Celebrated chefs catering to local tastes are reshaping
the profile of the neighborhood joint. By Megan Rowe
Head for the ’Hood
Jimmy Bradley is a master at capturing the essence of a neighborhood and transforming that intangible quality into a stylish, lively, beloved restaurant. In the past five years, his intuition has paid off three times, with The Red Cat, The Harrison and The Mermaid Inn, all hailed for presenting exactly the right product at the right time, and all in residential neighborhoods, far from the limelight of midtown Manhattan.
Bradley, who launched the Bryant Park Grill in New York and who has consulted on other prominent projects, understands that New York, like many tourist-dependent destinations, is a fickle place.
"If you can build a core neighborhood audience, you’re better off than if you’re only destination-driven," he says.
Bradley and owner-operators like him have hit on a secret: Basking in the spotlight is nice, but once the crowds retreat, the hefty overhead lingers. It’s better to find a middle ground, a location with sane lease terms, an approachable attitude, relaxed but attentive service, unfussy but expertly prepared food at down-to-earth prices, and to cultivate a loyal fan base of clients who drop in for a weeknight dinner or Sunday brunch, weekly or monthly, not just for celebrations.
These new neighborhood concepts are pulling in food-savvy customers who are weary of the hype, the high price tags and the attitudes. They would rather drop $75 on dinner for two at a sure thing two or three times a month than blow it all on the flavor du jour place that might, after all, disappoint.
"We try to appeal to the audience that’s closest to the business," Bradley explains. He relies heavily on positive buzz, and his restaurants achieve that by under-promising and over-delivering. "Our message is that we are a neighborhood restaurant with world-class aspirations. So if you want to come in three, four, five, six days a week, the experience will allow you to, but we’re also a good destination place, and have a feel that will accommodate that, as well."
Making the Regulars Happy
Serving the same core customer base has its pluses and minuses. While developing loyalty is essential to surviving as a local favorite, sometimes it can hamper the chef’s creativity. Nick Peyton and his partner, chef Doug Keane, discovered that very quickly when they opened Market: An American Restaurant in St. Helena, Calif. last spring. The team left San Francisco, where Peyton had been a partner in Restaurant Gary Danko and Keane had racked up kudos as executive chef at Jardiniere, to pursue what they saw as an unfilled niche in the Napa Valley town: an everyday alternative to the French Laundry, Mustards Grill, and other well-known but pricy destination spots nearby.
Peyton and Keane originally envisioned a menu centered around home-style American cooking from a pre-convenience-food era. But the clientele craved more sophisticated selections, such as Market’s Delmonico steak or seafood choices.
In keeping with the restaurant’s name, the concept also called for frequent changes to reflect what was available at the local produce market. As a result, last month Market had no fresh tomatoes, Peyton says, because it’s not tomato season in northern California. Thus, a popular half-pound hamburger may show up sans the customary tomato slice. "Sometimes people look at you, astounded, like, ‘You don’t have a tomato?’ but, in fact, they come to appreciate what you’re doing," he observes.
The Market team also slightly misjudged the drinking habits of its new audience. When the restaurant opened, it incorporated a substantial bar section with cocktail tables, but the space was reconfigured within a few months when it became clear that patrons were more interested in getting to their tables than socializing at the bar. "I’m a city boy, and people in the city go out to drink, then eat," Peyton says. "People here drink at home, then they go out to eat."
That doesn’t mean Market’s patrons don’t drink at all. The restaurant’s policy of charging a maximum of $14 over retail for any bottle of wine has been very popular. "Not only does it make the meal a little more special, but it encourages people to buy a bottle, instead of a glass, and it also encourages loyalty to the restaurant," Peyton says.
David Maish, chef-owner of David’s Bistro in Des Plaines, Ill., faced similar hurdles when he first opened the restaurant in the mid-1990s with the promise of "downtown food at suburban prices." At first, he recalls, "people were not ready for this. They walked in, looked at the menu (seared foie gras; venison loin with a huckleberry port sauce; salmon with a Dijon crust and watercress cream sauce) and walked out. They were a little intimidated." But after a few brave souls took the plunge, word of mouth spread like wildfire, and business took off. Today, he has a core group of regular customers who visit weekly or every other week.
At Luna Park in San Francisco, the menu leans more toward the types of choices people would make at home if they were up to cooking: eggplant Parmesan, steak with french fries, Cobb salad: "stuff that you can eat every day," says A. J. Gilbert, manager and part owner of the bistro and a recently opened sister place in Los Angeles.
For Luna Park and for most other neighborhood restaurants with culinary aspirations, the challenge comes when it’s time to change the menu, to offer something fresh at the risk of offending those patrons who crave the same choices every time.
Independent operators blame the chains, saying they have trained guests to value consistency and to expect to see their favorites at every visit. At popular neighborhood spots, "so many of the things become what people expect to eat when they come to the restaurant," says Gilbert.
