Pigging Out at Primal Napa

November 10, 2009

We were lucky enough to be able to attend Primal Napa this past Saturday at Chase Winery in St. Helena. Part Burning Man, part pagan-Druid-ancient-religious-sacrifice-ritual feast, part artisanal wine and food festival-harvest party. It was fairly free form in its structure, with guests moving between wine tasting tables, a gallows-like rig set up center-court where the Chefs and butchers were breaking down whole animals in front of the crowd, and a constantly evolving buffet on long tables in front of a the massive open fire pit where the finished products were presented. There were also some slow-cooked and cured meats from the participating purveyors and restaurants as well as Hog Island broiled oysters, and chicken from a twenty-foot rotisserie that was turning along the backside of the fire. The heat from the fire was amazing, and indeed as we drove up Sulphur Springs Avenue, all the direction we needed to locate the venue was the plume of smoke rising through the trees in the distance.

Primal is the brainchild of Brady Lowe and his wife Carolina. Brady is a Chef who lives in Atlanta and is presenting Primal as a rotating, bi-coastal celebration of humanely raised and slaughtered meats, charcuterie and wood fired cookery. Skinned whole goats, antlers still attached, with their exposed jaws locked in a grim

Smile, your at Primal!

Smile, you're at Primal!

smile, were stretched out on sticks near the fire pit looking like something from Blair Witch Project; eerily happy-looking pigs’ heads sitting on tables amongst the items made from their body parts, and small faux-pas, like the eye-bolt on the cross beam of the butcher’s display pulling out under the considerable weight of a quarter steer, dropping it to the ground, all added to a slightly hedonistic atmosphere.

I gave my all for Primal...

I gave my all for Primal...

Staffan Terje from Perbacco in SF, Chris Cosentino from Incanto, Taylor Boetticher of the The Fatted Calf, amongst many others presented the best in local, artisanal chacuterie; Marko from Charbay Distillery, Sean Larkin, Elsbeth Lane-Sarao from Gamble Family, and of course the host winery, Chase Cellars, along with too many more to mention, all poured enough fine beverages to keep the crowd well lubricated. `

And of course, there was bacon. Benton’s bacon from Tennessee, no less. I saw the platter of bacon on the picnic table in the VIP reception area (thank you Elsbeth and Beth, et.al. for the upgrade!) and at a glance, it looked ordinary; slightly cooled, with a bit of congealed fat evident, but what the heck; it’s bacon, yo. Even slightly cooled bacon speaks to me. I sampled a piece and wow! The sweet smoke flavor pops you a quick one in the face, like an Ali jab, than quickly moves off, giving way to the meaty pork; the flavor of the brown sugar and molasses cure is there in the background, providing cohesion. If it’s this good after sitting and cooling I can only imagine…Anyway our mail order has been placed.

Brady’s plan is to quickly move on from Primal Napa Valley to present Primal Atlanta at Sweetwater Brewery on November 21st, then rotate the events in subsequent years between Napa, Atlanta, Charleston, etc. I am ecstatic we were able to attend the inaugural here, as this is certain to be an event that will grow both in size and popularity as word of mouth spreads. The crowd at Saturday’s meat fest was large enough to be fun and vibrant, but not so large as to make things unmanageable. That will most definitely not be the case by the time this meat-circus pitches its tent here again.
Excellent video from the event by Jason’s “The 20 DollarWine Blog”. Check it out…


Saturday Redux: "The Dork List" or Things You Should Do Once, And Only Once

November 7, 2009

I first published this post way back in June when I had only a dozen or so regular readers.  Now that I have at least 2 dozen regular readers, I thought I’d bring it back, kind of like reruns of Desperate Housewives in mid-season…

I am a big dork. Just ask my wife. I have a penchant for doing dorky but mostly cute stuff all the time. Like the time I went on and on about how the mimosa I had just made had the PERFECT balance of Champagne to orange juice when I had in fact forgotten to put any Champagne in it. A glass of OJ in any situation is now known as “The PERFECT Mimosa” to my family and friends.

