The Birth of Two Restaurants: The Agony and the Economics
It’s a timeless statistic: Half of all new restaurants--about a thousand every year in L.A. County--will close within a year of opening. Thirty percent of the survivors won’t last through the second year. Considerably fewer become, or even aspire to become, important restaurants--the restaurants such as Spago and Citrus that impress critics and have a lasting effect on the way we eat. Some years, only one new restaurant makes it really big. This summer, there might be two.
They are Campanile and Patina, the two most anticipated restaurants of the year.
Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton are the husband-and-wife team behind Campanile (624 S. La Brea Ave.) and the restaurant’s adjoining La Brea Bakery. (He cooks, she bakes and does dessert.) A couple of years ago the couple left Spago for a highly publicized stint at Maxwell’s Plum in New York. Now they’re back.
Joachim and Christine Splichal have also returned to L.A. with Patina (5955 Melrose Ave.). He’s fed the rich and famous at Westwood’s exclusive Regency Club. Critics loved Splichal’s food at Max au Triangle in Beverly Hills. And he was a hit in Chicago at 21 East and at New York’s QV. Now he wants another shot at the L.A. public.
If ever two projects seemed destined to progress smoothly, it was Patina and Campanile. But as Calendar discovered, no restaurant ever opens easily. We spent a year tracking the progress and delays--the waits, the second guessing, the final frantic moments before the first customer arrives.
If you happened to glance toward the skylight at Campanile about 9 o’clock on the night it opened, you would have seen the restaurant’s flood-lit bell tower, the moon . . . and a well-dressed man on all fours directly overhead, creeping across the edge of the glass like Spiderman--if you can imagine Spiderman in Armani.
The man lunged for something just beyond the line of sight, then peered goggle-eyed down at the crowd of diners some 40 feet below.
The alpinist, Campanile’s Austrian-born manager, Manfred Krankl, hadn’t gone berserk from opening-night jitters--he simply hadn’t figured out a better way to adjust the air conditioner.
“You can say a thousand times to yourself, ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s going to be hard,’ ” Krankl said later that night. “But then you open up and, of course, something unexpected goes wrong.”
Just ask Joachim and Christine Splichal, who opened Patina on the site of the old Le St. Germain three weeks ago. It was a half-hour before the restaurant’s first customers were to arrive and things were going smoothly . . . until the dinner rolls, fresh from the oven, were presented to Joachim. He took one into his hands and kneaded it as if it were unbaked dough. He grimaced. “This is hard as a rock!” he barked. Worse, it was salty. And there was no time to bake more. The brioche were no better.
“This has nothing to do with bread!” he said after inspecting a loaf. “You could kill three with this thing, it’s so hard.” But Splichal, a chef famous for his perfectionism, had no choice: The bread would be served anyway.
“Oh, you’re one of those places,” the voice on the phone accused. “I’m sorry,” said the woman taking the call. “We really don’t have any tables left at 8 o’clock.”
Owners Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton thought their restaurant would be the kind of place people could drop into spontaneously, but though Campanile has been in business just two months, those tables at 8 were booked three weeks ago.
Tom Selleck’s been to Campanile. Henry Winkler ate there during the restaurant’s first week--he’s an investor. So is Dustin Hoffman.
Don Rickles came in with Bob Newhart one night. Walked right up to Mark Peel, reached across the counter that separates the kitchen from the dining room and shook Peel’s hand. “Hi ya, chef!” he said.
Patrick Swayze’s been in--he sat up in the balcony so he wouldn’t be noticed. (He was.) Harry Shearer liked his table under the skylight with a view of the open kitchen.
Bette Midler would have come in, with Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg. But when Midler’s assistant called to confirm the reservation, she was told “Bette Midler doesn’t have a reservation; she’s on the waiting list.”
“The waiting list!” Krankl said as he told the story. “Aye, aye, aye, we don’t have a waiting list--she really had a reservation.”
