It was with relief and confidence that Bill and I transitioned from workaday employees to dealing with the matter of starting a restaurant. I recall that the feeling of having what I thought were good ideas and the determination to break away from life as I knew it was an intoxicating sensation. It was a palpable chemical rush to destroy the bubble I'd inhabited and put my sights squarely on an unknown horizon. Nothing could go wrong because it was Change that mattered on a primary level. Starting a restaurant was at first a construct and a tool of liberation. Unemployment was an opportunity. All was right in the world. Bring on the writer's strike! Little did I know. And so I proceeded to look for a location.
By January a location was determined. The primary idea was to open a place close to where we both lived. No more brutal 30 mile drives to a location against the traffic. No more struggling to stay awake while driving back to Los Angeles late at night from Newhall or San Pedro. I dreamed of a location that would be on the perimeter of a new cozy reality. At arms length but not much farther.
Echo Park is a part of the old L.A. A mile and a half from where I live, it's a mostly residential part of town, consisting by and large of modest stucco and wood frame bungalows dating back well into the 20th century. Hispanic for several generations, in recent years gentrification has been on the march from Silver Lake to the west. The place has a bohemian history dating back to the 19th century and cheap rents have maintained a significant arts and music culture. Echo Park has significant blight as well. The main streets are populated by hispanic women with small children, vendors selling cut fruit or bacon-wrapped hotdogs, scruffy, youthful white and brown people, the unemployed, the crazy, the serially intoxicated. As evening nears, there is traffic back into the hills and canyons as the gainfully employed return from work (and decide what they're going to eat for dinner). On some level, Echo Park is analogous to Allston, Mass., namesake of the restaurant, it's unprepossessing daytime streetlife giving way to a robust and determined club crowd. The two neighborhoods were also equally likely to have a yacht club.
The location for the restaurant was a block off of Sunset Blvd. A little out of the way. In fact, it was quite buried visually by a flamboyantly advertised liquor store next door. Maybe its low profile will serve it well, I thought. A place a little under the radar that will catch on by word of mouth ... One attraction was that it was for sale and the lot included four occupied bungalows, the rents of which along with the restaurant maintained a potential mortgage. "Restaurateur/landlord."
Wow, this was getting fun.
Escrow began. Or so I thought. We established a long escrow period figuring that it might take at least three months to get the restaurant going. Ha! There was a liquor license escrow going as well. We'd open in the summer with our home-made small plates genius. Pull a wine list together. Good to go. How many last minute film shoots had I prepped for in a day or two? A mere bag of shells, as it were for two talented guys like ourselves. Meanwhile inspections proceeded and our minds raced, full of all the wonderful things we would serve in our new restaurant. We dreamt of glowing reviews, awards and lines out the door. 30 days after I thought the escrow had commenced, the seller's agent mentioned that funds had yet to be deposited in the account. No one had yet requested funds, we pointed out, so this was, surely only a technicality. In my mind, however, I knew escrow couldn't begin without payment and with this oversight unchecked until now, I thought that Bill and I might secretly bank more time to get this increasingly ominous thing together. There were a few more details than either of us had anticipated.
In the midst of wondering about how the octopus should be prepared or whether or not we need a California Chardonnay on the list, since neither of us drank it, I got an early morning call from my real estate agent advising me to cancel the escrow. There was much that needed doing on the property and ordinarily buyer and seller come to some sort of agreement over paying for the work. The seller in this case was intransigent. It was take it or leave it. We began to look elsewhere.
In the meantime, the recipes started developing. We liked modest cuts of meat that could be slow-cooked into hearty dishes. We figured on squid and octopus, initially avoiding delicate fresh fish in a potentially unbusy restaurant. We did food costs per plate, free associated ingredients and tried mixing and matching each others offerings, cooking constantly and scribbling earnestly in note books we carried everywhere. We ate at robata bars, wine bars, small plates restaurants, taco stands and dim sum joints. It was a heady time; the entire culinary world was layed out at our feet. Knowing that we couldn't and didn't want to reinvent the wheel, we arrived on an 'ambitious neighborhood restaurant' concept. There was a certain defiance to overachieving culinary expertise, we were cooking for the people. We knew that we could not attain to the precious qualities achieved by other restaurants we loved, nor did we want to. Our more plainspoken food with it's varied and occasionally exotic influences coupled with a generous selection of wines by the glass was maybe just the thing for the area was looking for.
This was the time that the economy was really starting to go south. Bear Stearns had just collapsed. We anticipated a softening of the real estate market and now the restaurant location was officially undetermined, though Echo Park would surely be revisited. More time now to accumulate ideas. In addition, the siren song beckoned. Our TV show was going back into production in May and like so many mesmerized sailors, we heeded its call and went back to the set.
Stay tuned for the next installment from Charlie and Bill!