When weighing whether to open a restaurant, many operators will say the decision lands somewhere between a strategic calculation and running on blind faith.
But despite the risks, restaurants continue to launch, with almost 10,000 opening their doors in 2015, according to the National Restaurant Association. At press time final numbers were still being tallied for 2016, but restaurant sales in the full-service segment were predicted to increase 4.9 percent over the prior year—with the NRA noting that the inflation-adjusted real change would represent a 2.1 percent increase.
And operators are continuing to ante up for continued growth: Last fall the NRA reported 64 percent of operators planned to make capital expenditures for expansion, remodeling, or equipment in the six month–period ending in March.
To counter the increasing costs of real estate, development, and operations, restaurant owners are getting things to do double duty. “Everything’s melding—menus, ingredients, dayparts,” says Steve Zagor, dean of culinary business and industry studies at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.
Nowhere can this be seen better than at New York City’s Union Fare, which opened in May, and where customers can get just about anything edible between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. in the week. “The idea was to make the space as productive as possible throughout the entire day,” says owner Will Kim.
“Union Square was losing restaurants at a fast pace to a rising real estate environment, and the challenge was to address the need to service a quick in-and-out lunch while creating both a casual and a full-service dinner program.”
That kind of flexible hybrid business model is just as applicable in smaller cities around the country—like the opening of three synergistic restaurant concepts last spring by Charleston, South Carolina’s Scarecrow & Co. Restaurant Group. This ambitious project serves its three concepts—Scarecrow, Feathertop, and Wise-Buck Smoked Meats—with one kitchen. Scarecrow is an upscale restaurant; Feathertop is more casual; and Wise-Buck is a fast-casual restaurant serving smoked meats.
A similar melding can also be seen in Denver’s Lucky Cat, which launched in May and is the sixth restaurant concept by Troy Guard. The menu is inspired by Guard’s time living in Asia and features Chinese food with a shot of Japanese and Singaporean influence. There’s sushi and sashimi as well as dim sum.
And for those seeking for a melding of everything culinary, look no further than In Situ, the recently opened restaurant in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which premiered in June. In Situ rests on the laurels of other chefs and other restaurants, from which each of the dishes on its menu are curated.
“Each [dish] represents a different perspective and illustrates modern cooking in a different way,” says In Situ’s executive chef, Brandon Rodgers. “We want to have a variety of cooking styles, types of ingredients, and cultures. Having that type of range is what makes In Situ less like a traditional restaurant and more like an exhibition.”
That’s becoming a norm rather than a novelty in the industry as restaurants today have “this idea of a mashup and an eclectic mix of food with more sophisticated experimentation by chefs,” says Danny Bendas, managing partner of Synergy Restaurant Consultants, Newport Beach, California.
“In general, the buzzword is simplicity—with a better execution of a smaller menu,” says Bendas. He expects this trend to continue, given the pressures on restaurant operators’ food, labor, and operations costs.
Witness to this ongoing trend is the In Situ menu, which has just 15 items on the dining menu and 10 in the lounge. Likewise, Little Donkey, a small-plate restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has just 25 menu items. This was deliberate, says co-owner and chef Jamie Bissonnette, because he and his co-owner/chef, Ken Oringer, like to experiment. “It made sense for us to offer a more streamlined menu so we can take things out and add them in as we want.”
FSR pays tribute to eight of the best new restaurants that opened across the U.S. in 2016:
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Co-Owners/Chefs: Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette
Opened: July 2016
Standout Feature: Globally inspired ever-evolving small plates with no preconceived restrictions.
The rule, when Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer opened Little Donkey in Boston in July, was that there were no rules about the cuisine.
The menu might feature a biryani curry, Asian noodles, flautas or pasta. “With this restaurant we have no confinement—we can do any style of food and it will work,” Bissonnette explains.
Despite this, the menu remains pretty small—25 items—but that’s deliberate, so the duo can play around. They do have a daily raw bar, however, that they are both very passionate about. “We wanted a raw bar that is expressive of all the different cultures,” Bissonnette says.