On the Friday night Patina opened three weeks ago, Campanile served a crowd of 280. Patina booked just 29 people . . . on purpose. “If you get too busy too fast, you lose control,” Joachim Splichal says. “Maybe the fish goes out late to one table, or some woman doesn’t get her water on time. You’d like to think that the customers who come to a place during the first few weeks of a restaurant’s life would be very forgiving. But they’re not. If a guy’s out 200 bucks for dinner, he doesn’t care if it’s your first week or your 20th. And every guy who leaves unhappy is going to tell at least 10 friends about his lousy experience. I don’t need that.”
Splichal had no control over the opening date of his restaurant. No restaurateur really does. At the mercy of suppliers who deliver equipment late, construction delays, and confusing (and often conflicting) sets of city regulations, one can never accurately predict an opening date. Among the most notable Los Angeles restaurants to open recently--including Checkers, Katsu 3rd and the Carnegie Deli--none opened on time.
Campanile was supposed to have opened sometime during the fall last year--that’s what the prospectus told investors early in ’88. Patina, said Joachim Splichal in an August ’88 interview, was going to open at the end of the year--last year. But as the Splichals, and Peel and Silverton at Campanile found, delays are as much a part of opening a restaurant as hiring waiters.
THE PERFECT LOCATION: Larry Silverton was all set to do business with the Catwoman. “Julie Newmar, you know, from the ‘Batman’ series,” says Silverton, a construction lawyer and father of Nancy Silverton. “She owns a building down by City restaurant, real nice. We’d entered into negotiations and everything.” The only problem: no parking lot.
“So two days before I had to sign the papers for the building, Doris, that’s my wife, and I got into my car to see if we could find a lot to rent for parking,” Silverton says. “Pretty soon we’re riding down South La Brea and Doris says, ‘What’s that lot?’ And I looked and there was this parking lot with a car rental agency on it. And next to it was this very old building. And can you believe it? It was available--had been on the market for a year.”
It also had been condemned, despite its arches, tile fountain and sheet-metal bell tower. And despite its pedigree: The Roy Selden Price-designed building went to Lita Grey as part of her divorce settlement with Charlie Chaplin.
The gray brick structure needed earthquake reinforcement . . . and happier tenants. A rent strike was on against the building’s absentee owner--the tenants hadn’t had heat for months--and one of the tenants, an artist, refused to let prospective buyers see his space.
“Who are you?” the voice from behind the door asked.
“My name’s Larry Silverton; I want to buy this building.”
“Are you going to tear it down like all the other guys want to?”
“No, I want to turn it into a restaurant. It’s for my son-in-law, Mark Peel, and my daughter, Nancy Silverton.”
“Really?” said the voice. “I know who they are--I sell flowers to Michael’s in Santa Monica.”
That’s how Larry Silverton tells the story of how he got the sullen artist to agree to leave the building, only if Silverton bought it. Similar agreements were reached with the other tenants--a woman who ran a massage parlor (where their La Brea Bakery is now) and a Yamaha piano class studio.
“Normally when you buy a building like this, you tell the seller you want all the tenants out before the papers are signed,” Silverton says. “But since I had these agreements I went ahead and took the building, sort of ‘as is.’ So we signed the deal in July of ’87 and escrow closed that October.
“Of course,” Silverton says, “Nancy was worried. She said, ‘Dad, what if we don’t get a restaurant?’ ”
MONEY MATTERS: Often, when a young chef looks for investors, there’s a certain amount of groveling to be done. Elaborate meals are cooked in homes, free of charge, and personal visits are made: Chefs are grilled by people (usually accomplished home cooks) who like to think they know more about food than the professionals do. Other investors just want to see the numbers; as every first-time restaurateur quickly finds out, good food is only a small part of what makes a restaurant successful.
For the Splichals and the Silverton-Peel team, finding investors wasn’t a problem. Both groups’ offerings were oversubscribed within a few weeks of their mailings, on word of mouth alone. But a restaurant doesn’t begin with investors. (“We ended up putting about $130,000 into the project before it ever went to an investor,” Larry Silverton says.) Until a building is attained and the initial permits won, the “restaurant” is like an unfinished screenplay--just a good idea.
