From New York to California, people are flocking to restaurants that offer good value and a good time. meet the masters of this slick and sophisticated universe.
The economy in America’s biggest, most vital city may not be what it was a few years ago, but you wouldn’t know it if you stepped into any of Stephen Hanson’s 10 bustling restaurants.
At Dos Caminos, a Tequila-and-taco playground on Park Avenue South in Manhattan, packed houses are the norm, and reservations don’t come easy. The same goes for Blue Fin, a critically acclaimed seafood spot at Times Square, as well as Blue Water Grill, Pan Asian-inspired Ruby Foo’s and Fiamma, Hanson’s top-shelf Italian osteria that received a coveted three-star rating from The New York Times last year.
While the rest of the city—and the country—is seeing tighter consumer spending and back-to-basics entertaining, the patrons of Hanson’s restaurants seem to be bucking those trends. No, his customers may not be the types to drop $10,000 on a magnum of ’61 Bordeaux, nor are they foodie types on the prowl for seven-course tasting menus. But they aren’t shying away from enjoying a night out on the town, either.
“Depending on the season, we’re doing about 60,000 covers a week,” says Hanson, seated on a stool in Blue Fin’s glass-enclosed, fishbowl-like bar that looks out onto the bustle of Times Square, his cell phone and BlackBerry pager, as usual, at arm’s length. “We’ve been through some tough times recently but this city is resilient. People still want to have a good time, and that’s what we’re here for.”
The Hanson Empire
|Isabella’s (1987): 359 Columbus Avenue, at 77th Street; tel 212/724-2100. After more than 15 years, Isabella’s qualifies as an Upper West Side institution. Italian/Mediterranean fare.||Dos Caminos (2002): 373 Park Avenue South, at 27th Street; tel 212/294-1000. Casual yet upscale Mexican in a highly stylized setting. With 115 selections, Tequila rather than wine is the drink of choice.|
|Blue Fin (2001): 1567 Broadway, at 47th Street (W Hotel Times Square); tel 212/918-1400. A massive yet high-quality seafood emporium in Times Square, featuring fresh fish and impeccable sushi. The wine list is heavy on whites; use the electronic Blue Fin wine book to help you make a selection. Live music.||Ruby Foo’s Times Square (2001): 1626 Broadway, at 49th Street; tel 212/489-5600. Dim sum and sushi are among the draws at this quirky Pan Asian-themed spot. Noisy and fun, with food and drinks to match the old Chinatown décor.|
|Ruby Foo’s Upper West Side (1999): 2182 Broadway, at 77th Street; tel 212/724-6700. See Ruby Foo’s Times Square.||Atlantic Grill (1998): 1341 Third Avenue, at 77th Street; tel 212/988-9200. An Upper East Side fish house popular with neighborhood folks. Lively bar scene.|
|Ocean Grill (1997): 384 Columbus Avenue, at 78th Street; tel 212/579-2300. Another seafood spot, popular with local residents. Outdoor patio dining.||Blue Water Grill (1996): 31 Union Square West, at 16th Street; tel 212/675-9500. This converted bank offers shellfish platters and grilled fish. Since opening it’s been a regular on Zagat’s list of the 10 Most Popular New York City Restaurants.|
|Park Avalon (1994): 225 Park Avenue South, at 19th Street; tel 212/533-2500. One of the very first hot spots on Park Avenue South is still going strong after nearly 10 years. Good standard-fare American food and a happening bar scene.||Fiamma Osteria (opened 2002): 206 Spring Street, at 6th Avenue; tel 212/653-0100. Upscale but satisfying Italian from Chef Michael White. The beet and goat cheese salad is a must, as are White’s perfect pastas. The wine list here is well chosen, with about 90 percent of the selections hailing from Italy.|
Serving 60,000 meals a week translates into literally tons of guacamole, Ahi tuna, pasta and spring rolls, but it also means healthy revenues at a time when securing a slice of the public’s dwindling disposable income is no easy task. This year’s pace calls for Hanson’s privately held compnay, B.R. Guest Inc. (BRG), to do more than $100 million in business, nearly double its turnover in 1999. Remarkably, more than 10 percent of gross sales come from wine. Hanson, who at 53 calls virtually all the shots on behalf of his 60-odd BRG partners, insists that he will open at least two more restaurants in New York this year—maybe three. Meanwhile he’s also on a quest for hotels. He has already acquired a property out of bankruptcy in Scottsdale, Arizona, which he hopes to have open before too long. He has been spending lots of time in other cities seeking properties to convert into boutique hotels. As always, he’s on the lookout for “something that melds the cool with the affordable.”