Little Donkey’s raw bar features an abundance of local seafood along with some eclectic items like gooseneck barnacles, snow crab from Canada, and Santa Barbara sea urchin.
And the menu touts a rotating selection of charcuterie, too. The charcuterie is often incorporated into composed dishes, such as Vietnamese bologna with a fried squid salad, or used as an ingredient—in a stuffing for example.
Owner: The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group with partners Greg Mohr, Scott Weiner, Christopher Davies, and Christopher Teixeira
Chefs: Christopher Davies and Christopher Teixeira
Opened: July 2016
Standout Feature: Fine-dining lunch fills a void.
Eight years after Greg Mohr and Scott Weiner opened their first restaurant under The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group, the pair have branched out with their first fine-dining restaurant. Steadfast was exactly what the financial district in Chicago needed, they say, even if it was a new type of restaurant to add to the group’s portfolio, which includes a sports bar, a bakery, and pizza places.
“Our thought process was that we’d create an exceptional experience to make people want to come to this area for dinner, and fill the void for that fine-dining lunch that hasn’t existed for years here,” Weiner says.
The restaurant features New American cuisine with Mediterranean and Portuguese influences, honing the backgrounds of its two chefs, who grew up in Portugal and Egypt.
In September Steadfast’s tasting room opened, boasting a 14-seat chef’s table. The focus is mostly themed dinners, and once the restaurant has found its feet, the owners say, it may bring in guest chefs, too.
Location: New York City
Owner: William Kim
Executive Chef: Yvan Lemoine
Executive Pastry Chef: Naerim Kim
Opened: May 2016
Standout Feature: A multi-concept venue housed in one city-block-sized building.
Spanning an entire city block in the city that never sleeps, Union Fare aims to capture business throughout the day. This 23,000-square-foot venue contains a seasonal American restaurant, a bakery, and a gastrohall that features culinary stations such as poke, a café and wine bar, roasts and soups, street food, and charcuterie.
Off to one side of the restaurant is a bakery, open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., which also provides desserts in the restaurant. Here, Union Fare offers everything from pretzel bombs to flavored croissants, with unusual selections like birthday cake and green tea.
Operating all of these concepts under one roof does, of course, generate efficiencies. Labor can be maximized, says owner William Kim, and most staff is trained to crossover between concepts. However, a project of this scale requires a lot of staff, he adds, which also requires many levels of management.
“The real efficiency is in the utilization of the space and resources,” he says. “We have one very large kitchen, one culinary team, and we purchase like a very large restaurant.”
Location: San Francisco
Chef: Brandon Rodgers
Owner: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Opened: June 2016
Standout Feature: Each dish is curated from a different chef/restaurant from around the world.
The irony of In Situ is that it is an extremely original restaurant that has nothing original about it. Each dish on the menu is the re-creation of a dish by another chef/restaurant from around the world. The dish will either be lifted directly from the chef’s restaurant, or one that the guest chef has created specifically for In Situ.
Since the restaurant is located within the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the goal was to embody the spirit of a museum by showcasing the interesting works from other chefs that the public could enjoy.
About 100 chefs, including Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters and wd-50’s Wylie Dufresne, have contributed to In Situ. The contributions change regularly “to maintain a balance of flavors, cooking styles, and origin,” says executive chef Brandon Rodgers.
There’s no theme to the food at In Situ. In fact, “each [dish] represents a different perspective and illustrates modern cooking in a different way,” Chef Rodgers explains. “We want to have a variety of cooking styles, types of ingredients, and cultures. Having that range is what makes In Situ less like a traditional restaurant and more like an exhibition.”
Stock & Stable
Owners: Diane and Les Corieri, and Joe Absolor
Chef: Joe Absolor
Opened: June 2016
Standout Feature: Upscale eats in a work-friendly hangout.