“It took some time to get the conditional use permit (which says a building can become a restaurant),” Silverton says. “One neighborhood lady objected because she thought if we served alcohol with dinner, there would be all sorts of sexual activity in the parking lot. But we were lucky at the hearing. When the judge addressed the complaint, he said: ‘Now about the sex in the parking lot. My experience has been that if you have too much alcohol you have less sex.’ And then he approved it.
“Of course, it was a different matter with the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control). We applied in November and didn’t get our license until May, just a month before we opened.”
LICENSE TO SERVE: It’s mid-April and Joachim Splichal, fidgety and distracted, sits in a chair along a wall of the nearly empty Wilshire Boulevard office of the Alcoholic Beverage Control while Christine patiently waits at the service counter for a representative to return from lunch. He pulls a booklet containing menus out of a brown leather satchel and flips through it as as if it were a travel brochure promising sunny beaches and cool tropical drinks. In a way, the menus do offer escape; they describe the food he and several other chefs will prepare at the Masters of Food & Wine event in Carmel later in the week. Three months before he can cook a meal at his restaurant, Carmel seems like the perfect chance to get away from construction meetings and into a kitchen.
Finally, a clerk arrives. Christine turns her head and winks at Joachim. Papers are checked, occupancy limits discussed. The Splichals hoped for a simple transfer of Le St. Germain’s existing liquor license, but the ABC has other ideas. Though impressed with their organization--"Boy, am I glad I have you guys,” the clerk says, “most people come in with a mess"--the license cannot be granted without what the ABC calls a posting of the neighborhood. “Send a notice to every one of your neighbors within 500 feet of the restaurant,” the clerk instructs. They’ll have 30 days to call and register a complaint--and remember, it’s a federal offense to put the notice directly in a mailbox yourself. Now, if you’ll just sign these. . . .” One complaint could set the opening of Patina back weeks, but the clerk seems optimistic.
“OK,” the clerk says, now I need you to step to your right for the fingerprinting.”
No one ever told Joachim Splichal that owning a restaurant meant being fingerprinted like some first-time offender. “I should have worn black today,” he tells Christine. “You see how little this restaurant stuff has to do with food?”
SECOND THOUGHTS: Mark, Nancy and Manfred stand silent in the empty space that is to be an upstairs eating area at Campanile. From this vantage they stare out to the other balcony and down to the main dining room, as if searching the freshly painted walls for the answer to some unspoken question.
“Nancy doesn’t like the color,” Mark finally says.
“No, no, it’s just that there’s so much of it,” Nancy says. “It’s all the same pinkish-brown. I think it needs some contrast. Like the color they had up before.”
“The primer?” Manfred asks.
“Yeah,” Nancy says. She rests her chin in her palm and resumes staring.
Originally, Campanile’s dining room was to have been paneled in teak. But as the project dragged on and funds shriveled, the wood, once a major element of the restaurant’s design, was eliminated. (A few small teak pieces did make it into the bar, and a color closely resembling a grayish-taupe primer was used to lighten the mood of the upstairs rooms.)
“You might have the blueprints, but you really don’t have a concept of how things are going to look until it’s all done,” said Mark Peel recently.
The Splichals were depressed for days when they drove by the Patina site on the way back from a weekend trip and saw that their long-awaited steel trellises had finally been erected.
“It looks like a prison,” Christine said again and again.
“Just wait until you see it finished,” interior architect Cheryl Brantner told them the next morning.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Joachim said.
CHALK TALK: “OK. Does anyone know what DOC means?”
“Does it mean . . . God?”
“Nooo,” says Campanile’s Krankl. He shoots a glance at maitre d’ Thomas Gavlan and shakes his head.
It’s late June, two days before Campanile’s first dinner, and most of the restaurant’s waiters, waitresses and bus staff sit gathered at one end of the restaurant’s nearly finished main dining room. Each has been given a wine glass, which some place at their feet and others clench in a fist. One waiter keeps a thick organizer under his chair with a file stuck inside marked “Campanile,” while head shots and a script protrude from another’s bag. A few balance note pads in their laps. In a week, customers will be asking wine advice, so it’s important that the wait staff has some knowledge of what’s on the list . . . and that DOC is the designation Italian wine makers use to show that a product comes from government-approved grapes and regions. After letting them taste an Italian Erbaluce di Caluso and providing some background, Krankl asks for comments.