So, in the spirit of self-deprecation, I decided to put together a list of dorky stuff I (and others, I’m hoping) have done while working in restaurants. Much like catching your penis in your zipper, these should only happen once before you learn…

The tray tipping thing: This occurs when, as a rookie busboy or server, you are walking around a table, serving a round of ice waters or cocktails and are not familiar enough with the principle of leverage. You are doing fine, but serving the glasses all from one side of your tray because you are nervous/not paying attention; and as you lift the fateful glass that upsets the balance of the tray that is resting on your left palm, the tray flips, dropping whatever was remaining on it directly onto the person with the most expensive, most stainable clothing at the table. They are also usually the person with the capactiy to get the most indignant about it.

In New Orleans, they have a street party called White Linen Night when all the galleries on Royal Street host wine tastings and cocktails and everyone goes in all white. Then everyone goes to dinner. I did the tray-tipping thing with a party of six. This was actually many years along in my restaurant career, but I had as yet not had the pleasure of experiencing this one for myself. Four of the six icewaters went directly onto a rather buxom woman wearing no apparent undergarments with her white linen blouse. The good news is that I didn’t do this “wet T-Shirt” move on the 300 lb. guy with the man-breasts.

The pouring-too-much-wine-thing: The scenario wherein somone at a large party orders a bottle of wine for the table. You present, open, pour the host his taste; he approves. You then proceed around the table, being careful to pour women first, concentrating on your technique of turning the bottle slightly to prevent drips, etc. Then, just as you are pouring the last drops of the bottle into the last person’s glass, silently congratulating yourself for your oh-so-accurate matching pours for each person, you realize you haven’t poured any for the host after his initial one ounce taste test. This is especially effective when done with very expensive bottles of wine of which you have only one in stock.

The tipping-out-on-your-own-money-thing: In this scenario, you made great money at work the night before. People were just throwing cash at you for no good reason (hey, it could happen…). So you’ve got a wad of cash in your pocket when you get to work and you forget to separate it from the cash that evening’s guests have given you. You finish up, pay the house what you owe for cash tables. You tip out your busser, bartender, and host their percentage of your stack; and, feeling magnanimous because you’ve now had TWO really great nights in a row, maybe buy a round for the kitchen. Then you go home and discover that “hey, I thought I left that money from last night on my dresser…”

The “Nice-to-see-you-again-sir” thing: This is when you cheerfully greet a gentleman at a new table that you recognize as a returning guest, only to discover that this time he is with his wife, not his girlfriend. She gives him the “When were YOU here before?!” look. He gives you the “Could you BE a bigger dork?” look; and you are thinking “Why, oh why, didn’t I take that job with the Post Office years ago?”. Unlike the tray-tipping scenario mentioned above, where the manager or maitre’d has your back with some comped food or an offer of free dry-cleaning, recovery here is impossible.

Once when I was working at a local, very expensive hotel, a slightly ditzy but loveable server on the crew walked up to Carlos Santana’s table and greeted him with “You look familiar. Have you been here before?” (Mr. Santana and guest both thought this was just hilarious and have returned every year since to have her wait on them.)

The saying “Good evening, sir” to a woman thing: I don’t really think I need to comment further on this one. Although once I did walk up to a table of two very butch lesbians and asked “How are you gents tonight?” As Linda Ronstadt would say I am a “credit to my gender”.

"Taking a Dive"

November 3, 2009

What is the fascination that we restaurant people have with Dive Bars? Every great restaurant community has an “industry bar” where waiters, cooks, Maitre’D’s, and managers all gather after they shoo the last patrons out of their establishments; and they are always the divey-est, dirtiest, most outdated places around. Is it a knee-jerk reaction to the prim and proper atmosphere of our restaurants? Do we just need a place to completely let our hair down after being “on stage” for our guests, shirts pressed, ties straight, with all the “Yessirs” and “Yessmaams”? Or is it just that they are centrally located and never, ever, close before the absolute latest legal limit for last call?

Ray’s in St. Helena, Wright’s Corner in The Carneros, McTighe’s in Buckhead, Claudie’s Lounge and Pancha’s in Yountville, and The Alibi in New Orleans are/were classic examples of the genre; some are still there, but like restaurants that flambé tableside or drive-in movies, the true Dive Bars are an endangered species.