Welcome to the world of Steve Hanson, husband, father of a two-year-old daughter, unofficial advisor to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, supporter of numerous New York charities, employer of 1,600 individuals, and a man stuck in the fast lane.
The Key to Success
In a city like New York, where more than 10,000 restaurants generate an estimated $10 billion in annual sales, what exactly is it about Hanson’s places that both locals and out-of-towners like so much? The good-looking clientele and better-looking waitstaff? The carefree ambience and catchy music that wafts through his 400-seat establishments? Or could it be something as simple as good food and drink served in cool settings at fair prices? Most likely it’s a little bit of all of the above.
“We are selling a combination of quality food and wine along with some sex appeal, all at 20 percent below what the competition is charging for a similar experience. That’s really what we’re about,” says Hanson as we head downtown to check out his soon-to-be-developed 14,000-square foot property in the Meatpacking District. After that it’s a meeting with his interior design team at Yabu Pushelberg, the Toronto-based firm responsible for the look of Blue Fin, Dos Caminos and the impending redesign of Tiffany on Fifth Avenue.
“Big is what I know best,” says Hanson, a graduate of New York University who got his start in the restaurant and entertainment business in the early ’70s, working under veteran New York restaurateur Alan Stillman at the original TGI Friday’s. By any standard, Hanson’s restaurants are huge: Blue Fin seats 400; Blue Water Grill, 440; Ruby Foo’s on the Upper West Side, 400, and Dos Caminos about 300. Only Fiamma, where Chef Michael White presides over the kitchen, seats fewer than 200 patrons. “I could see doing a 700- to 1,000-seat place in Vegas. That’s how you deliver value, which I think we are proving is what our customer base wants,” says Hanson.
“The more volume we can do, the more I can reduce fixed costs, which in theory means I can give more to the consumer,” he says. “For example, I know that I want to spend $7 a pound for tuna, but I want to leverage my buying power into getting the best tuna possible for that $7. I’m not interested in paying $5 for lower quality.”
In fact, anything but the best (within reason) seems to irk Hanson. When I met him for the first time, at the bar at Blue Fin, it was in October, the peak of the Northeast’s fruit fly season. And Hanson wasn’t happy with his uninvited airborne guests. “If we need an exterminator, get one today,” he all but barked at the bartender.
Later that day, as we toured several of his other restaurants, he chastised the day manager at Dos Caminos for permitting a few sticky tables and a temperature reading that he felt was too cold. “Look at the body language” of the customers, he said in a serious tone. “It’s freezing in here. And show the busboys these tables. They’re unacceptable.”
Tales like these would probably not surprise George Yabu, the interior designer who has been working with Hanson for the past two years. Right off the bat Yabu learned that Hanson is a stickler for detail, a guy who knows everything from thread counts for seating upholstery to whether or not a mural painted on a back wall will add or detract from a restaurant’s look.
“Steve is so detail oriented, but that’s what I like about him,” Yabu says. “He has such a great understanding of the wide-open middle ground, that place between the ultra- high end and the lower end. A lot of restaurant people could learn from him and the way he does business.”
Richard Melman, the founder and CEO of Chicago-based restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, agrees that Hanson is a savvy and detail-oriented businessman who is at the top of his game.
“Steve and I have been exchanging ideas for years,” says Melman, whose group owns and licenses about 60 restaurants in the United States and Japan. “He has a fantastic grasp of numbers and design. Now he’s shooting for hotels, and I think he’ll pull that off because he really cares about his guests. From the beginning Steve has wanted to deliver a quality experience.”