“I think it has almost a mossy quality, like a musty well?” says one.
“I don’t know, musty’s not very appealing.”
“Is it like a Meursault?” another offers.
“ Nooo , not really.”
“Well, if not Meursault, then a Montrachet?”
“I hate to use overly fancy terms,” Krankl says. “They tend to get on my nerves. I want you to come up with descriptions that the customers are going to understand.”
Then Nancy Silverton appears with an armload of desserts and everyone in the room perks up. “Oh, look, guys, goodies,” Gavlan says.
This is the good part, like getting to watch a movie in class instead of taking a test.
“All right. Now this is a kumquat semifreddo, " she says, and then cuts into the frozen cheesecake-size disc. “It’s not as cold as it’s supposed to be, but this will give you an idea of what we’re doing here.”
“Excuse me, Nancy?” one waiter says. “How do you spell kumquat ?”
Plates and forks are passed around and the staff steps up to the table to gather samples.
“I wanted to get away from making cakes,” she says.
There’s an unsweetened chocolate mousse (“A child would not enjoy this,” Nancy warns), a brioche tart with raspberry sabayon, rice flan, a baked lemon tart with lemon curd on the side. (“This is a little different than some tarts you may have seen,” she says. “So often lemon curd is all you get.”)
“The only problem,” Nancy says, “is that Mark is afraid the desserts are too pretty.”
Mouths full, the staff can only shake their heads in disagreement and keep eating.
HEALTH CHECK: No one notices the tan, handsome stranger in Reeboks when he walks into the bar.
It’s Friday, the first party is tonight, and the health inspector is due any minute. Tony Singaus, who helped the Splichals get the kitchen in order, is giving Christine some last-minute advice.
At the other end of the room, Cheryl Brantner discusses the restaurant’s exterior landscaping with her assistant. “We don’t want it to look too sweet,” she says.
Finally, the stranger speaks up. “Hi, I’m the health inspector.”
Christine’s and Tony’s eyes go big.
Aren’t inspectors more official-looking? More intimidating? In his jeans and beach shirt, his longish hair and bushy mustache, this guy looks as if he’d rather buy you a beer in a bar than shut your bar down.
“So what’s the deal with the door?” the inspector begins.
“What do you mean?” Christine asks.
“I mean I don’t ever want to see it open.”
“Oh, we aren’t going to open it--it’s actually a window to us.”
“Well, you better bolt it shut just in case,” he says. “We’ve been having a lot of vermin trouble with this sort of thing.”
It’s clear that Reeboks or not, this stranger means business.
“Now, what about the space between these panels here?” He peers at the oak wood paneling behind the bar. “I want to see some clear silicone between these.”
“But that’ll ruin the look,” Tony says. “It’s part of the design.”
“Well, it’s vermin harborage to me,” the inspector says.
Tony and Christine follow the inspector through the restaurant, into the bathrooms and then the kitchen. He glances at a stainless steel cold box inherited from the old Le St. Germain. “Is this a self-contained unit?” he asks.
“Beautiful!” he says. Less chance of vermin invasion.
As they walk back into the bar, the inspection seems just about over. Then he sees a door ajar near the private dining room.
“What’s behind there?” he asks.
Christine’s smile grows tight. Everyone had been told to keep that door shut. “It’s the storage room,” she says. “Do you need to see it?”
“I need to see it,” he says.
The first place the inspector’s eyes go is to the ice machine, which has just been hooked up. Then he looks at the molding where the floor and wall meet. “Vinyl,” he says. “I hate vinyl. If you’re going to have the ice machine in here, you’re going to have to replace that.”
“But we’ve really cleaned it up from the way it was,” Christine says. “You know it’s a very old building, and we’ve done a lot that we haven’t had to do, and we added the handicap bathrooms. . . .”
“Well, I didn’t force you to buy this restaurant,” he says.
