Chef Alain Giraud's star is shining brightly again since the 2008 opening of Anisette Brasserie in Santa Monica, CA. Giraud, working with partners Mike Garrett and Tommy Stoilkovich, has created a true gem. Stepping into Anisette, with its zinc bar, brass rails, quaintly tiled floor and mismatched light fixtures, is a breathtaking trip to 19th century France. And the deliciously simple bistro fare draws an assortment of tourists, office regulars, shoppers and Giraud groupies. The indomitable Giraud recently charmed and joked with RH contributor Libby Platus.
RH: It's become a tradition for L.A. chefs to hang out at Anisette on Santa Monica farmers' market days. How did that get started?
Giraud: Chefs have a tight community. The farmers' market gives us a chance to meet and shop for beautiful vegetables. We exchange ideas and have a coffee. It's the only time during the week when we have no family or business pressure and no clients around. We're just by ourselves. It's the best time of the week.
RH: Do other shoppers stop you at the market?
Giraud: Sometimes. If I'm in a bad mood in the morning, when people grab me and say, “Hey, what's that?” I don't respond. I'm very bad! People are sometimes rude with you, so I'm rude with them. But when someone gives me a smile, says, “good morning” and asks me, “What do you think of these beans?” I am happy to answer.
RH: It must have been difficult leaving Bastide.
Giraud: When things happen in life, you have to take the best. The Bastide experience was amazing and unique. People were happy with the concept, but the story had to end because Joe Pitka (owner and partner) and I didn't share the same vision after a while. It was a hard decision to leave. We received national acclaim, and when we left, we had recognition that we didn't have when we started. I regretted I didn't have enough time for a lot of plans, like creating a brasserie. Now I've been able to do that.
RH: How long did it actually take to create Anisette Brasserie?
Giraud: We thought it would be one year, but it took us almost two. It was a bank. It was totally empty. The feeling and the space were already nice for a brasserie: high ceiling, a long room. And the location — around the corner from the Third Street Promenade (a popular pedestrian destination) — is fantastic.
RH: Do you have plans for another?
Giraud: Yes, we'd like to do one, maybe two more. Why not? We see Anisette as a brand. The only thing we didn't anticipate was the big recession, which slowed down our expansion. We are waiting to be sure this place is solid enough before expanding. It's like raising a child: You want to be sure this one is raised correctly, that it has the chance to grow up nicely. It will be hard to find the same type of building. We need to be very picky.
RH: Will you do a signature restaurant?
Giraud: I would like to. I'm rethinking what a signature restaurant means. In L.A., high-end restaurants don't survive. Where is L'Ermitage? Where is L'Orangerie? We have Patina, Spago, Providence, Melisse. But compared to New York or San Francisco, high-end restaurants don't do well here. So, we have to revise the idea, do something a little bit different. Maybe it would be open only a few nights a week, I don't know. I was raised in the French system: a big place with a lot of china and things. That was 30 years ago. Things change. You can do something more casual and still very interesting. Also, I want to see where the economy goes before I make a move. It's an investment, a large effort to create a restaurant. My wife has a wonderful business, Lavender Blue. We want to do something together, maybe half shop, half tables with food.
RH: From a chef's point of view, what is the main difference between a brasserie and a signature restaurant?
Giraud: If you have a signature restaurant, you expect the chef to cook or be there all the time. The chef can give you more personal food. At a brasserie, people come for seafood, oysters, onion soup. Normally, nothing changes very much. At a traditional French brasserie in New York, like Balthazar, or in France, the menu is almost the same, and it doesn't change all year. Plus, there is no change from 10 a.m. to midnight. Here we have a chef de cuisine who executes the menu. I created the menu. I give you the style of the menu, we develop recipes together.
RH: Does Anisette differ from traditional brasseries?
Giraud: We totally switch off at lunch. We are offering good vegetables from the market because we realize people are different in Santa Monica. They want something lighter, like more salad, so we adjust to that. You have to feel the pulse of the clientele.
Lunch is challenging here. People are watching expenses and time. In New York, all the restaurants are packed at lunch. All of them! In L.A., a few, like Spago, have an amazing lunch business. At Bastide, we did lunch for only one year. If you have an office in Malibu, you won't drive 30 minutes to Santa Monica for lunch. In L.A., everything is location, location. In Manhattan, everything is a few blocks away, five minutes by cab.
RH: (As Giraud says a warm enthusiastic goodbye to a party of five) It seems that part of the appeal of Anisette is you.
Giraud: If you are in this business you have to love people. It's a challenge because sometimes you have unhappy guests. When they are here, you have a chance to fix that. When they are gone, you have to look at the blogs. What makes it exciting is you start again each morning.
RH: How do you deal with the blogs?
Giraud: I look once in a while. What's important is: Do blogs show a trend? If they all say we're too expensive, maybe we have to be careful with our pricing. We know, for example, our breakfast pastry is really well-received. With 100 different blogs you have 100 different personalities. Most things are not as good or as bad as they say. Most bloggers visit a few times and know what's happening. So far we are lucky. We have a good following. I have fun with the bloggers. I recognize them. I try to have a dialogue. I ask if they have any questions. They love that!
Today, the old-style reviews are almost gone. They are still important, but people check blogs on their cell phones before going to restaurants. It's a new world… it goes so fast. You put a glass on the table and in two minutes it's on the internet.