So what makes a dive bar a Dive Bar? I propose the following as basic criteria. Although not every great Dive Bar will meet them all, hitting the mark on at least two-thirds is required to make the cut:

1. Neon martini glass on the sign out front. Extra points if it has a neon olive of a different color.

2. Front door with no window; if there is a window it needs to be “Speakeasy” sized, like the little hatch they used during Prohibition to slide open so patrons could tell the bouncers, “Joe sent me”. And if there is a tiny window, it needs to be really filthy.

3. Dark enough so that if you emerge during daylight hours you have to squint like a prison inmate that’s been in solitary for a week.

4. A long bar with a brass foot rail and big, fat, wide Nauga-hyde barstools that don’t have backs and don’t swivel. People in dive bars need to be able to slide in and out and off their stools; and we don’t like (or need) to look around.

5. Don’t close until the latest possible legal last call, then have a “Shots only” call at 5 minutes to closing.

6. They are open for business at 7am in states that have 2am or later closing times. Extra points awarded if there is actually someone in there drinking at 7am; double points if there are people outside at 6:45am, waiting for them to open.

7. An un-level pool table with a “house roll” that gives the regulars a clear advantage over first-timers.

8. An old, floral print sofa by the pool table that is so nasty you need to be really, really drunk to ever consider sitting on it.

9. Pin-ball machines. Video game consoles don’t count unless they are at least 2 decades old.

10. Bathrooms that have one or more of the following: vending machines that sell condoms, combs, aftershave, or all three; well thought-out, creative graffiti (no gang tags or “dick and balls” drawings, although the latter can be good for a chuckle); and a bathroom sink that has been torn off the wall so many times it is either a) missing, or b) now sits on a too-low plywood box that the owner has built in a kind of “give-up” re-model. Bonus points for the matching plywood toilet tank cover.

11. Dust and cobweb-covered sports and trivia memorabilia hanging from the walls and/or ceiling.

12. Smoking allowed, even in states where it’s illegal. If you don’t meet this very important standard, your Dive Bar status is immediately revoked. Extra points awarded if they have a cigarette machine and it sells either Chesterfields or Lucky Strikes.

Down the hall, next to the pay-phone...

Down the hall, next to the pay-phone...

13. The have “Old Crow”, in both the 80 and 100 proof versions.

14. They let you run a tab; and I don’t mean leaving your credit card with the bartender until closing time. A real tab, listed in a little black ledger or a file box full of 3 by 5 index cards that is kept under the bar.

15. A clock with all fives for the hours and says “No Drinking Till After 5!”

If you see one of these, you are in the right place.

If you see one of these, you are in the right place.

16. A non-electronic, mechanical cash register for the till.

17. If they have any food it needs be sandwiches only and comes from a kitchen that is only visible through a pass-through window so tiny the light doesn’t expose the lack of janitorial services.

18. Last and most important criteria: you would never, ever go there if you hadn’t just gotten off work at the restaurant around the corner.

The Alibi Lounge on Iberville, New Orleans

The Alibi Lounge on Iberville, New Orleans

"If I Had A Hammer…"

November 2, 2009

We went over to one of our favorite local spots on Sunday night for a fried chicken fix. We are about as regular as one could hope to be at this particular place. We have eaten there at least two dozen times, both at lunch and dinner; big groups and just us; full-on meals with three courses and bottles of wine, as well as the “drop-in for a quick bite” scenario. The food quality is always top notch (although the fried chicken had an uncharacteristic sweetness last night; I think they had put too much sugar in the brine); and, although we have had one or two run-ins with mediocre to poor service quality, we have, of late, been on a streak of several excellent experiences. Well, the streak has come to an end.

Sometimes I wish I were a carpenter. Because if I were a carpenter (stop that singing RIGHT NOW!) I might be more relaxed when I go out to eat. Let me re-phrase: I might not be so critical of service, food and all the other tiny little facets of restaurant operations that I cannot help but notice because of who I am and what I do for a living. They say that ignorance is bliss, and if I did construction for a living instead of manage a restaurant, I would maybe not be so upset when I get ignored for a full ten minutes after being seated (one of the Cardinal Sins in our business). I would, instead, be looking at how the crown molding in the corners of the ceiling has too much caulk because of the bad miter cuts. Instead of getting even more upset when I discover that our table is in a kind of overflow station and being served (or ignored) by the bartender who is not more than five feet away from us, I would instead be noticing the uneven grading on the cement floor, and how the handles on the row of cabinets in the service station are not aligned.