Starting to Cook
BIRD TROUBLE: The chicken was dry. And too big. It was supposed to be crisp and moist and flat. (It’s cooked under a brick, the way they do it in Tuscany.) It was supposed to be one of the best dishes in Peel’s repertoire. People who had eaten the chicken at parties and small family meals had called it the best chicken dish they had ever eaten. Godhead chicken. But on the night of the first preview dinner with friends and investors (the idea is to try out your new food and new waiters on sympathetic appetites before paying customers arrive), they said it . . . “could be better.”
“We have to slightly pre-cook the chicken, which is a compromise,” Peel said. “Otherwise, people would have to wait an hour to get their food.”
And so, on the day of Campanile’s opening night, as everyone else worried about seating plans and silverware and how to place customer orders on the new computer system, Peel worried about chicken.
He tried smaller birds. And to get the chicken to lie flatter on the plate, he removed several bones--not too many, though, because bones are part of what gives chicken a lot of its flavor. A flock of fowl later, Peel got what he wanted.
SHIRTS FROM CLEVELAND: “OK,” Joachim says. “Everyone in the kitchen. I want full power. Let’s move.”
It’s seven days before Patina officially opens, but just seven hours before the restaurant’s first critic arrives. John Mariani is in town to research his annual “Best Restaurants in America” piece for Esquire, and Joachim Splichal hopes to feed him in time to qualify for a place in the article--sort of like an Oscar-hungry producer who sneaks a movie into theaters a week before the year ends. Two private parties also have been scheduled; they were booked back when the restaurant was supposed to be finished by July 21.
Current status of the restaurant: no windows in the doors, no mirrors in the restrooms, an unfinished bar, waiters’ pants still to arrive from the tailor, and until five minutes ago, no chefs in the kitchen.
Brantner walks around with several packages of Hugo Boss shirts; she flew all the way to the manufacturer’s Cleveland warehouse so the waiters would have something to wear in time. Several landscape workers adjust the plants in the restaurant’s front trellises. A pair of window installers carefully (and slowly) measure and adjust a frosted-glass pane. Sydney, the upholsterer, is busy fitting the banquettes.
“C’mon,” Joachim says to the window installers. “Let’s move. Boom, boom, boom.”
“Boom, boom, boom,” the installers mimic back in unison.
“And what about you?” Christine asks. “Are we going to finally see a menu from you?” For three weeks, Christine has pestered Joachim about his menu; she’s anxious to get it plugged into the computer system.
“The food, I’m not worried about,” Joachim says. “I once cooked in the Sahara for 60--so don’t worry, the food will be good.”
ROLLING IN DOUGH: “They must be making a ton of money here,” says an expensively dressed man to his date in her thigh-high Spandex-enriched dress as they wait for a table along with a roomful of hungry people.
Indeed, Campanile has so far exceeded every projection it set for itself, both in dinner seatings and in bread sales at its La Brea Bakery.
But the bakery and the restaurant have become almost too successful.
The introduction of lunch has been delayed, partly because management is trying to work out kinks in service and in the kitchen, and partly because the restaurant’s bakery can’t make enough bread for its own sandwiches.
Silverton’s bread has become so popular--25 restaurants order the bread wholesale--that she’s had to turn away new orders for the past two months. “We ran out of space,” Silverton says. “There’s just no room for any more bread.”
Expansion is already under way. But that costs money. And so does running a restaurant. The operation uses up $45,000 in payroll alone every two weeks and operating costs run way higher. Even if all goes as expected, it will take three years before investors make back what they initially put into the project.
As for Peel and Silverton, they are far from wealthy. During much of the construction phase, they gave up their Fairfax-district apartment and moved in with Silverton’s sister in the Valley to save money on rent. And until recently, the woman who watched the couple’s two children made more money than Peel and Silverton combined.
OPENING NIGHT: “I still haven’t done any cooking,” Joachim says. It’s 5:05. Two more hours to go before the restaurant’s first guests arrive.
“Oh, oh, I forgot about music!” Christine says. “We only have one CD.”