Brian O ‘Neill – Boston
Bill Brown, a lawyer in town, has been coming to The Vault, an upscale, vaulted-ceiling, 120-seat restaurant known for its award-winning wine list, since it opened. He keeps coming back because of the atmosphere, the great wine list and food.
In 1993, he got a call from nightclub mogul Patrick Lyons, asking him to come back to Boston to open a restaurant. He did, and stayed. O’Neill opened his own restaurant, The Good Life, a casual lounge concept in downtown Boston, in 1997. It was such a hit that he opened a second location in Cambridge, in 2000. A few months later, he opened Centro, an intimate Italian eatery, next door.
By Naomi R. Kooker
Centro, 720 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA. Tel.: 617/868-2405. An intimate Italian trattoria, where the wine list matches the rustic simplicity of the fare. Signature pairing: roast veal and fava bean ragout over fettucelle with Castellani 1998 Ripasso Valpolicella.
For Hanson, high-quality dining revolves around good food. For example, Thanksgiving this past year at Blue Water Grill featured tender turkey, stuffing and trimmings that the best home cook would approve of—and all for $25 a person. Wines like Miner’s Viognier and Artadi’s Rioja provided an uncommon but excellent foil to the meal.
Blue Fin’s chef de cuisine, Paul Sale, worked with the original chef of Le Bernardin, one of the world’s finest seafood palaces. And the wine list here is clearly BRG’s most eclectic. “At Blue Fin, we’re really looking to showcase some of the best wines in the world,” says sommelier and beverage director Greg Harrington. “It has some esoteric selections and depth in California and Bordeaux, but it’s really a ‘something for everyone’ type of list.”
And at Fiamma, Chef White, who worked in kitchens across Italy before coming back to the United States, is creating some culinary wonders that even the toughest critics are praising. Having eaten there twice myself, I can attest that Fiamma’s pastas are hearty yet refined, and that White’s sauces are sublime.
And whereas at Blue Fin the wine list is highly international, at Fiamma, Harrington’s choices stick close to Italy, with Piedmont and Tuscany strongly represented.
Myles Chefetz – Miami
On relentlessly hip South Beach, where hot spots have the half-life of a sand fly, Myles Chefetz achieved the improbable dream. He has created three hip SoBe eateries on the same block, and not only did they open hot but they’ve maintained their allure as the places to spot celebrities, supermodels and beautiful people.
By closely grouping the elegant Nemo, comfort-food palace Big Pink, and the hip Shoji Sushi, Chefetz has created a mini-empire where he can focus his laser-
beam attention on every detail. “In this business there is no substitute for being there,” maintains Chefetz.
Though the restaurants differ in price, ambiance and approach, all showcase their owner’s compulsive attention to detail, quality and presentation. No facet escapes his notice; no transgression his censure. Even deep in conversation, his eyes seem to case the room for smudged doors, chairs out of place or spotted silverware. “If the lights are too bright, the music’s too loud or the air conditioning too cold, I know it the second I walk in,” Chafetz says.
Few could argue with the success of his near-obsessive approach, including the roster of celebrity diners. Homegirl Gloria Estefan is a Big Pink regular who also orders delivery service for the family. Eddie Murphy and Matt Dillon also eat there when they’re in town. Famous appetites sated at Nemo include Denzel Washington, Harrison Ford, Robert DeNiro and Cindy Crawford.
After opening Nemo—his original SoBe venture—to instant success in 1995, Chefetz opened the casual and fun Big Pink the following year. Notable for its 200-item menu of affordably priced “Real Food for Real People” served in huge portions, Big Pink quickly became the place to find local firefighters lunching next to supermodels. In this pink and stainless-steel monument to comfort food, even families with kids are welcome, which is something of a departure for SoBe restaurants.
In 2001, Chefetzh opened Shoji Sushi next door to Nemo. While the interior offers subdued elegance and the bleeding-edge hipness of a cold sake bar, Chefetz’s sense of subversive fun comes through loud and clear, too—the restaurant’s TV screens feature vintage Japanese horror flicks and classics like King Kong on a constant loop.
