Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
There were a lot of moving parts before Graham Elliot opened Graham Elliot Bistro and during its first year. The restaurant, a spur of the moment find, came about in an organic way and continues to change. Elliot did the opposite of Kentucky Fried Chicken by changing the name from initials to full words, he changed parts of the menu and pricing, he changed the physical menus themselves from being printed on record sleeves. He even had a well-publicized public spat with Steve Dolinsky.
Elliot seems to like the form the restaurant has adapted into. Elliot spoke on the phone on set in Los Angeles while shooting the pilot for "Covert Kitchens" (Spike TV) and later after putting his kid in the bath, demonstrating two sides of his life. He'll find out in August or September whether the show gets picked up for a full season; Graham Elliot Bistro has its first birthday next week.
How has the first year gone for you?
It's been great. I'd say any restaurant that has its own soul and personality constantly evolves rather than opening a restaurant and having it be the same as you expected it to be once you get feedback from the guests and the team and everyone in between. The biggest thing was letting the whole name G.E.B. be Graham Elliot Bistro. It was something that people didn't really understand in regards to exactly what it was and what the initials meant. It could have been a laundry service or a paint supply company based on the logo and the three initials. Things like that you're constantly tweaking.
What kind of things have people been saying?
I think people really like it. It's super approachable. The patio in the back has been a huge draw. It's got an old world feel to it with the original cobblestone brick that's out there and it's hidden in an alleyway separated by other buildings. There are certain aspects of the food—it's so in the opposite direction of Graham Elliot—it's way more approachable, this idea of three ingredients per dish and simple techniques. There's nothing sous vide or made with liquid nitrogen. It's grilling and roasting and searing.
It's also become a neighborhood restaurant, which is funny because it's on Randolph Street so everyone thinks, "Oh, that's restaurant row." But this restaurant could be located in any part of Chicago or anywhere else and I think it would still resonate with everybody.
What's the clientele like? Is it different than what you expected?
When we opened the restaurant we wanted to do food that we're excited to cook as well as eat and we think would resonate with people. As far as clientele goes, there's a lot of people that come in that aren't coming in simply because its Graham Elliot and he's on a TV show. There are a lot of people that come in and have never heard of the name, they don't know what it is, they walk by and are stopping in and trying a couple apps or getting some drinks.
What about the food aspects of the restaurant? As far as prices go, you wanted to keep it under $20 and you touched on the three ingredient thing.
I thought that was a great selling point. We did it and we had the menu formatted that way, but in order to just break even to serve a great product and it had to be $20, it's going to be a 4 ounce (cut). So you have people that are immediately commenting whether it's to me on Twitter or via Yelp or writing us an email saying, "I don't feel that there was value. My food was too small." That was the perception, so we've evolved. You're going to get an 8oz piece of steak and it's going to be $34 and it doesn't feel like anyone's batting an eye at that. It's not even about the cost as much as perceived value of what's on the plate.
And you have stuff on there that's more than double that now. The rib eye is $44 the filet is $42.
What's amazing is that those are some of the biggest sellers. If you want more straightforward simple food, there's that option, and you can order a steak or a chop. Half the menu is $14 and under. There's a little something for everyone and at the end of the day we max out at 150 covers. But the food is more intricate now, not as far as plating or any of that craziness. No tweezers and stuff. But we could be making a rabbit bacon and wrapping it around a loin then taking that whole thing and making rabbit hash for the brunch menu.
On the other side with the décor, there was a lot made out of that when it first opened about how menus were on old record sleeves, the church-meets-rock thing. How do you think that went over?
The menus changed because what we were hearing from everyone is that there weren't enough descriptions. We had it just like on a typewriter, three words: beef with arugula; tomato and olive oil. People wanted to know what the tomatoes were and how the olive oil was done. And to do that we needed bigger paper that didn't work on the records. But the music in the room, the candles are still there, the amp at the host stand is there?all of those church type things. When everyone's asking what is it, well it's our take on this. I think that's a sign of strength, being humble enough to say, "I think this is fun. I think this is super cool."
Do you feel like any of your vision was compromised?
I think that if you looked at Graham Elliot when it opened, it was very similar to what the bistro was when it was opened. I think that the bistro over the last year—the key word would be mature. It's not stuffy, but it's more refined, if you will. In the beginning we thought, "Maybe we'll do some small plates." And now it's a little more put together.
