like when they're finished. I want them to feel warm. What I've realized is you create a space for women. Women pretty much are the ones driving the dining industry. Women are usually the ones making the decision about where they want to go. That took me a long time to figure out. I don't think most people get it.
RH: You have an impressive cheese program at L'Albatros. Is that a tough sell?
Bruell: It's blowing people away. It's not something I initially embraced. When I hired the then-assistant manager (now the manager), he had moved here from New York, and he was into cheese and said I think we should do this. My response: you tell me why, because I think it will just slow us down. But at this point in my career I know that you can't stifle people. You have got to let them express themselves. If you stifle them, they'll be with you a little while but then they will move. You're only as good as your employees. This is not about me. I am not these restaurants. These businesses are not based on one person, because if something happens to that person, you're done. A successful business is about the people who work in the business, not one person.
RH: With all these pots on the stove, are you able to take time off?
Bruell: I can take off in spurts. When I open a restaurant, I don't just open it and say “see you later.” I spend every meal there. Now, I'm an expeditor. So I inspect everything. At the same time I'm in an open kitchen and I'm able to mix with the customers. It's what I was supposed to be doing from day one, but I couldn't because I was part of the line and I was such a type A personality that if I left the line, things would come to a screeching halt because I was part of that line. Now I've pulled back somewhat artistically. I can get other people to create my food and give them the freedom to have input into it, which is completely the opposite of who I was before.