In the entryway, contractor Tim LeFevre finds himself sweeping--he did not anticipate this when he first took the job. “This close to the wire,” he says, “you pitch in any way you can.”
In the kitchen, things are bustling. One chef stands slapping thin rounds of raw potato over shavings of black truffle as if he were dealing cards. “Don’t waste any of that truffle,” Splichal tells him. “That thing is like a diamond; it cost 120 bucks.”
Another chef hands Joachim two haricots verts to sample; he gives his thumbs-up approval.
Christine walks in just as a couple of cabbage heads go flying in the air and asks, “Can we let two more people come for dinner?”
“No one else,” Joachim says, “not even the Pope.” Then he picks up a hunk of foie gras and begins slicing. “Hey, is someone checking the bathrooms?” he asks. “Do we have toilet paper?”
Chef de cuisine Traci de Jardin tests a fingerful of lobster sauce and smiles wide. “Yeah, killer!” she says. “This sauce is great!”
At 6:15 (“Fifty minutes to go,” Joachim shouts), Patina is in chaos. “Where’s the tailor?” Joachim asks. “Are my waiters going to work in underpants?”
Five minutes later the tailor arrives, just behind Tom Andre, who’s brought the menu covers fresh from the printer. At 6:25 the mirrors for the bathrooms get delivered and the carpenter hustles to get them into place. The only major item missing is the glass for the front door. “I think it’s sexy,” Joachim jokes. But when the window installers are still measuring at 6:40 (20 minutes to go), Joachim begins muttering, “Never again, never again.”
HOT RESTAURANT: It’s a little after 6 p.m. and Campanile’s first customers of the evening have started to arrive. Mark Peel picks up a blowtorch. “Time to start a fire,” he says.
Roasted lamb shoulders fill a huge shallow pan; a heavy layer of thick rosemary branches, dried to a gray brittleness in the oven, blankets the meat. It looks like the floor of a forest in mid-August.
Peel ignites the torch and blasts the lamb. Within seconds, the lamb is aflame. The rosemary crackles excitedly and then withers, turning first a hot ember-red and then a deathly white-gray. Wherever the flames recede, Peel retorches, setting off new flurries of heat and smoke.
“I tried matches,” he says, “but a blowtorch gives you more control.”
Finally, as the mass of rosemary turns mostly black, Peel aims the blowtorch at one last branch and sets the fiery spear of herb in the middle of the pan. Then he turns off the torch and waits for the smoke to clear.
Peel’s lamb, which he jokes was called “the dish of the ‘90s” by a magazine nearly a year before Campanile opened, has become the most popular entree on the menu. “It outsells the chicken, and it outsells the salmon--by 50%,” Peel says. “We do twice as much as I thought we would.
“But they didn’t like the skate,” he says. Some customers complained that it was too fishy and sent the dish back.
“It’s such an unusual fish,” Peel says, “People didn’t know what they were getting.” It was 86’d from the menu just a few days after the restaurant’s opening.
Backups in the kitchen are what really irk Peel, however. Too often in the beginning, customers would wait an hour or more for their food, not because of bad service but because the kitchen couldn’t get the food out. It’s the curse of almost every new restaurant.
Another part of the problem: Peel tried to do too much of the work. Like a stereotypical dad overly protective of his barbecue, Peel is the czar of the grill in a restaurant with a menu full of dishes in need of grilling. “Sometimes I would be working like a crazy person, completely in the weeds, while three people had nothing to do,” Peel says.
Adjustments have been made, but Peel doesn’t anticipate ever having a completely smooth-running kitchen. “You always want to play it close to the edge,” he says. “If it’s too easy, you get sloppy.”
FINAL WORDS: With just 20 minutes to go, Joachim Splichal addresses his waiters:
“I don’t ever want to hear a no; that word doesn’t exist here. Always seat the man under the track lighting--women don’t like the exposure and men love the spotlight. Never put the coffee on until the first course is out of the kitchen. Don’t spill sauce on anybody, and don’t overpour.
“If someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, don’t tell them some kind of bull. Finally, be gracious, be nice, be humble and good luck.”
Next week: A review of Campanile.