It's Not the Size of the Boat. Is It?
Making the case for the big guys.
November 11, 2015 ● 7 min read
Say you’re opening a restaurant. What does it look like, in that sappy, dreamy corner of your mind? How does it make people feel?
The National Restaurant Association points out that nine out of ten of you will open something with less than 50 employees. The Association of People Who Eat Out Pretty Often will guess that you’re going to use some sexy white subway tile and probably have reclaimed wood somewhere on your 15 tables and potentially throw some old-school hip-hop on your playlist—but mostly because People Who Eat Out Pretty Often looooove that. Don’t you?
Given the choice, would you assume the quirky subway tile place (with a line) is better than the behemoth next door? The place with high-ceilings and servers running around like ants might be a chain, or too stuffy, or at the very least it’s where you take your cranky Pop-Pop who wants a steak with none of the flourishy bullshit. Where would you assume culinary brilliance is happening? Why?
Homogeneity is a side-effect of the new age that we love to dwell on. Everyone does a tasting menu, everyone does suped-up comfort food, everyone features wine from some new hipster producer. Farm-to-table brought with it not only an imitable menu, but the décor to match. We cater to the same palates, with the same local producers, with the same rents, and the same staffing issues. The result is sameness, and the potential for stagnancy, even if the ingredients are indeed the best and the hipster winemakers indeed deserve all the attention.
The (very nebulous) question here is: are we as open-minded as we’d like to think, or do we judge restaurants by who they appear to be for? Do we realistically see a space as an artistic expression, or is the New York glamazon unwelcome in the down-to-earth Bay Area? Maybe contemplating aesthetic diversity in restaurants is a little navel-gazey, but screw it.
“It's a bigger problem than it seems,” chef Mourad Lahlou says. “San Francisco is not known for having big restaurants. Doing something of this magnitude is a way to differentiate ourselves.”
Not just big in the sense of space, but also big in the sense of grandiose. Perhaps the little city on hills has tried a few times, but no: not known for them. As a result, when one such anomaly opens, it comes off a little Vegas-y next to all the cozy lairs the city does well.
A lack of big restaurants is not, on the surface, worrisome. It’s in the grit of the thing, the statement being made, that a preference for the opposite of what you envision becomes an issue. An intimate and homespun dream makes an extravagant one instantly excessive.
Lahlou has a hawkish look to him, like he’s conserving energy somewhere in his frontal bone, deep behind his eyes. He spins an empty espresso cup back and forth between his hands. The restaurant he sits in, the one whose façade bears his very name, is massive. When it debuted earlier this year, the space (made to emulate the night market of Marrakech) had every single review falling all over itself. Majestic, the papers sighed. Mega-glam. And then, one article went and threw a punch that probably seemed inevitable to everyone but the guy who had spent the past year of his life begging investors for capital and barely sleeping: Mourad, a restaurant barely out of the blocks, was dismissed as a monument to tech money, as if its very existence were merely a play for C-suite wine and dines. “The flavors channel Morocco,” the review read, “but the vibe conjures an expense account.”
He artfully dodges this when it’s brought up, but it’s clear that the words—incorrect, blaringly wrong in his head—stuck. That vibe, he says, is opulence, but not the kind found in an expense account. Mourad is housed in the old Pacific Telephone Building in the Financial District, a towering and dramatic ode to Art Deco, gilded ceilings and all. It was San Francisco’s first legit skyscraper, designed by 1920s architectural superstar Timothy L. Pfleuger, and it is commanding even to this day, surrounded by its glassy FiDi brethren. He didn't seek out the space, it was offered to him. How do you do that kind of historic revelry justice? You go big, ornate, because the building demands it.
Ego is not unique to square footage, but it is readily applied to the image of the hulking colossi of dining. Restaurants named after chefs occupy a certain niche, undesirable to most modern pioneers. One of the conditions of this particular deal was that the restaurant be called Mourad, not Peregrine, as Lahlou originally imagined. (Investors were so set on this detail that even hinting at a name change prompted threats of backing out.) This restaurant may be part of a story he’s trying to tell, but it still bothers him. Just a little.
“This is such an important building. Putting my name on it, that it might come across as being conceited… there’s nothing that won’t keep people from thinking that I’m just this arrogant fuck,” he says. “It’s not just putting my name on the wall, it’s also what it represents. This place is too big for one person. It’s too big for two people. It’s just a place where a bunch of people are collaborating to create something great.”
He’s willing to overlook his name in lights because he thoroughly believes that every big city deserves a range of experiences in dining. If he has to have his name on the wall to give it to San Francisco, well, fine.