But, I am not a carpenter. I work in a restaurant and have for a long time; so I cannot help myself. I get upset when things don’t happen the way that I know they should when I am sitting at the tables instead of supervising them. I know that the job is truly not that difficult: just make sure all your guests have dinner before they leave. Granted, there are many more specific and detailed steps to the process, but that’s really the gist.

My wife and daughter always accuse me of just being cranky, as they did Sunday night. I will admit that, like most people, I do get cranky when I have low blood sugar; and I always have low blood sugar when we are going out to eat. But that’s the whole point isn’t it? We go out to eat because we are hungry. So maybe I am guilty as charged of occasionally putting on the Cranky Pants, but that does not excuse the management from their responsibility to put well-trained, capable people on the floor to provide service to their guests.

That is really the bottom line here: everything that happens in a restaurant, the good, the bad, and the ugly, is ultimately the manager’s fault. If your server does not know the menu or cannot handle the business volume, it’s the manager’s fault for not providing an adequate amount training. They have subsequently compounded their mistake by allowing said server on the floor or, in this case, behind the bar.

So, our guy has finally made it over to our table. He’s already overdrawn his account at the Good Guest-Karma Bank, and we haven’t even gotten a drink yet. His excuse was that he had been busy tasting some wines that were being offered in special flights that night. I’ve got to admit that were it me, I would have opted for the wine tasting as well, so maybe it’s a viable excuse. He takes our order without writing it down (a real pet peeve of mine; it comes off as the height of arrogance unless you can pull it off flawlessly) and sends it off to the kitchen.

To his credit, though, he did recognize that we (just me, really) were miffed at being ignored; so after we order he sends one of the managers over to schmooze us a bit. She proceeds to go into a kind of Stand-Up-Comic-warm-up-the-room bit about Halloween and Trick-or-Treating; an obvious distraction move and it wasn’t helping. She would have gotten much more mileage out of apologizing and accepting responsibility for her own lack of oversight rather than just schmoozing for the sake of schmoozing.

Meanwhile, our server has moved on immediately to his next mistake by forgetting our wine (nowhere to hide on this one: he didn’t write it down and he’s the Bartender for Christ’s sake, so he can’t play his “the bartender was busy” card). The four lovely Stone Crab claws we had ordered as an app have arrived, and the Sauvignon Blanc we wanted to accompany them is nowhere to be seen. Were I to start eating the crab now it would surely be gone well before the wine’s arrival. I am straining my neck looking around, hoping to get the attention of someone, anyone. Finally our guy sees me and comes out from behind the bar. I make the thumb up, pinkie out tipping the glass gesture and he gets the look on his face that says, “Shit, just when I was out of the hole, I’m back in again.” He brings us our wine, asks if we need anything else. “Yes, “ I reply, “the Coke my daughter had ordered.” Ste-e-e-e-rike Three!

The saving grace for him was that the food was excellent as always; and because I am in “the business” I always tip well despite the occasional service faux-pas. You’ve got to really screw the goose to get less than 20% percent from me; I think his bottom line was in the 18% neighborhood as I am really bad at 15% math.

I will always compliment great food and service, but I will always say something when it is not. I am not tolerant of people who give me the passive-aggressive “Oh, everything was great” comment at the table, then proceed to go out the door and bitch to anyone who will listen about how bad the meal was. So I filled out the comment card tucked inside the check presenter with the details and handed it the owner as I had a chat with him on my way out. (Side note: if you ever fill out one of these cards with anything but glowing praise, don’t leave it for the server to “accidentally” throw it in the trash.)

It’s never the big stuff, like an overcooked steak or spilling red wine on my coat that get to me. It’s the minutiae that can make the difference between bad, okay, and great meals. Intuitively great service comes from constant training and supervision. When a guest complains about something we have or haven’t done, I take it seriously and very personally because it means I have failed. It’s as glaring a mistake to me as a bent nail. If I were a carpenter (thank you Leon Russell).

"Are They Loafers or Work Boots?"