“I wanted to offer something to everyone: every mood, every price point. And with Nemo, Big Pink and Shoji Sushi, I believe I’ve done that,” says Chefetz, 44. The average diner spends $60 at Nemo, $35 at Shoji Sushi and $13 at Big Pink.
Chefetz took a chance opening Nemo south of Fifth Street—”SoFi,” as those in the loop call it—when it was still an undeveloped wasteland south of the Art Deco district. The gamble paid off. “Nemo’s opening night was the most exciting night of my life … we were a huge success from day one,” he reminisces.
The Zagat Survey has twice named Nemo one of America’s Top Restaurants. Its interior is an ode to the unusual idea that lighting the food takes precedence over illuminating the clientele. Nemo features an open kitchen and hammered copper appointments, with an emphasis on handcrafted furniture and fixtures, including lights and chandeliers made of steel bars and real ostrich eggs.
Yet Chefetz reserves his greatest emphasis for the food: Innovative dishes such as garlic-cured salmon rolls, crispy prawns with spicy salsa, wok-charred salmon and crispy-skin striped bass keep Nemo busy year-round.
Two ventures that didn’t work out caused him to rethink priorities and mature as a businessman. “Buy the real estate,” he advises other restaurateurs. He believes too many restaurateurs forget that leases can be broken and rents skyrocket, leaving them essentially working for their landlords.
For now, Chefetz toys with franchising Big Pink or opening restaurants in New York City. “I must be mellowing,” he mused. “I used to demand perfection. Now, I aim for perfection, but settle for excellence.”
By Marianne Armshaw
Big Pink, 157 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, FL. Tel.: 305/531-0888. The lure? A fun, 200-item menu featuring huge portions of “real-people food.” Special pairing: Alice White Chardonnay with Panko-crusted fried chicken tenders coated with Japanese bread crumbs.
Getting Things Done and
Turning to Wine
Hanson prefers renovating existing properties rather than starting from scratch. “You’re talking $150 to $300 a square foot for a redo, while it’s $300 to $600 for something new,” he explains. “And who wants to put in heating, air conditioning and gas if you can acquire it?”
Topping his to-do list is Dos Caminos II, which is scheduled to open this spring on a prime corner in trendy SoHo. During the design meeting at Yabu Pushelberg, Dos II was the prime topic. When one of Pushelberg’s associates pulled out a blueprint and said he envisioned a 162-seat space—small by B.R. Guest standards—Hanson urged Pushelberg’s team to “pump up the seating” to at least 180.
Another priority on Hanson’s to-do list is turning a funky but downtrodden triangular building at Ninth Avenue and 14th Street, a structure best known for housing a tango parlor and the now closed Manhole S&M club, into a huge trattoria. It’s a good bet—this now-desolate area has “next big thing” written all over it.
In December the space was still crude, the sex club’s chains and handcuffs still in evidence. But given Hanson’s penchant for moving things from concept to reality at breakneck speed, a summer opening would not be out of the question.
Donald Madia – Chicago
“We’re not going to say, ‘You can’t come in because you have gym shoes,’ ” Madia promises. Even the ID check and
|cover charge business is conducted inside, to shield club-goers from the Chicago weather.|
These don’t sound like ideas that would come from a guy who outfitted his staff in Joseph Abboud and simultaneously opened two of the city’s most anticipated new watering holes. But that’s Madia, known to his friends as “Donnie.” A Chicago native who grew up on the then-decidedly-unhip West Side, Madia is the kind of down-to-earth mover and shaker who makes it here. A former doorman (at China Club, Vinyl, Ooh La La among others) who didn’t relish standing in the cold, he doesn’t want his staff to do the same.
True, Madia, 45, is the force behind Blackbird, the critically acclaimed restaurant that has helped transform its West Loop neighborhood. He’s flattered by the praise Blackbird has received, but his main focus now is on creating a restaurant that will fill an important niche as an affordable refuge for budding wine connoisseurs.