The thing is, when you sit in a booth trying to look like you belong (the untz of chic club music making your movements loose), you’re surrounded by the exact same people you always are. It’s just that here, they haul out their sky-high stilettos and sharp suits, like something out of a beer commercial. Everyone’s hair is shiny, and everyone laughs like a drunk Julia Roberts (Bigger! Toothier!).
“We all want to be part of something intimate and personal, but there's a need for a place like this in the Bay Area,” Lahlou says. “There’s absolutely no way to say that this is better than all those small places. It’s just different, it’s a different experience.
“I’m hoping that this could pave the way for other people who are willing to take the chance to do something like this,” he adds. “The more diversity we have, the better.”
Big restaurants are expensive. So are little ones. The service, the quality of the food, the hospitable intentions are all the same. To an owner, the economics of opening a place suck either way. So what truly drives aesthetic inclinations? Size?
“The work, the rewards, the risk, they don't add up at the end of the day. You only do it because it's something that you need to do, that you're sick enough to do,” Lahlou says. (A common refrain, no?) “Because of all those things, it's always a good idea to start small. If the size is controllable, manageable, you give yourself a really good chance of making it.”
It’s almost suicidal then, he says, to open a place this big. To make food at a level and velocity that meets his expectations and keeps up with the nightly covers, he needs almost triple the amount of cooks at any average spot in the city. “If you have a place that only seats 30, you could have four or five of your closest friends help open the place and it’s solid,” he says. “People are having such a hard time finding one cook. What if you had to find 40? That’s a task that nobody wants to take on.”
So why did he? Even though he hasn't really slept in close to a year, and he describes the process as "going to Hell and back 100 times," he's become an advocate for the importance of sweeping, joyously lush visions.
“Tiny is really, really important. I really love all the small places, I do, but I crave something else sometimes,” he admits. This comes after 14 years of tiny and cozy at Aziza, his lauded second restaurant with a fierce local following. “That’s why I get such a big high when I go to New York.”
On 28th Street in Manhattan—which is as far downtown as some people will venture, and as far uptown for the others—restaurateur Will Guidara and chef Daniel Humm run The NoMad Restaurant.It’s one of those New York places that does big really, really well, just like their other brainchild, Eleven Madison Park.
“We wanted to create a bit of an urban playground where we could say luxury is not a bad thing, as long as it’s presented in a fun and humble way,” Guidara says. “Why can’t we have mahogany and rich fabrics and deep wine lists and chicken stuffed with foie gras and black truffles?”
Turns out you can, especially when those old-school luxuries are presented with a youthful foil; riffs from The Rolling Stones float though the rafters, the cocktail program rivals any basement speakeasy. Only in that juxtaposed environment could they create a world where Upper East Siders and Lower East Siders co-exist, Guidara jokes. “I love small restaurants. I love the intimate connection you can have with them, but I really love the energy of the big restaurants,” he says. “I love when someone has a great connection to the person serving them amidst that energy.”
The atmosphere in the room was inspired in part by the celebrated New York hotels of yore, and by a swirling, high-energy party scene from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. “Sometimes you see something, and even if you can’t quite explain it, it just makes you feel a certain way. Even if what you’re designing is a completely different product, you want it to make people feel that same way,” he says. “I think the lovely thing about restaurants is there’s room for so many different approaches. That’s a really important part of it, that we never cease to have diversity in what’s on offer.”
He’s quick to add that it’s not a bad thing that this appears to be the Age of Tiny, though. The barrier for entry is lower than it was twenty some-odd years ago, both for would-be restaurant owners and diners. We’ve done our fair share of waxing poetic over magnificent dining rooms, historically, so it makes sense to bask in the popularity of the little guy for a bit.
“People are investing the same amount of passion into smaller restaurants, or even into fast food restaurants, as they are into the grander ones,” he says. “There’s a much more democratic approach now. There’s inspired and passionate chefs, and restaurateurs, and bartenders, and sommeliers at every level of dining.”
So the field is approaching even, which to Guidara, means that when we surface from our fixation on the featherweights, we should continue to pay homage to the theatrical within each of us. “The same philosophies apply to all of them. It’s just a matter of how many details you need to pay attention to. There’s not much of a difference in terms of the care and consideration that’s put into the human touch,” he says. “A great restaurant needs to be an expression of the people behind it. It needs to represent their personalities. As long as you allow yourself to do that, I don’t think there’s any one way to do it. That’s the whole point.”
So you’re going to open a restaurant. What does it look like?