Bradley sticks to his guns. "People bitch every time we change the menu," he acknowledges. Instead of caving, his staffs are trained to assure the guests that the missing item will likely turn up on the menu next season, then recommend an appealing alternative.
If Bradley knows which dishes are best-sellers, he’s not telling. He claims to have no interest in keeping track of what sells. "That’s a lot of b.s.," he says. "I don’t need to count things certain ways; I would rather look at people’s faces and see that they’re happy."
But Larry Nicola, executive chef and owner of Nic’s Restaurant, says more than 20 years in the business have taught him that "no matter what people say, they really want comfort. They want to go to a restaurant and get something they’ve had before." He changes Nic’s menu seasonally, but certain items, such as oysters with garlic and walnuts, gnocchi with morels, and signature martinis, remain.
Ties That Bind
Carving a reputation among locals demands more than simply equipping a kitchen and dining room, printing a menu, and throwing open the doors. Particularly in the beginning, operators of successful neighborhood restaurants look for ways to bond with their core clientele.
Michael Smith and Debbie Gold made their names in the Kansas City community after several years as co-executive chefs at the city’s venerable American Restaurant. When they struck out on their own in the spring of 2002 to open 40 Sardines, an American-Mediterranean bistro in a suburban setting, the couple had to spend time back on the stump to let people know where they were. "We’ve done some wine dinners and we’ve visited businesses. If someone calls and says there’s an opening on a cooking show at 8:00 in the morning, we do it," says Smith.
Smith and Gold took a chance by leaving the comfort of the American Restaurant, but it was time. They had grown weary of the cyclical nature of a destination restaurant. "When we won the James Beard award in 1999, we did six covers that night," Smith recalls. At 40 Sardines, by contrast, regulars might visit six times a month, spending an average of $12 at lunch and $44 at dinner. "I definitely reach more customers here because we’re a little more casual and in a price range where we’re just busier."
One of the draws of a neighborhood place, especially one operated by an already-established chef, is the chance for customers to get to know the people behind the product. It’s important that the chef-owner be visible. That’s why diners will find either Smith or Gold in the dining room at 40 Sardines every night. "People like to see us," Smith says.
Nicola, who has run three Los Angeles restaurants, received a lot of press attention and turned up on the Food Network numerous times, still works the room and is known by many of his regulars. He has also worked to make Nic’s a community gathering spot. The restaurant regularly hosts art shows, has live music three nights a week, and is known as a venue for political functions.
When she moved from New York to Washington, D.C. to open 15 ria late in 2002, executive chef Jamie Leeds immersed herself in the local culinary culture to help put the restaurant on the map. Leeds shopped at the local farmers’ market, got to know the farmers, and volunteered for fundraisers so she could meet other local chefs and score some publicity.
Because of 15 ria’s location in Logan Circle, a favorite hangout for the city’s gay community, Leeds and her staff are involved in such organizations as Food & Friends, which provides meals for people with HIV/AIDS and other life-challenging illnesses. Shortly after the debut of the TV program Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the restaurant launched a weekly event built around the program, complete with a Fab Five food platter (Oyster Shooters, Andouille Sausage between the Sheets, Crabs—the Good Kind, Calamari and Chicken Satay, $11) and a Fab Five menu of cocktails (You’re a Keeper, Adonis, Glamourtini, The Kiss, and Jack & Jim, each $7). 15 ria also advertises at holiday time in the city’s gay newspaper.
John Jasso, who opened Tablespoon in San Francisco with partner-chef Rob Riescher less than a year ago, has spent much of this first year getting to know his Polk Street neighbors, both the businesses and the customers. "If we create a buzz on this block, we’ll get known not only in the neighborhood, but also by people who are visiting from out of town," he reasons. Jasso and Riescher are positioning Tablespoon as a classy, affordable progressive American alternative to the casual ethnic spots and lounges that dot the neighborhood.
Jasso, who honed his skills at Restaurant Gary Danko and Fifth Floor, thought he was prepared to deal with the less-intimidating clientele of a local restaurant. Instead, he’s found that welcoming a regular crowd, seeing the same guests two or three times per month, instead of annually, and remembering key details about them is challenging, but fun. "That’s something I thought I was skilled at, but it actually intensifies at this level," he admits.
Luna Park’s Gilbert says people visiting a neighborhood restaurant might want to be recognized, but they’re also more easygoing than tourists or people paying top dollar for a meal. "The expectations of people on their one day off are really intense," says Gilbert, who previously worked with his partner, Joe Jack, at Tutto Mare, a waterfront restaurant across the San Francisco Bay in Tiburon. "If there’s a problem and they can’t sit outside next to the water, they’re disappointed, whereas people who walk a block to have a bowl of pasta and a glass of wine just expect that they’re having dinner. It’s not their whole day at stake."
Ultimately, Bradley says people patronize local bistros because they want to be taken care of. "It doesn’t sound like much; it’s just common sense," he says. "People want to spend money and to return to where they’re made to feel comfortable."