October 16, 2009

There is a definite skill set needed to be a successful server. You need some basic eye-hand co-ordination, the ability to multi-task, and grace under pressure; you need good short-term memory, strong arches and back. The most important pieces in this puzzle, however, are a sense of humor (a sick one usually is most helpful) and a genuine spirit of hospitality.

This last is the most important. If you don’t truly enjoy taking care of your guests and helping them to feel comfortable, relaxed, and welcomed, well, you better be damn good at faking it because people can spot insincerity a mile away. A successful, professional server will have skills in the physical and psychological aspects, and they truly enjoy what they do.

There are waiters that survive for years with an inferior skill set. They muddle through, day in, day out, making the same stupid mistakes over and over and over again. They are known in our business as “Shoe Clerks” (as in, “This guy should be selling shoes”, or doing anything besides waiting tables); they are no trouble for their boss, show up each and every day on time, and are probably working the slow shifts so their deficiencies go unnoticed and they don’t get fired. An old pro I worked with years ago used to say “Good waiters work dinner, bad waiters pump gas; all the rest work lunch.” Snap-snap!

There are servers that have superior food and wine knowledge, have the necessary hospitality gene in their DNA, yet cannot multi-task their way out of a wet paper sack. They are what I refer to as One-Spooners. The One-Spooner is a waiter who serves soup to one person at a table of four. Someone at the table will ask him for another spoon, as they would maybe like to sample their friend’s soup. You don’t have to be Nostradamus to predict what is going to happen here. Instead of anticipating that someone else at that table might want to do the same and bring THREE more spoons, One Spooner lives up to his name. He then has to go back, yet again, to the service station for more spoons when the inevitable request comes from the other two guests at that table.

There are also servers who are highly skilled, can handle a ton of people all at once, know the menu and wine list inside and out, yet have no desire or love for making their guests happy. They are more concerned with what the people at the table think of THEM than what their guests’ actual needs are. These servers are often perplexed and resentful when guests don’t fall in love with them, leave them 25%, and want to write them into their will after a two-hour meal.

Then there is the server who is knowledgeable, has the physical skills, the memory, and in all other ways is technically proficient. Yet you just don’t like them. Or they have all the personality of a bag of hair. They can make a meal about as much fun as having your teeth cleaned.

We had one of these wait on us last week when stopped in (finally) at the Oxbow Market. We were lusting after oysters, but of course the one Sunday that we finally make it in, Hog Island Oyster Bar has closed early for an “Employee Picnic”. This is all the more puzzling as it is pouring rain and 5:30pm. Cest la vie; we go across the breezeway into Oxbow Wine Merchant and deposit ourselves at one of the corners of the square bar in the middle of the room.

Our server greets us, not with “Hello, welcome, how are you?” or any other verbal greeting, but with a deadpan look and four glasses of icewater. The menus are already laid out on the bar, so no menu presentation is necessary either. We select some apps and a bottle of Ruche di Castagnolo Montferrato, a seldom seen wine (in Napa Valley, anyway) from a seldom seen DOC in Piedmont. Our girl, without a single word of comment on our choice or on anything else, puts four thimble-sized tasting glasses in front of the three of us, and dutifully fetches our bottle. She presents it to me, as I was the one who ordered it, and being unfamiliar with this particular producer, I say, “That looks like it.” To which she says, “Yes it is,” and begins to sink her corkscrew. My wife asks her for some larger glasses to accommodate the big Italian red. She lets out an exasperated sigh, stops the presentation, and walks out from behind the bar to retrieve some Bordeaux glasses from a shelf near the kitchen. There were some glasses, smaller than the Riedels that she brought back but larger than the originals, within arms length behind the bar; and when I comment that we would have been perfectly happy with those, she says “Yes, those really are the proper glasses” for this particular wine. Well why the big show about getting the ones from across the room then? And would it kill you to smile and say SOMETHING once in a while?

I can somewhat understand a server tiring of dealing with tourists who are often neophytes when it comes to ordering anything other than chardonnay and cabernet, or just about wine in general. I can also understand being in a snit because you are working on a Sunday. And if she were up to her ass in busy, I could even forgive a little attitude; but we are the only ones in the place at this point, so why is she up on a cross over our glassware request?

