Dinner Guest: Timing and the restaurant biz

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brianFor a time after college, in 1993, I worked at the Scotch & Sirloin near Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island. Mostly I poured drinks for the lawyers, judges, probation officers, high-ranking cops and other legal-system types who populated the county courthouse down the road.

The place looked like it hadn’t changed since the 1970s: natural wood and plaster, with patinaed farm implements on the walls and tucked into alcoves and nooks. Waiters in black-and-whites served steaks — T-bones, NY strips, ribeyes, filet mignon and, naturally, sirloin, as well as the best prime rib I’ve ever had, cooked properly on all four sides in a rib oven designed for the purpose. Great salad bar, too. In a separate barroom we kept more than 20 kids of scotch and a huge assortment of brown liquors, like rye, that had fallen out of fashion. On Mother’s Day I’d make Pink Ladies and Grasshoppers. I’d get lots of martinis, Manhattans and one detective who drank a perfect Rob Roy.

Shortly after I moved on, the owners took on some new money, invested in a complete redesign of the interior and changed the concept from classic cocktails, steaks and chops to seafood and neon.

It did not last. The lawyers never came back. And, ironically, a few years later steakhouses like the Scotch — Smith & Wollensky’s and Ruth’s Chris among them — experienced a huge resurgence.

Timing can be everything in the restaurant business. Some concepts are ahead of their time. Others just can’t seem to hang on.

My first restaurant job in Greensboro was at the Exchange, on Tate Street. New owners had recently taken over what I was told was one of the busiest spots in town, but they never recovered from a change in the menu and a slight shift in concept at the wrong time.

It’s a wing shop now.

Later, I took a job at Mosaic, the dream restaurant of husband-and-wife team Drew and Mary Lacklen, who had seen great success with Bert’s Seafood Grill when it lived on Spring Garden Street.

At the time, Bert’s was the best restaurant job in Greensboro, and the new place showed promise: a highly curated menu of fusion cuisine, with touches like fresh-baked bread, an extensive wine collection and foie gras made in house. Bespoke art filled the place, we had funky plates and unusual glassware, a community table, and if someone wanted salt you brought it to them in a little bowl.

I got the most extensive staff training of my long bar and restaurant career at Mosaic, became fluent in the dishes and also the philosophy behind them, sold dozens of bottles of Caymus Conundrum and the blackberry foie gras appetizer at $17 a pop.

In my time working with food in the Triad, I’ve seen plenty of concepts that the market just wasn’t ready for.

But the place was huge, and located in a neighborhood that, at the time, was called “way out on West Market Street.” People who had come to know and love Bert’s were confused by the fancified menu, and no one wanted to sit at the community table.

And Mosaic had the misfortune to open just a couple weeks after 9/11, when everything went to absolute hell for a while.

I’m convinced that Mosaic — or, at least, a restaurant like it — would survive today, when we have more foodies than ever in the Triad and an army of qualified kitchen and front-of-house staff to feed them. There would be no shadow of Bert’s to cloud the vision. Even that old neighborhood way out on West Market Street seems more accessible today.

In my time working with food in the Triad, I’ve seen plenty of concepts that the market just wasn’t ready for: Solaris was serving tapas when half of Greensboro thought you were saying “topless.” Trilogy, another place I worked, had craft beer, fine wine and weird cheese well before there was a popular demand for such a thing in the Triad. Now it’s Geeksboro Battle Pub. And before it became Ham’s at the Lake, the White Oak restaurant on East Cone Boulevard was a white elephant that attempted to achieve fine dining in a 200-seat house.

For that concept, the time has not yet come.

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