On ice cream, Eric Ripert and Christmas trees
The restaurant world is full of one-trick ponies. It is, in a way, designed for them -- built up like a machine made for repetitive specialization. Grill men are grill men. Chefs who do Italian are (generally) not capable of being pulled out of their element and told to make sushi. Line cooks and bakers are like two distantly-related species without even a language in common, and there are sauciers who, if by some emergency, end up one day with the egg whisk or prep-ninja's knife in their clammy hand, will look at the thing like it is the wrong end of a snake and work like some brain-damaged chimp with serious motor-control issues.
This has got to work...
It goes further than this. A French restaurant is a French restaurant by dint of the talent arrayed on its line, not necessarily because of the vision of the owner, the designer, the architect or the livery of the servers on the floor. This seems stupidly obvious, but really, it isn't. An owner can decide to open a French restaurant. He can decorate it with pictures of the Eiffel Tower and repro posters from Le Chat Noir, dress his FOH staff in ankle-length aprons and berets and give it a name like Le Fromage Vilain, but that will all mean precisely dick if he then goes and hires an Italian saucier, a Mexican grillman who made his bones in American steakhouses and some schoolboy exec with a hard-on for Pac-Rim fusion. Looked at from the opposing angle, Le Bernardin is one of the best restaurants in the world. It is owned by a French woman (Maguy Le Coze), run by a French man (Eric Ripert), decorated in the style of the classic Le/La houses of Manhattan's own gilded age and filled with staff who excel in their French service and pronunciation of words like Chateau and Lafite. But Le Bernardin is not a French restaurant because Ripert? He's a seafood expert, a poissonarde. And so, he runs a fish restaurant, with skate wing on the menu, crusted in nori, charred octopus with fermented black beans, and smoked yellowfine tuna prosciutto alongside the more traditional langoustine with shaved foie gras and striped bass in sauce perigord.
I want to go to there
Specialists do what they do, and the true Renaissance man? He's a rare bird in an industry founded on rigorous training, exacting specificity and the mindless repetition of ten thousand basic tasks. A Renaissance restaurant is even more rare. "Fusion" is generally what they call a kitchen that can't get its act together enough to settle on one cuisine. "Eclectic" is the gentlest description for a house that serves a shotgun spread of dishes that cross too many non-historical borders. "Closed" is almost always the word that will be used to eventually describe them both.
So what, then, in this highly specialized and unforgivingly single-minded industry, is a fella supposed to do when he realizes he has opened a restaurant that has taken this one-note mentality too far? When he has backed himself into a highly specific, tragic corner with a cupcake restaurant next door to a diabetes treatment center, a hot soup and skewered meat joint across the street from a school for the blind, a French brasserie in George Bush's backyard or, perhaps, an artisan ice cream parlor in a city (like Denver) that occasionally sees a lengthy winter?
Most often, he panics. And restaurant-world panic is like no other panic on earth in its range of humor, irony and terrible ideas. I've seen one-trick coffee shops suddenly go crazy with the baked goods and sandwiches (which is not a terrible idea or an abrupt departure, but rarely comes to anything good) when profits start to stagnate. I've seen dessert bars leverage everything for a liquor license and a slab of zinc, and cupcake joints flirt with the notion of late-night hours in an attempt to cash in on that lucrative last-call rush of drunks -- because nothing goes better with a belly full of PBR and Jager depth charges than a nice, sugary lump of dough and frosting.
There was a busy summer gelato shop that went into pushing homemade holiday pies (not a bad idea), and then Halloween pumpkins and Christmas trees to get through the lean months -- a move that just smacked of desperation. (That shop is now closed, but Little Man Ice Cream is doing a variation on the theme this year.) And there have been countless restaurants that, with the wolf at the door, suddenly abandoned everything that had been working in months and years prior and went through increasingly erratic swings in concept and menu (Cuban sandwiches and sushi and two-for-one deals and rock-paper-scissors tournaments and going from fine dining to bar food all in one week) just before throwing in the towel for good. Most of the time this radical vacillation fails and does nothing but speed the doom already written the minute the restaurant's doors were opened.
But every once in a long while, every once-in-a-million, it actually works -- some magic combination is hit, some strange synchronicity achieved, some merciful angel investor flits down from the heavens, whatever -- and the restaurant is saved for a season or a year. It happens just often enough that, when in a bad situation, drastic change can look like a feasible plan for a desperate man moving forward.
It happened in Denver with Red Trolley (this week's review), a place that has quickly expanded to fill every conceivable niche in a neighborhood (Highland) where the niche operation (herbs-only shops, stores that sell punk-rock baby clothes and St. Killian's, one of the better cheese shops around) is more rule than exception. And my guess is that, for years to come, Red Trolley will be the place that panicked owners point to, the model to which they aspire, when looking for ways to save their own one-trick ponies when that one trick begins to look a little bit stale.