How has business been over the whole year?
Business has been great. I think that it's exactly where we thought it would be. The only thing wasn't what we predicted was brunch, which we did on Saturday and Sunday. We ended up nixing Saturday because there didn't seem to be enough demand, but Sunday has now become busier than ever. And I don't want to say we underestimated, but thinking it was going to be more of a young crowd and a lower check average, and doing more covers and a faster turn. It has kind of been the opposite.
I have to ask about that situation with Steve Dolinsky. What do you think about that now?
It's funny and I'll be completely honest—I never had an issue with Steve Dolinsky. It's always easy to poke fun at the guy that leaves a signed autographed headshot in all the restaurants. We actually thought about getting one blown up and have it hanging at the door when we opened, but we didn't. But really, when you live tweet through a meal, and talk about how shitty it is and you hate the décor and you sit there through the whole meal talking about that, I think that it's just really poor form.
One of the joys and luxuries in being an owner is being able to say, "I don't want you in my house and I don't feel like cooking for you." I made it a point for my team to make sure that he was not welcome there and he was eating lunch and I get the call, "Hey, I just noticed that Steve Dolinsky is here. What do you want me to do?" I want you to tell him that he's not welcome and please exit we will take care of whatever he's eaten up until then. And that was that—I didn't pay attention to any of the noise afterwards.
But what I will say, as far as character goes, when my son Jedi was born nine months ago, the first week he ended up having to go to the hospital for like six days. Steve Dolinsky wrote me a personal email that said, "I know your kid is in the hospital, I hope everything's going okay." I thought that was extremely—the better man kind of thing. So I humbly wrote back and I appreciated it. Because it could have been a great opportunity for him to make something publicly like that to make himself look good and the fact that he just did it one-to-one—I thought was a really classy move.
I guess what I'm getting to is that I still call people out. When Time Out Chicago laid off everybody and went to digital I made sure to tweet to Julia Kramer that I had a dishwashing position open at the bistro for her to help her continue her writing career. I definitely like to have fun and that whole air of, "Oh it's sour grapes and you should just take it." I think that's all out the window. It's the wild west of the food world.
How did that conversation with Steve Dolinsky go?
I think he didn't know what to expect or what was going on then he left and tweeted about it. As far as I recall that was kind of it. I wrote to him on Twitter to make sure he knew that anyone that is going to show as little respect as you did and do something like that I'm not obliged at all to have to cook for you.
There are a lot of chefs who want Michelin stars and there are also guys that follow their vision, what they like to cook and what they like to eat. There's always some grey area where people try to do a little of both. What are you trying to do?
I think that first and foremost, it's striving for stars and making that restaurant as incredible as it can be at Graham Elliot. I think for the bistro its trying to do just as much as far as dedication and cookery and love of food service with zero pretention and the idea that you can give us zero stars all day long because we're not even playing that game—we are in a completely different sport. I think that's where the bistro lies.
What we were doing was looking for a Graham Burger space and our broker said he had a space on Randolph that he just found and the rent is incredible. So we went and looked at it and were like, "Yeah, we'll take it." and the next day we were like, "Wait, what are we going to do?" There was no plan.
None of the décor elements were in your head before?
No, literally what happened was we had a budget and an idea. I looked at craigslist and found—I've always loved Catholicism and the artistry and all the beautiful stuff with it. As we stripped away some things we found under the ceiling—I don't know how old it is or where it's from, but its an 8 ft. x 5 ft. piece that had these cherubs floating around, so that lent itself to the angelic churchy kind of thing. And any restaurant that we do, music is going to play a big part. So I think that's how it came together.
And your happy with how it all turned out?
Yeah, absolutely. I think you learn with everything that next year it could be a steakhouse and a year from that it could be a sushi joint. Maybe we move Graham Elliot over to that space and turn the old Graham Elliot space into a bistro. Everything is always moving. You don't want to be the person that keeps things the same or doesn't evolve or change because they're the one that is forgotten about or is the one that's going to close up and die. That's how I've always been with playing music or writing or any other artistic outlets that I have and that I enjoy. I don't think a restaurant is any different.
· All Graham Elliot Bistro Coverage [~ECHI~]
· All Graham Elliot Coverage [~ECHI~]
· Graham Elliot [Official Site]
[Photo: Graham Elliot]