Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Restaurant Owners and their Foibles

Reviewing restaurants is a great deal of fun, and one gets to meet some very interesting and talented people. But sometimes I also come across situations that are flat-out funny or ironic, and I thought I’d share some with you.

Romanian Logic

I really used to enjoy the little Romanian place called Drakula that had about a 5-year run off North Lamar. I asked the owner, Nick, one day about why he chose that particular name with that spelling.

It seems that when he was applying to the TABC for his liquor license the woman on the phone asked him what kind of a restaurant “Dras-u-la” was going to be. Mortified, Nick changed the spelling from Dracula (as in Count Dracula) to Drakula because a TABC worker didn’t know how to pronounce Dracula. He believed that her inability to pronounce the name correctly warranted the addition of a “K” to the name he eventually chose. He also believed that she was representative of his target customer. He was most definitely wrong on both counts.

A little simple market research could have saved the day for our friend.

Beware of Greeks Bearing…

There’s an interesting correlation between the cultural and ethnic orientation of the owners of certain types of restaurants and the actual cuisine they produce.

Let’s start with Austin’s Greek restaurants. Most of the owners are not Greek. The Athenian Grill is owned by a nice guy from Albania. Tino’s Greek Cafes are owned by partners who are predominantly Middle Eastern. Zorba in Round Rock is owned by a gentleman from Persia. El Greco at 30th and Guadalupe is actually owned by a Greek guy named Jake Kostanditis. And there is a distinct difference in his cuisine, particularly in the Gyros. Not that it’s particularly better as all of the others are pretty good. It’s just different, perhaps a bit more authentic.

And then there’s all the Japanese restaurants in Austin owned by people who are Asian but not Japanese. There’s even a story about a chap who owns a very popular Japanese restaurant who has given himself a Japanese last name to make things more authentic.

Still, if the food is good I don’t care if the owner hails from lower Slobovia. The head chef at Piranha Killer Sushi is Mexican. Odd? Not really. The guy just knows how to cook Japanese. I don’t think he could pull off changing his last name to Watanabe though!

Let Them Eat Cake

In my line of work I’ve come to know some incredibly talented chefs. These guys had great vision and extraordinary creativity. Unfortunately, they simply didn’t have front-of-the-house personalities or sensibilities.

One chef I knew had three restaurants over a 10-year stretch that all failed. All were outstanding from a food perspective but successful restaurants are about more than good food. This chef didn’t really understand the old maxim that the customer is almost always right.

So when patrons walked into his third restaurant one night and asked for spaghetti and meatballs, he stormed out of the kitchen and basically told the customers that the Spaghetti Warehouse was only a few short blocks away if they wanted slop like that. They did as instructed and left.

I mentioned to him that it might be wise, as a new restaurant, to endeavor to accommodate a simple customer request. It wouldn’t have killed him to keep some Marinara sauce and some Linguine on the stove just in case.

Instead he pushed the Fegatini with Macerated Grapes. Great dish, but pretty much beyond the scope of most of the people who walked in (this after all is Austin, not San Francisco or New York). I heard one woman customer at the restaurant one night say, “I’m not eating anything that has to do with maceration.” Clearly, she didn’t get it. But then she didn’t have to. She was the customer.

And my friend the uber-talented chef wound up lighting out for the territories.