The Bazaar by José Andrés, a Beverly Hills, Calif., bar and restaurant, cost more than $12 million to build. It serves no appetizers or entrees: All meals are made up of tapas, and signature items include drinks and canapés dipped in vats of liquid nitrogen. First-time visitors might wander the ground floor of the SLS Hotel looking for the restaurant—and not realize that they are already standing in it. A palm-reader roams the floor, offering predictions.
This restaurant—packed at a time when many others are discounting or closing their doors—may be the future of fine dining.
A tapas-style menu, a hotel location and a major focus on the bar scene are hallmarks of restaurants around the country that are best surviving the economic turmoil of the past year. These components are also likely to be the defining traits of the next generation of high-end restaurants, say many leading restaurateurs, and are already being deployed in cities across the country.
Darko ZagarThe Bazaar’s salt-air margarita.
Since opening a little over a year ago, the Bazaar has grossed $13 million, says Sam Nazarian, the chief executive of SBE Entertainment Group, the hospitality company that owns the restaurant and the SLS Hotel. Only 50 restaurants in the country grossed more last year, according to data from Restaurant & Institutions, a trade publication. That makes the restaurant a bright spot for Mr. Nazarian, whose company has recently made significant investments in hotels, several of which carry large debt loads, only to face a steep downturn in the luxury hotel business.
Prime-time reservations in the 417-seat restaurant are hard to land, and Natalie Portman and Salma Hayek are regulars, the restaurant says. David Beckham was there on a recent Sunday night. (Representatives for the celebrities declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests for comment.) Mr. Andrés, the chef, was recently chosen as one of GQ Magazine’s Men of the Year.
Meanwhile, the $8 billion fine-dining business—the category of meals costing $70 and up—has been the hardest-hit sector of the struggling restaurant industry. Nearly every city has lost one of its most famous restaurants in the past two years, from the Striped Bass and Susanna Foo in Philadelphia to D’Amico Cucina in Minneapolis to Boston’s Icarus and New York’s Chanterelle.
Darko ZagarThe Bazaar’s mussels in escabeche.
In this atmosphere, “a hundred percent of people told us this was crazy before we started,” Mr. Nazarian says. The restaurant is a collection of spaces, with kitchens, tables and lounge chairs spread over 12,500 square feet. A large, dark bar anchoring the space is flanked by two dining areas—one decorated in white, the other in black with red accents—and a pastel-accented dessert area, called the Patisserie. The bar area gets so packed that the hotel sometimes puts up a velvet rope at the entrance to the Bazaar to control the crowd.
The menu is Spanish, divided into dishes that are traditional and “modern”—the unusual creations of Mr. Andrés, who in his youth cooked at Spain’s El Bulli, where chef Ferran Adrià pioneered the field of molecular gastronomy. A mobile cart of liquid nitrogen wheels up to tables that order a $20 Brazilian cocktail, which is dipped and instantly frozen in the steaming brew. Another cart offers “Cotton Candy Foie Gras,” a block of rich paté that a waiter twirls in spun sugar. A third cart serves “caviar cones,” fish eggs served in paper-thin pastry cones. The average check at the Bazaar is $96.44 a person.
Here are some of the strategies behind the Bazaar’s success, and a forecast of how they might shape the fine-dining landscape in the near future.
Snacks Replace the Meal
THE BAZAAR: Serves only tapas, or small plates, which can be ordered a la carte or as part of a multicourse menu.
Darko ZagarThe Bazaar’s ‘modern olives,’ made from olive oil inside a thin membrane of oil.
THE FUTURE? Small-plates restaurants have been growing throughout the decade, but in the past year have made a quantum leap in popularity as restaurateurs look for ways to offer customers cheaper food without appearing to discount.
In November, New York’s Tabla restaurant, from restaurateur Danny Meyer, scrapped its mandatory $89 tasting menu in favor of an a la carte menu with many small plates. Popular new small-plates restaurants from top chefs around the country range from Michelle Bernstein’s Sra. Martinez in Miami to Ginger Park, with chef Patricia Yeo, in Boston to Samar by Stephan Pyles in Dallas. Over the past four years, Philadelphia chef Jose Garces has built a small empire of five small-plates restaurants and plans to open three more next year.
The small-plates format is a clever way around consumers’ psychological barriers to restaurant spending. Consumer research shows that patrons order more when individual dishes are priced fairly low, and they don’t spend time adding up the costs. Especially while the economy is soft, many fine-dining restaurants will offer a small-plates menu, either as a bar menu or instead of a traditional menu.
OR A FAD? Tapas are a Spanish tradition but not all food works tapas-style, and some diners will be reluctant to give up the familiar appetizer-entrée-dessert approach to a nice dinner out.
Darko ZagarThe Bazaar’s steamed bun with caviar.
It’s in a Hotel
THE BAZAAR: On the ground floor of the trendy SLS Hotel
THE FUTURE? Hotel restaurants have long been associated with mediocrity, but these days, hotels are among the only investors willing to bankroll big, splashy new restaurants. Restaurateurs say fine dining will largely migrate into hotels, resorts and some commercial developments in the coming years.
Some of the most notable restaurant openings in recent months have been in hotels, including Mr. Meyer’s Maialino, which opened in November at New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel. Chef David Chang, who rose to fame through his Momofuku restaurants, plans to open his first hotel restaurant, Má Pêche, in New York’s Chambers Hotel in the first quarter of next year. Wolfgang Puck’s company is in negotiations to open a restaurant at the Ritz Carlton in downtown Los Angeles.