Blackbird keeps 330 wines on its list, which changes every three weeks, according to Eduard Seitan, one of Madia’s partners and the wine manager at Blackbird and avec/. “We’re not afraid to let a wine go and try something different,” he says. The majority, including the 16 available by the glass, are from boutique wineries in France and the U.S., ranging in price from $17 to $500, most falling in the $60 range. Favorites are the Philippe Raimbault 2001 Les Godons Sancerre ($8/glass, $36/bottle), the Havens 1999 Merlot ($9/glass) and the
Archery Summit 2000 Vireton ($60 bottle).
Modest to a fault, Madia feels that Blackbird’s great success is all thanks to his team: chef Paul Kahan, Sonothèque partner Terry Alexander, architect Suhail and even his mother and his aunt. “I don’t think I have a big personality,” he says. “But I know what I like. I love design, art and good wine.”
His concept for avec/, which opens in the spring, is a more relaxed atmosphere than Blackbird has. It will stock around 100 wines, with an emphasis on food-friendly wines under $30. Some diners may come to avec/ just to have a drink while waiting for one of the 58 seats at Blackbird next door, which has no waiting area and limited bar space. But knowing Madia’s instinct for trend spotting, it is likely to become a destination in its own right. “Everybody says that we’re three to five years behind New York,” says the restaurateur. “I don’t think so. I think we have people here who want to push the envelope and break out.”
Blackbird, 619 W. Randolph Street, Chicago, IL. Tel.: 312/715-0708. French-inspired American cuisine that focuses on local, seasonal ingredients. Pairing to try: braised beef short ribs with mushrooms, and the Spring Valley Vineyards 2000 Uriah from Washington State.
Hanson has also determined that his customers want better, more interesting wines than what he had been offering as recently as a year or so ago. Thus, in 2001, Hanson snatched Harrington from the Las Vegas restaurant scene and hired him as B. R. Guest’s corporate beverage director.
Harrington, who at 26 had become the nation’s youngest master sommelier, was immediately saddled with building modern, attractive wine lists for Blue Fin and Fiamma in particular, but also for all of the restaurants in the group. Since joining Hanson in December 2001 Harrington, 32, has implemented a rotating selection of “feature” wines, what others might call “house pours.” He offers wines such as Terriccio’s Rondinaia Chardonnay from the Maremma ($14 at Fiamma), and Alváro Palacios’s Les Terrasses from Priorat ($14 at Blue Fin).
“When Fiamma earned that three-star rating, all paths [to better wines] opened up,” says Harrington, a graduate of Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration and a veteran of both Wolfgang Puck’s and Emeril Lagasse’s restaurant groups.
“When I got here I had to fight for things like Sandrone Barolo. Now I’m receiving offers to buy cases of the stuff.” As a result of this newfound buying clout, BRG now has approximately 2,000 different wines in inventory among its 10 restaurants.
Harrington says he has no doubt that the improved wine lists dotted with hot names like Nigl from Austria and Darioush from Napa Valley are resulting in more enthusiastic customers. “Wine leads to great conversations. It creates a rapport between us and the guests, and it builds better customer relations,” he says. “I really think we are starting to tap into the clientele of the other wine-oriented restaurants in town, places like Veritas and Babbo.”
So far, that effort is showing in the bottom line, too. BRG’s wine sales in 2002 were about $13 million, up a whopping 63 percent from approximately $8 million the previous year. Yet it isn’t only the sale of expensive trophy wines that is driving the car. “If you include Blue Fin and Fiamma, which feature some [pricey] verticals, about 40 percent of wine across the company is under $40 a bottle. Company wide, we try to keep 60 to 70 percent of the list under $50,” says Harrington.
|FRED ERIC – Los Angeles|
Fred Eric has created a dining trend that seems irresistible to L.A.’s smart set: a geek-chic spin on 1950s suburbia. Airstream Diner, a hipster’s take on the double-wide, looks like an oversized trailer in the heart of Beverly Hills. Polyester-inspired Fred 62 celebrates our secret yearnings for junk-comfort food such as Pop Tarts and mac and cheese. And the cross-cultural menu at achingly hip Vida is saturated in puns and culinary double entendres such as “Rolls Rice” (a spicy tuna roll made with sushi-grade fish) and “Thai Cobb Salad,” the Brown Derby classic with Thai dressing.
