A chef opens the door to a walk-in.
This is often the moment before a spark—when shelves of ingredients arranged in a particular way on that particular day inspire the foundation for a new dish. But what about the restaurant itself?
It can be fairly straightforward building a dish from scratch, with all of the ingredients in front of you. But a restaurant—with all of its legal stumbles, design follies, neighborhood considerations, and unknown obstacles—may be more difficult to conceive from scratch.
We talked to chefs and restaurant owners about the spark that created a restaurant. Whether a piece of design, a moment in history, or a style of cooking that inspired the seed that would grow into the final space, these industry experts all had war stories to tell about what exactly it takes to get the doors open.
Lessons Learned, Mistakes Made
“Don’t do it,” says Nick Accardi, chef/owner of Tavola, an Italian expat magnet of a restaurant in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen. “Don’t open a restaurant—but if you’re the kind of person that can hear that sort of discouragement every day, and still want to open a restaurant, than you belong in this business.”
In order to keep your cool in the lead up to opening day, Accardi advises first time restaurant owners to remember Murphy’s Law: everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. When he opened Tavola in fall 2012, the centerpiece of his restaurant—two 7,000-pound wood-burning ovens handcrafted from volcanic clay in Naples, Italy—was delivered. After the obstacles of getting them through the door and reinforcing the floors to support them, it seemed as if all the oven problems were over.
Yet when Accardi fired up the ovens, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Water was coming from somewhere. It was raining that night—could it be the flue? He instantly worried the cold water and the 900-degree oven would result in cracked clay. A quick phone call to Italy revealed the truth: the ovens, for about two weeks, would naturally release all the clay’s water. “It is, a-completely normal,” said the Italian oven maker. The ovens now churn out delicate pizzas, roasted whole fish, vegetables, and a signature black bread from Sicily (made of a rare, regional Sicilian ancient wheat).
Expect the unexpected and don’t let it shake you—this is how experienced restaurateurs get the doors open.
Crafting a Menu
“We were husband and wife chefs with two food styles,” says Duskie Estes, chef/owner of Zazu Kitchen + Farm in Sebastopol, Sonoma County, California, “so we started with that initial concept—playful Americana and rustic Northern Italian.” Along with her husband John Stewart, Duskie started farming behind the original restaurant, an old chicken coop roadhouse across the street from vineyards and cows.
“Everything grows in Sonoma County—diversity of agriculture was important to us,” she says. This ethos (at her first restaurant in Healdsburg, and now in Sebastopol) is the foundation of an ingredient-driven menu, where customers also experience a snout-to-tail approach to whole animal butchery in dishes like dates wrapped in black pig bacon, chicharrones three ways, or salumi made in-house.
In this way, the menu can almost take on a life of its own. Dishes are dictated by what’s fresh and ripe in the gardens, with some ingredients never even being refrigerated after they are picked.
When it comes to refreshing the menu, Estes knows one thing to be true: “We are only as good as our last plate,” she says.
Designing the Space
“It’s a little Miami, a little Cuban, a little exotic, definitely a little Dirty Dancing, and a lot of mid-century fun,” says Jon Neidich of The Happiest Hour in New York City’s West Village. This whimsical new cocktail bar and restaurant fulfilled Neidich’s original vision: A great bar where people could forget about their day over a great drink.
And forget they do, over a rock and soul soundtrack with drinks mixed by Jim Kearns, formerly of Pegu Club and the NoMad Hotel, all against a backdrop of cartoon palm trees and a certain orange-inflected glow that is reminiscent of the breezy, carefree feel of Florida resorts—in the best possible way.
The right space can elevate a concept to reach its fullest potential. Without the flamingo motifs and fonts evocative of mid-century Miami (“Wish you were here!”) the menu of classic Americana might not be as satisfying—the Happiest Burger (two patties, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, confit onions, and special sauce) just tastes better with a palm tree in your peripheral vision.
Design can be as essential to a restaurant’s success as what is on the plate.
Advice to A Younger Self
Every audacious soul that has dared to open a restaurant is full of advice for the next generation of restaurant owners. These chefs and restaurateurs had some final words of wisdom on the subject.
• “Be flexible—listen to what the community wants, be open to where your profits might come from. Rigidity is the enemy of a successful restaurant.” —Nick Accardi, Tavola
• “No matter what—get a liquor license. It is critical to the economic success of a restaurant.” —Duskie Estes, Zazu Kitchen + Farm
• “Hire a project manager/construction manager from the beginning—and always expect it to take longer and cost more.” —Jon Neidich, The Happiest Hour