Three years ago, restaurateur Stephen Starr raised $15 million to build Buddakan and $11 million for Morimoto, both non-hotel restaurants in New York. “Getting that kind of money today for restaurants is impossible. It’ll never happen in our lifetime again,” Mr. Starr says.
OR A FAD? Even marriages between stylish hotels and famous chefs can go wrong. British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay recently transferred interests in his restaurants in Los Angeles and New York back to the hotels in which they are located, amid rocky performances. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who has expanded aggressively in hotels around the world, recently separated from the Chambers Hotel in Minneapolis, which chose a local restaurateur, Richard D’Amico, to open a restaurant there instead.
The Bar Is the Focus
THE BAZAAR: The Bazaar’s Bar Centro is located in the middle of the restaurant. About 35% of the Bazaar’s gross sales are from alcohol, easily beating the 25% fine-dining industry standard.
THE FUTURE? All restaurants aspire to high alcohol sales, because the margins are better than on food sales. In the past, fine-dining restaurants relied mainly on selling wine for liquor revenue. But during the recession, many have gambled with their haute images and gotten more aggressive about selling cocktails and beer. Some have ripped out dining room tables to expand their bar areas, and many have launched bar menus. Even the famed New York restaurant Per Se rolled out a lounge menu where diners can order a la carte (the dining room is strictly prix fixe).
OR A FAD? An oversized bar area can strip a high-end restaurant of its classy image—and take the focus off a chef’s handiwork. “Turning into bars is a terrible thing for our industry,” says Joe Bastianich, partner with Mario Batali in 20 restaurants. Many restaurateurs will focus on boosting bar sales as a temporary survival strategy, until the economy picks up.
THE BAZAAR: With no white tablecloths in the main dining areas—once the ubiquitous symbol of fine dining—and some food served in tin cans, the restaurant keeps things casual, even though the average check is nearly $100.
THE FUTURE? White tablecloths are practically a relic. At City Center, the $8.5 billion Las Vegas development that started opening venues this month, only two restaurants out of 28 currently plan to use white linen. Most restaurateurs say that at least for the next two or three years, they will be opening more casual places.
OR A FAD? As restaurants increasingly go downscale, a handful of restaurateurs see an opportunity to grab the fine-dining spotlight. Mr. Bastianich has eliminated a casual side room off the expensive Del Posto restaurant in New York. The goal: To distinguish Del Posto as more luxurious and special. “It’s our couture line,” Mr. Bastianich says. High-profile openings for next year include Patina Restaurant Group’s restaurant slated for New York’s Lincoln Center, with chef Jonathan Benno, and Twist, a luxurious white-tablecloth restaurant opening at City Center. Of note: Both of these projects were planned well before the recession struck.
The Restaurant Is the Entertainment
THE BAZAAR: Mr. Nazarian first made his name in the hospitality business opening Los Angeles nightclubs, and a nightclub atmosphere permeates the restaurant. Theatrical touches include a palm reader on weekends and a velvet rope on nights when the bar is at capacity.
THE FUTURE? Mr. Chang predicts that in the future, more fine-dining chefs will replace waiters and serve the food themselves, as they do at his Momofuku Ko in New York. D’Amico Kitchen in Minneapolis splashes a live streamed video of the action inside its kitchen on an outside wall. Several restaurants, from Oliveto in Oakland, Calif., to L20 in Chicago, publish elaborate blogs about their ingredients and cooking.
OR A FAD? Restaurateurs see theatricality as increasingly important, but most say they are wary of crossing the line into a nightclub atmosphere. More restaurants will find ways to exploit the public’s interest in food culture with blogs, kitchen visits and face time with chefs, but few will go as far as the Bazaar does.
THE BAZAAR: Half the menu belongs to the category of avant-garde cuisine, or molecular gastronomy, which uses advances in culinary science to create new flavors and textures. Mr. Andrés’s “olive oil bon bon,” for example, looks like a tiny glass sculpture but is in fact olive oil encased in solidified sugar; bite down and it bursts flavorfully in the mouth.
THE FUTURE? Avant-garde cuisine has transformed fine dining in Europe. American avant-garde chefs, from Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea to Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 in New York, are heroes to many young chefs.
OR A FAD? Chefs and food writers have embraced molecular gastronomy as the future, but restaurant history is littered with failed avant-garde restaurants, from Atlanta’s Blais, which lasted six months, to La Broche in Miami, a short-lived outpost of the well-regarded Madrid restaurant.
Restaurateurs predict that molecular gastronomy will keep growing—in the future, every major city might have one place serving it—but that most restaurant fare will remain conventional.
The Open Floor Plan
THE BAZAAR: The restaurant is spread out over 12,500 square feet of hotel lobby, divided into two distinctly designed dining areas, a tasting room, a dessert area, a bar and lounge and a retail shop.
THE FUTURE? Fine-dining restaurants of the future will likely have free-flowing floor plans that are loosely divided into distinct areas, several restaurateurs say. The goal is to get diners to come back more often, offering them a different ambience each time. Many restaurants will eliminate separate private dining rooms, particularly in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where real estate is especially expensive. These rooms were built throughout the decade as corporate dinner parties boomed, but sat empty during a steep decline in corporate entertaining this past year.
OR A FAD? Once the economy bounces back and companies return to spending on dinners and entertainment, many restaurants will court their lucrative business aggressively and again offer private dining rooms.