“L.A. is so much about the ‘flash in the pan,'” Eric observes, searching for the genesis of his ideas. “I’m looking for a more solid feeling; a time when things were less commercial.”
Even as Eric charms us in the idiom of midcentury America, he is keenly aware of how today’s young scenesters differ from their parents. “Right now people don’t want to spend a lot of time and money in a restaurant,” he says. “They want watering holes that happen to serve food.” But while his customers may dress in jeans, their attitude toward food is anything but casual: They demand food that is both inventive and fresh off the vine. “If you’re [running] a restaurant of any status in L.A., you’re going to the farmer’s market every week,” he says.
This idiosyncratic restaurateur’s take on wine, however, is surprisingly middle of the road. “I like wines with a very obvious character; that are clear in their direction as opposed to those that people have to figure out.” He sees a trend away from tannins, and feels people are looking for round, buttery flavors. Currently, he has a fondness for wines from Southern California, such as Andrew Murray’s and Ojai’s Syrahs. Eric is especially enthusiastic about the new wave of biodynamic wines, like Jim Fetzer’s Petite Sirah.
Eric has more restaurant openings on the horizon, including two in the coming year. Downtown’s Lou C’s, which Eric describes as “a train station with fountains” complete with an enormous food hall, will serve hearty clambakes and rustic rotisserie dishes, as well as fancier fare. In homespun Eagle Rock, he’s converting a former 99-cent store into an as-yet-unnamed Provençal-style diner, complete with a wood-burning pizza oven that will turn out a variety of flatbreads. Eric bought the movie theater next door, too, which he’s transforming into a cinema with café seating. Of course, dining during the film will be encouraged.
What are the inspirations behind this dizzying array of concept restaurants? “I think the whole posture of L.A. stems from the climate,” Eric ventures, “which leads to inventive, free thinking.” For Fred Eric, Los Angeles is both a well of inspiration and a palette for his dreams.
By Janet Forman
Airstream Diner, 9601 Little Santa Monica Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA. Tel.: 310/550-8883. The wine list, suited to a Beverly Hills clientele, is strong in the best-known Napa producers, many smaller California producers, and features 12 wines by the glass. Suggested pairing: Butler Burger paired with Qupé Pinot Noir.
There are also some downright bargains that he is proud to have snared. Castle Rock’s 2001 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, he insists, is a “stunning value” at $9 a glass or $36 a bottle, as is Château Valcombe’s 2001 Signature Côtes du Ventoux ($8/glass, $34/bottle).
Harrington also realizes that a wine list is only as good as the people selling the wine and that staff education is paramount. To that end, the beverage director is putting all staff members who handle wine through his “wine high school,” a crash course of the A-to-Z basics. Staffers who express a greater interest in wine are put through Harrington’s “wine college,” a series of courses he says is roughly equivalent to the primary level of the MS program he completed years ago. And for the handful of wine geeks and sommeliers he works with, Harrington teaches an advanced seminar involving serious tastings and discussions.
Hanson himself has expressed interest in attending the classes. “An educated staff is so important because they, in turn, teach the customer,” he says. “I want our people to get our patrons past Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet.”
That same sense of mission is what has made Hanson such a big player in New York, beyond providing jobs and tax revenue. He is involved in numerous local charities, including City Harvest, Meals On Wheels and the Exploring Program, a nonprofit organization that teaches high school kids about the ins and outs of specific professions. Alair Townsend, publisher of Crain’s New York Business and chairperson of the Exploring Program, says Hanson, as the program’s vice chairman for restaurants/culinary arts, has given more than his share to the youth of New York.
“Steve is a terrific person with a big heart,” Townsend says. “He has opened a couple of job posts that have really helped kids learn about the restaurant business. He has a gift for making people feel good.”