Come in, we’re open: The pain and passion of opening a restaurant

Anthony Bourdain's advice to aspiring restaurateurs is: don't open a restaurant. You will lose money, you will fail. So I pull the large copper door open.

I pull the door open. It’s large and made from copper and heavy. The restaurant is dark. Light splashes in through the large open windows up front but the walls are burgundy, the tables dark chocolate, the recesses burgeon with shadows. A couple of chefs sporting paisley bandannas are chopping and stirring in the open kitchen, prepping root vegetables and simmering animal bones and sipping broth from mugs frothing with steam.

It’s way past noon but I say good morning, brew coffee in the dark wait station, take my own steaming mug and tuck into the office in the back. Something inside me yawns and stretches, unfolds, peers outward. My brain stirs. My day begins.

The restaurant is two weeks new. I landed a management spot and for the first time in ten years in this industry I’ve stepped off the floor, no longer serving tables but observing them, stepping in when I’m needed, wandering by to chat or smooth wrinkles in the others’ steps of service — a plate cleared here, a steak knife delivered there.

Sometimes there are guests who need to be soothed, a kitchen crisis averted, a server to console, but largely I feel like I’m floating above the scene rather than an active participant in it. I’ve opened other places before, other restaurants in other cities with other servers and chefs, the chaos of fifty new people learning new menus and new spaces, tasting wine and beer, memorizing names of VIPs.

In new restaurants almost every guest is a friend of the chef, of the owners. Everyone is new, bound by the brotherhood of a sudden stumbling together towards a far away finish line but still mostly strangers. We train for a week and open our doors and pray for good business and pray not to fuck up too badly. Usually we fuck up anyway.

Our team here is strong and Seattle restaurateurs share an unusual camaraderie, but I walked into this experience half expecting disaster. I’d lain awake before Day One and cycled through memories of other openings, all disasters.

A French bistro in Little Rock where the servers had never even heard of a lentil, where we held Easter brunch three weeks into service, hour long ticket times, silent faces in the dining room swearing revenge for the destroyed holiday, our general manager curled around a bottle of whiskey once the door closed behind the last guest.

A Chili’s in Myrtle Beach, the training like summer camp, the servers in bright red T-shirts and plastic grins chanting an opening cheer led by the camp-counselor trainers, all of us dissolving beneath grubby tourists scraped in by the heat, devouring the AC and our spirits, the kitchen gradually imploding, the slow collapse of ill-trained twenty-something stoners.

A fancy-casual seafood joint in the self-proclaimed oldest seaside resort town in the states — Pawley’s Island, South Carolina — where our clientele were as rich as they were old and they squinted and sneered at us and the menu and nothing we could do would compare to the place that had been there before.

We were set up for failure before we began and our doors closed a year later.

All of these places are closed now.

Anthony Bourdain’s advice to restaurateurs is, essentially, this: don’t open a restaurant. You will lose money, you will close your doors, you will not succeed; almost nobody does. Your favorite place to eat has been fighting a losing battle since the day it began and has had very few good years, enough to keep it afloat but barely. The fact that any place succeeds, that we have places to dine in at all, is miraculous when you consider how many people have to eat out each night for all of those places to stay open.

Millennials might change this, though we don’t know for how long. We spend more money on food than Gen X and the Boomers, we dine out more often and more particularly, especially here in Seattle where almost everyone is vegetarian or gluten-free and obsessed with all things local and millennials keep pouring in thanks to Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google.

Even my bosses have noticed a shift in food culture since they first started out: being a restaurant owner used to be sort of a fringe thing. Now it’s the latest hit. But that still doesn’t guarantee a success.

For me the best part of a restaurant opening is that everyone’s excited about the menu. We talk about food so much more. Usually I’m only the kitchen’s diplomat for a few select tables each night, people who aren’t just hungry but hungry, a hunger that is seen in the eyes, the way they devour a menu and salivate over each word.

These are my favorite people, the ones guided by all senses and not just a need to add fuel to their gut. They eat by chewing, not inhaling; they quietly savor each morsel of their experience — the crunch of cutting into the perfectly seared crust of a steak, the glub of wine flowing into a goblet-shaped glass, the gentle lilt of candlelight shimmering through clinking ice cubes.

The connoisseurs, the epicureans, the palate-obsessed: these are the main people who come in the first week, the first month, the first year. They are the ones we depend on to keep our doors open. They are the ones who, like me, spend a few minutes each day checking Seattle Met, Eater Weekly, Food and WineBon Appetit for the latest food and restaurant news, the ones who have our menu memorized before they come in, who know our chef by first name and tell me to send them my favorites. They are my soul mates and in our first waking moments it thrills me to cater to them because this is what I was built for.

And also because I know what will happen if they never come back.