Courtesy of Union Square Hospitality Group
Last week I went to a packed screening in New York of Roger Sherman's new documentary about Danny Meyer, The Restaurateur. It's new in that Roger edited it and did follow-up interviews last year, but almost all of the footage was shot in 1998 and 1999, when the Union Square Hospitality Group was building two restaurants at the same time, Eleven Madison Park and Tabla.
I'll have more to say about the movie when the DVD is released, on March 29 (more, that is, than what everyone first remarked, "Tom Colicchio with hair!"). But what was most striking about the evening was the long Q&A afterward between Roger and Danny (I call them by their first names because I know them, and they're Food Channel contributors!).
The first matter to discuss was the painful, recent closing of Tabla, the last night of which was December 30, after more than 12 years. In the movie, Danny says that he's never had to close a restaurant and hopes never to. A large part of it is about his admiration of Floyd Cardoz, the classically trained chef, who is shown cooking at home in an unnamed suburb as the team thinks of what the new menu should be. The Tabla artwork, elaborate mosaic installations on walls and around the oculus, or circular stairwell hole that looks from second floor of the two-story restaurant to the first, is shown in construction. Tabla was ambitious from the start, with a luxe menu upstairs and a more casual "bread bar" below; the food had much of Cardoz's classical French training, with an emphasis more on Indian spices than Indian dishes.
And there's a good deal about the construction of both restaurants—my favorite part of the movie, along with the all-too-brief scenes of service and win-service training, everyone in rehearsal clothes and in the equivalent of rehearsal studios. This is fun, and makes you feel in on the creation as people talking to the camera can't, even though Roger captures anxious moments, especially as both restaurants inevitably run late and payroll costs mount up. (The larger drama is how to make Eleven Madison rise above its two New York Times stars, which it stubbornly keeps through two reviews; in the epilogue we see how Daniel Humm finally wins the coveted four stars, and the simple and unsurprising explanation is: money and a doubling of the kitchen staff.)
When it came to the sad business of closing Tabla, Danny said during the Q&A, he typically wanted to get something he'd never done right. Even more typically, that meant being considerate of the staff. "I can't be proud of what our industry does too often," he said. "The staff shows up for work and finds a padlock on the door and a big sheriff notice. The public has no idea and no warning either." So he gave the staff of 30 kitchen and 90 dining-room workers three months' notice and the landlord "a quarter year plus one day." And he announced the closing on September 30, too. A full 80 percent of the staff stayed through the end, he said, plus all of the managers. Chefs and managers who had moved to other restaurants came back for valedictory turns and to fill in for any employees who found other jobs. Favorite dishes were rotated back in too, like the stuffed onion Roger remembered from the first years.
This all sounded warm and poignant. But of the reasons Danny offered for why they could never make Tabla work—too tight a focus on a non-Western menu, too high a price point upstairs compared with the bread bar on the ground floor, and a decision too late to merge the two menus, as diners had wanted to do from the start—the reason most pertinent to the current troubles I wrote about regarding two recent Boston closings last week was: too many tables. Like Rocca and Ginger Park, the two restaurants I mentioned, Tabla was stylish, had good food, and was well-managed by people who care about the city. And it was too big. "We could never keep 280 seats full," Danny said, or not often enough to keep the restaurant running. In all three cases, the restaurants were built for economies far more active than the ones they had to operate during and try to survive.
I don't know and won't comment on how much notice the Boston restaurants gave or didn't give their employees; that was a very sore point among commenters, and I've heard only the owners' side of the story. But I will say that adequate notice and severance as generous as owners can manage are models any restaurant owner should follow. And in this sad duty Union Square Hospitality Group—the last meal at Tabla was ordered in from Shake Shack, the huge success USHG, unlike most other owners, can console themselves with—did its usual best to set the example others should strive, to the best of their abilities, to follow.