Nobody ever said it was easy running a restaurant, but the saga of hush, which closed suddenly three weeks ago, is really no piece of cake.
Belying its name, hush generated a lot of press almost from the beginning. The restaurant opened with a splash around Valentine’s Day 2004 on South Coast Highway in a spot that had housed a much-admired Mark de Palma establishment. Hush had a lot to live up to, and it did.
Owner Chuck Rock, a veteran in the restaurant business from as far afield as Aspen, Colo. and Ocean City, M.D., and locally grown managing partner Daniel Reyes, spent a reported $1 million to improve the place, already one of the most elegant dining spots in Laguna.
Rock and Reyes, and founding co-partner Jonathan Pfluegar, apparently spared no expense in the year they spent revamping the restaurant, ending up with a 12,000-bottle wine collection to go with an elegant food selection that our reviewers raved about repeatedly over the next six years.
“Sensational” was one word for hush, and “world-class” was another. The place had its own sommelier, or resident wine expert, unheard of for a relatively small establishment. Wine was priced from $32 to $9,500; an ounce of golden Oesetra caviar was $245. But for a time you could also get a gourmet three-course meal for less than $30.
The only complaint: the noise, generated by happy diners crowded into slick, hard-surfaced rooms.
Into this happy hostel of hog-heaven dining enter a now-deceased Newport Beach multi-millionaire financier named Danny Pang.
We don’t know when Pang trained his sights on acquiring hush, we only know, from talking to Rock and Reyes, and reading court papers, that Pang became a frequent flyer at hush, and at some point prior to September, 2008, he offered Rock and Reyes a sum of money for it. They declined. Pang then acquired the building in which the restaurant is located, apparently figuring that owning the hush property would give him a leg up in becoming an upscale restaurateur. That didn’t exactly work out.
As one might imagine in such a touchy landlord-tenant situation, things went from terrible to even worse. At one point, the restaurateurs claimed, Pang fenced off the restaurant’s trash receptacles in an apparent attempt to get city officials to order it shuttered. That’s playing hardball.
Not surprisingly, Rock and Pang ended up in court, and also along for the ride was previous hush property owner Alan Simon, then-publisher of the Laguna Beach Independent, who had, according to court filings, accused the restaurateurs of failing to exercise a lease extension option and sought to have the business evicted from the premises. That was, of course, before he sold the property to Pang.
Rock sued both Pang and Simon in February, 2009, accusing the two of trying to take away the business. I talked to Rock and Reyes in spring, 2009, as the lawsuit was winding its way through the court system. (The other parties didn’t respond to requests for comment.) That was around the time that Pang had been accused by the SEC of running an international Ponzi scheme and was placed under house arrest. Indeed, the hush story seemed to grow unfettered in many directions. Then, four months later, in September, 2009, another shock: Danny Pang died of an apparent drug overdose in his Newport Beach home. In January, Pang’s death was ruled a suicide.
After writing about the restaurant’s legal entanglements, I eventually lost track of the hush story, so I don’t know who, if anyone, won the breach of contract case.
Then the other shoe dropped: perhaps because of the lackluster economy, perhaps for other reasons, the restaurant suddenly closed its doors on Aug. 15 and the place is now an empty shell. There isn’t even a “for lease” sign on the door. The last we wrote about hush was in February, when our dining reviewers gushed about the new chef and his seared duck breast with poached egg on mixed mushroom ragout.
Neither Rock nor Reyes responded to messages, so the hush saga has ended with, well, a kind of hush.
As for Rock, he is also a movie producer, and his Arthaus Pictures is due to release a film, “Black Mass,” based on a critically acclaimed true-life Irish Mafia story next year, according to Independent Movie Data Base. The company is also reported in the trades to be working on a Steve McQueen bio-pic, which seems a fitting next venture for a restaurateur who refused to knuckle under, even to an international financier.