Anyway, the wine was great, the items on the Charcuterie and cheese board we ordered were excellent, all very well thought out, and went well with the wine. I also enjoyed a cup of a luxurious potato soup with tons of cream and butter (we did, however, have to ask for extra spoons!), and we all lusted after our friend’s five-year-old daughter’s Grilled Cheese from the Panini press. Great food and wine, but with “service” that added nothing to our experience.

And do you have the Cap-Toe Oxfords in black?

A True Blast from The Past

October 12, 2009

In my career I have been lucky enough to work at some fabulous places with some lengthy verticals on their wine lists. Because I am a Napa Valley native, most of my first-hand experience with older vintages has been with bottles from California. I have enough years “in the cellar” myself to have drunk quite a few of them before they became “older.” Although many California wines can age well and will often show surprising longevity when you least expect it (we tried a 1976 Burgess Zinfandel at work one night that still had quite a bit of spring in its step), old wine in the New World usually means 20 to 30 years. Just as with our appreciation of antique furniture, art, or architecture, the concept of what constitutes “old wine” here in America would only qualify as adolescent in Europe. We simply haven’t been around and doing it as long as they have.

As a consequence, most people who drink older vintage California wines do so as a curiosity, or because they just want to show off. They often lack the experience to really appreciate the nuances of a well-cellared, older vintage. As wine drinkers, our palates have been conditioned by consuming so many big, slutty, overoaked, too-young Cabs and Merlots that anything older than five or ten years tastes ‘gone” to us. We are what my friend Mike Featherston used to call “baby killers.” I once had a guy order a lovely older vintage Ridge Monte Bello (a 1985, and this was back in 2005) just to impress his busty Rent-a-Date dinner companion. As I was de-canting it over a candle, the woman asks me “Why do you use a candle underneath it?” And before I can get Word One out of my mouth to explain, this Cork Dork starts in with “Well, the heat from the candle changes the molecular complexity of the wine, blah-blah-blah.” I mentally roll my eyes, and tell her, “Yes, plus the light helps me see all the little bits before they can go into the decanter.” I could tell he hated it, but he drank it anyway so as not to be shamed in front of me or the bimbo. A beautiful bottle of wine, and it was so completely and utterly wasted on these two.

I got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try some older vintage wines last Friday at our restaurant. A party of 8 collectors had set up a special menu, deigned by Chef and our Sommelier, Yoon Ha, to compliment the nuances of these older vintages. And we are talking truly older vintages here: 1959 Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle Champagne, 1952 Krug, 1998 & 1928 Haut-Brion Blanc, 1929 Margaux, 1947 La Mission Haut-Brion, 1945 Latour, 1945 Latour a Pomerol, 1926 Cheval Blanc, 1926 Haut-Brion Blanc, 1955 La Romanee, 1962 La Romanee, 1898 La Tour Blanche, 1921 Suduiraut and a 1912 Tokaji Eszencia. Not your garden variety Cork Dorks, these guys not only had the experience and expertise to enjoy and appreciate these very old bottles, but also the time and money to source them, cellar them properly and transport to a place like ours where they can be drunk while enjoying a fine meal with people of a like mind. Among this particular group was Francois Auduze, one of the world’s authorities on older vintage wines. He has a collection to boggle the mind. The seven gentlemen joining him all paid big, big bucks to be at the table that night. That, on top of the cost of the wines themselves, which came from their personal cellars; then there was airfare, limos, hotels, and the cost of the dinner itself; all just to be there, eat nine courses, and be told of their history while they drank some amazing wines.

The bottles were all in great condition, but the corks required no small amount of skill and dexterity to negotiate. Our Somm is one of the most professional and knowledgeable I have ever seen or worked with; always grace under pressure. That night was the first time I had seen him worked into a near froth. Not only did he have 100-year-old corks to deal with, but also he had to de-cant and serve these museum pieces to people who actually know what they are, know their history, and what to expect from them in their glass and on their palate.