Stock & Stable may be a modern American gastropub, but its executive chef and co-owner, Joe Absolor, sees it as a neighborhood hangout intent on offering the ultimate in hospitality and great food. The menu features American comfort food with a modern twist, but Absolor’s true goal is “to cook great fresh food that’s elevated, but still recognizable, and that has delicious flavor in every bite.”
The focal point of Stock & Stable is an expansive bartop that seats 25, where guests can charge their smartphones or work from their laptops thanks to built-in USB ports and free Wi-Fi. “I want this to be that spot where everybody comes to hang out,” Absolor explains.
Upstairs at Stock & Stable is a hidden upscale cocktail bar, Honor Amongst Thieves, which is a complete contrast to the restaurant below.
“We wanted a small comfortable bar that makes you feel like you’re in a different city,” Absolor says. This bar, an intimate but windowless cocktail lounge, offers handcrafted drinks and snacks.
Owner and chef: Troy Guard
Opened: May 2016
Standout Feature: A fun and unconventional take on Asian food, with a focus on healthier ingredients and house-made fare.
In a far cry from most Chinese food, Chef Troy Guard’s dishes at Lucky Cat are made from the freshest ingredients—with no MSG. “This plays a big role in improving the taste and quality, while making the food both fresher and healthier,” Guard says. He also uses a lot less sugar and starch, “which makes for a more clean and natural taste compared to some other Chinese food,” he explains. Even the fortune cookies are unconventional, made fresh in-house—with house-written fortunes no less.
“People are very conscious about what they put into their bodies. We wanted to provide a menu that was delicious, while still maintaining its healthy qualities,” he explains.
The design is eye-catching in a fun, modern Asian way, with a 22-foot mural featuring a collage of Asian cultural icons over the open kitchen. There are walls featuring Lucky Cat–patterned wallpaper, fortune cookie pop-art light fixtures, eye-catching neon light installations, and anime wall coverings.
“This concept is my fun take on Chinese food,” Chef Guard says.
Location: New Orleans
Owner: Hugh Uhalt
Chef: Michael Isolani
Opened: June 2016
Standout Feature: Sleek, modern design where food and diners provide all the color.
Trinity is not what you’d expect to find in the heart of Louisiana. It’s sleek and modern, with gray, white, and stainless steel tones, and Italian marble throughout. This monochromatic palette was intentional. “I want the color to come from the food, the drinks, the people,” says owner Hugh Uhalt.
“You want the design to be appealing, but I want people to focus on each other and on the food.”
The marble was such an important element that he picked it first—then worked everything else around it. Even the flatware, which isn’t shiny, but dulled down to blend in, was selected to complement the overall design.
Uhalt describes Trinity as an “exotic escape” from more traditional NOLA restaurants, particularly given that it serves food that is not straight-up Cajun or Creole, though it comes as no surprise to find elements of each cuisine.
Trinity’s location is also a departure from NOLA norms as it is in the lower Decatur neighborhood, which was once considered a little downmarket, but Uhalt’s intention was to “put a higher-end spin on an area that’s coming back with a vengeance.”
Location: Hollywood, California
Owner: Plan Do See
Chef: Greg Bernhardt
Opened: March 2016
Standout Feature: An ode to old Hollywood glamour, with a stylish design and creatively nostalgic setting.
Housed in a building created for CBS Radio in 1938, Paley is respectful of its L.A. roots and the concept exudes a feel of Hollywood’s golden era. “Paley is a glamorous tribute to the past, presented in a way that’s completely of the moment,” says Chris Roache, national director of food and beverage of Plan Do See, the company that created Paley.
This restaurant was founded on the Japanese principle of omotenashi, selfless service with a spirit of warmth and respect. “At Paley we strive to anticipate a guest’s specific need before they even realize they have that need,” Roache says. “It’s really about noticing the details,” he adds.
The whole feel of Paley is of mid-century Hollywood glamour, with high ceilings, abundant glass, dark wood, and marble pillars. But it’s in the small details that the concept truly shines. In the main dining room, lights hang down like the radio microphones of the ’40s, and a brass soffit that flows through the entire space is decorated with the mesh design of old-time microphones.