It’s a little past 9 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, and it’s hard to hear restaurateur Dustin Lancaster over the sound of hammers and drills overhead. He’s sitting in an old leather chair, sipping coffee in his office behind Bar Covell in Silver Lake.
“It’s been nonstop for months,” says Lancaster pointing to the ceiling. He’s surrounded by shelves of dusty knickknacks he’s collected over the years. A football from his high school team in Oklahoma sits above his head alongside an old Coleman’s mustard tin and a vintage wooden rocket.
The founder and president of An Eastside Establishment, the company behind Eastside favorites Covell, L&E Oyster, the new El Condor, Hermosillo, Sidebar and Highland Park Brewery is converting the spaces above Covell into a hotel. At just 34 years old, Lancaster is working on claiming the unofficial title of king of the Eastside.
He is wearing an Oxford shirt with the sleeves crumpled around his elbows and royal blue pants with the bottoms rolled up to reveal gray and orange striped socks. It’s a look fitting an accidental hipster who frequents his bars and restaurants.
Lancaster plans to visit at least five of his current projects before the day is through. And when he’s not running from his hotel to his new wine bar, to his Mexican restaurant, and his oyster bar, he plans to squeeze in a little acting. It is L.A. after all.
9:45 a.m.: Lancaster makes his way up the dusty, creaking stairs to what will become hotel Covell, a five-room boutique hotel above the bar. He’s meeting with designer Sally Breer and his contractor Ruben Franco. Hoping to open in January, Lancaster is engrossed with talk of floors, finials and finishes. His eyes light up as he walks around each room, explaining in detail where the television will go, the kitchenette, which windows will look out onto where, and how a communal outdoor space on the back roof/patio will be one of the best in the city. If all goes well with the '20s, Art Deco, Spanish-style hotel, he’ll add two rooms above the building next door.
11:02 a.m. While descending the stairs of the hotel, Lancaster gets a phone call. One of his chefs has fallen off the wagon, leaving one of his new restaurants without a second in command. And the sinks at El Condor are clogged and need to be cleared.
“I'm basically putting out fires; it's not as glamorous as people think,” Lancaster says. “It's being a maintenance man or a janitor every day of the week. I’ve seen fires, ambulances, police show up. You don’t get used to it, you just get more calm about it.”
11:30 a.m. Lancaster gets in the car with his head of operations Sabrina Locatelli to drive to Studio City. He and his partners have already started construction on a new bar called Augustine on Ventura Boulevard near Sunnyslope. He’s hoping to create a Covell-like experience in the Valley, and open sometime in early 2015.
One of Lancaster’s partners, Dave Gibbs, gives him a tour of the bar’s progression. The two weave their way through a room full of small piles of concrete coated in a layer of dust and have an involved discussion about the width of a door, and what kind of marble they can afford for the bar top.
12:57 p.m. It’s time to meet with the managers at El Condor, Lancaster’s Mexican restaurant in Silver Lake. On his way over, he takes a shortcut he’s learned over the last couple of years to avoid traffic, and passes a retirement home.
“Wow, you see that view?” he asks, slowing down to point out the view behind the building. “That would make a great hotel.”
When he arrives at El Condor, he sits down with the restaurant managers and chef Spencer Bezaire. Surrounded by old Mexican movie posters, bright-colored tiles and stringing lights, they go over everything from the drain clog to the consistency of cocktails, to how to handle the holidays this year.
2:28 p.m. After making a quick stop at Covell to check his email, Lancaster is back in his car on his way to Hollywood. He has a conference call with his chef and a producer for a new TV series that would involve Lancaster and Bezaire helping restaurants improve their food and service. The producer, now on speaker in the car, details how the show would require Lancaster and his chef to be able film multiple days in a row.
“We can't have our business suffer,” said Lancaster, wary of not being able to visit his restaurants while filming. He resigns to think about it.
3:03 p.m. Lancaster decides to squeeze in an audition for a car commercial at a small building in Hollywood. The Oklahoma native moved to Los Angeles to become an actor and originally started working at restaurants to make a living in between acting gigs. After spending around four years at Cafe Stella, working his way up to manager, he decided to open Covell. But he’s never quite been able to give up acting.
“Hey, did you do that Bounty commercial?” asks a woman holding the hand of a little girl in pigtails as she approaches Lancaster. “Remember my daughter? She was at that audition.” Lancaster is sitting on a long bench along with nine other dark-haired men and nine little girls. “Yep, that was me,” he responds.
While he waits for his name to be called, he attempts to bond with the little girl next to him, who will be playing his daughter during the audition. He's calm, collected, not perspiring, unlike some of his competition.
“It's what I've always wanted to do, and it's what afforded me the opportunity to open my bar,” says Lancaster as he glances at his competition around the room. “I’ve actually booked more in the past couple of years because the pressure is off.”
He’s relaxed, knowing his rent payment this month or any month since he opened Covell does not depend on him booking an acting job. It’s also something he’s proud of. He’ll eagerly use his phone to bring up a YouTube video of a Super Bowl, Miller Light, Chevy or Honda commercial he’s appeared in.
“I still go to auditions two to three times a week,” he said. “But in my prime, I used to go two to three times a day.”
4:31 p.m. He’ll know if he gets the part in a couple of days, but for now, it’s time for happy hour. He's scheduled drinks with his girlfriend and a couple of other friends at El Condor. But Lancaster is too busy for this to be just a social call. It’s Silver Lake movie night and he wants to check in on business.
8 p.m. Lancaster heads over to L&E Oyster to meet a crew from Vice and Kris Yenbamroong, chef at Night + Market. Yenbamroong is filming an episode of “Chef’s Night Out” and has chosen L&E to represent one of the spots in L.A. he enjoys. After the shoot, Lancaster will head back to his home in Los Feliz later in the evening.
Lancaster has nine ongoing projects and he’s looking for more. In addition to looking for a space to open something in Old Town Pasadena, he wants to bring back his short-lived pop-up Beer Bar in Silver Lake, that will serve nothing but beer and fried chicken. And he’s not ruling out a career in Hollywood just yet.
“I was listening to a Ryan Seacrest interview one morning about what he does in a day and I was like, ‘I subscribe to that idea,'” said Lancaster. “To just work harder. The more you put yourself out there, the more it’s going to come back to you.”
Really, I'm not an actress. I swear. Follow me on Twitter @Jenn_Harris_