As is the case with very old wines, some were fantastic, others disappointing. Not because of improper storage but just because they were years past their prime. It was fascinating to experience the nuances of champagne from the year after I was born; and the 1898 La Tour Blanche had morphed into a silky, earthy little bomb of nuts, honey, and apricots. My favorite of the bunch was the 1929 Margaux. Still vibrant and colorful, even though it was made the year my father turned 10 and the Great Depression was just beginning. None of us got to taste much more than a sip, mind you. These guys treasured what they were served so much that one point in the dinner I tried to clear what I assumed was an empty glass, nothing but a few bubbles in the bottom and was admonished by the French host, “Eh, I sink you have tekken my glass, no?”

Dinner went on until 1:00am, when heads started bobbing and their speech was just slightly slurred. Limos pulled up to transport them all back to SF, where they were apparently doing much the same thing the next night. Must be nice…

"Living The (New) Dream…"

October 7, 2009

A good friend of mine owns a great building that used to house an old bar downtown. It’s this historical landmark type of building, loads of character and local heritage. This is the place they were looking at when they made up the 1st rule of the restaurant business: “Location, location, location.” And yet, it’s been sitting there, empty, since he purchased it two years ago. “Well, of course it’s empty, in today’s economy,” people say. Capital is hard to come by. Even in boom times, banks have one hard and fast rule about loaning money to start-up restaurants: Don’t loan money to start-up restaurants.

But my buddy doesn’t want to be a restaurateur; he wants to be a restaurateur’s landlord. He is a developer, a guy who’s made his money in housing construction and sales. He loves dining out, has a great wine cellar at home, and has a good grasp on what makes a restaurant great as far as food, wine, and service go; but he also knows enough to know he doesn’t know enough. So he’s looking for an operator to take on the project. He’s even got an investor willing to be a limited partner in whatever goes in there, as long as he’s got a shot at getting his money back at some point. As an incentive he’s doing all the necessary earthquake retro-fit work, putting in an elevator to conform to the Americans With Disabilities Act, and getting all the permits for rooftop dining overlooking the river and downtown. He’s even buying a liquor license for a couple hundred grand that will go along with the lease (but stay with the building if his tenant leaves). Such is the way of the world these days, that you’ve got to be willing to dangle a bigger worm than the other guy if you want to get the nibbles.

There was a time not too long ago when I would have immediately penned a business plan and gone running around town, humping the leg of every rich person I know, frothing at the mouth to them about what a great opportunity I, and this place, would be for them. They would get great return on their investment; they would have “bragging rights” and be able to get a table in the hottest place in town with just a phone call if they would just write that big check for me.

In years past, I have written business plans for an upscale fish house with what would have been the first raw bar in the Napa Valley; a Baja-style fish taco stand; a place that would specialize in Southeast Asian street food (I was going to call it “Round-Eye Noodle Bar”), plus several others here in The Valley and elsewhere. These days, though, I feel a touch more cynical about that “someday I’ll have my own place” idea. Those dreams have faded over the past few years, partially because I’m getting older, maybe because I’m more practical; but mostly because I just don’t want to work that hard anymore. Whatever the source of the transfusion, the hot restaurateur’s blood running in my veins has thinned a little.

There is an unwritten axiom of Capitalism that says those with the best ideas seldom are the ones with the money to act on them, so they must submit to those that do; and they will often have discomfort sitting down as a result. I felt I needed one of those inflatable doughnut cushions for several months after one such experience in my past; and let me tell you, it wasn’t to make room for a fat wallet. I got a $15,000 lesson in trust that I will never forget. So when my friend is telling me about what could potentially be a great deal, and dropping not so subtle hints that I should look into scratching up some dough to get something going in this fabulous space, my first thought is not “Where can I get the money to make this happen?” but more along the lines of “Do I know anybody crazy enough to want to do this?”

I’m sure he’ll find someone eventually; the space is too good to sit there empty for much longer, and the local economy is showing signs of new life. He’ll find someone willing to march into battle everyday, dealing with refrigeration repairs, employees calling in sick, stealing from them, and with the onerous demands of the State Board of Equalization. I hope for his sake he finds someone who can take this place, with its rich history, and return it to glory days. I’ll tell him when he gets it going to give me a call. I’ll be on the beach in Baja, living my new dream: drinking Margaritas and watching the workers at my little taqueria sell fish tacos to the tourists.

Aw, shit. Who am I kidding? If you know someone with a few hundred thousand to burn, give me a call and we’ll do this bitch right.