The snow was not yet clinging to the street nor even flurrying down hard when the house lights dimmed at the 92Y. Onto the stage the program director to introduce a new/old documentary about Danny Meyer, he of Shake Shack, Eleven Madison Park, Gramercy Tavern, and a bunch of other places, called The Restaurateur (although it was pronounced Restauranteur by the program director). She lauded "you, foodies" for braving the elements (elements which would not give full throttle to their wrath until well after eleven). Then the documentary — shot in 1998, as both Tabla and Eleven Madison Park were readying to open — flickered to life. Big Night it wasn't.
I've seen great restaurant opening documentaries before. Andrew Rossi's chronicle of Le Cirque, A Table In Heaven, captured all that was dramatic and emotional, joyous and heartbreaking about not just Le Cirque but the entire Maccioni crowd including the tragic yet deeply sympathetic tyrant Sirio Maccioni. But this film — which though short is also endless — has as its protagonist Danny Meyer, a man eternally cheerful, always positive, entirely professional, and courteous. He is, in a word, hospitable. And if you look up on IMDB characters who can be described thusly, you'd find a shallow bench. The well-adjusted, the rational, the bright-eyed, good drama does not make.
Not that there's not drama. Chef Brian Goode quit shortly before opening Eleven Madison Park. After a short stint at One If By Land, Two If By Sea, the man disappeared. Then Kerry Hefernan took over, only to be
canned moved to Meyer's catering concern after two two-star NYT reviews. [Hey, if a restaurant gets two two-star reviews from the New York Times, is it then a four-star restaurant? Discuss.] Now Daniel Humm is there and the place got four stars and it is amazing and yay. Happy ending. Whatever, Amanda Kludt did a great job summarizing the whole shebang on Eater NY a while back. I won't attempt to better her work.
Suffice to say, there wasn't enough drama. Everything turned out tits. When the film ends, Eleven Madison Park has four stars and Tabla is humming (ha!) along fine. I was bored out of my mind and played Hangman. E N E _ A. And I N D O L E N T
The actual drama wasn't in the film at all. Tabla, as we all know, has closed and so casts a tragic pall over Mr. Meyer's pronouncement that his restaurants are built to last for the next twenty years. Tabla only made it to twelve.
Similarly, the most exciting part of the evening — though again, in person Mr. Meyer is so pleasant and well-spoken even when discussing sad things they seem pleasant — was the post-screening talk. How exactly did Tabla go under? Well, this: "In the final months, the sales at the Bread Bar [Tabla's lower end restaurant] were going up but the sales at Tabla were flat on the good weeks and going down normally." That makes sense then. It's the old occupancy-vs-rate dilemma hotels face around the world. Full beds do not necessarily make a profitable hotel. The same holds true for restaurants.
Anyway, Meyer was pretty good closing the restaurant. He gave the staff a quarter of a year's worth of notice. Ditto regulars and the landlord. And the Tabla staff seem to have landed on their feet. [Especially maitre d' Farnsworth Bentley, then known as Derrick Watkins and now famous for holding P. Diddy's umbrella.] Meyer related this all with little drama and a twinkle in his eye. Then he tra-la-la'd to off to his successful restaurant empire and the crowd shuffled out into the snow-covered street, two hours older and no more successful for it.
Video: The Restaurateur Trailer