What I do every night is just throw a party,” says Ken Friedman. It’s this ethos that helped Friedman win the 2016 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur — something that can all be traced back to the Spotted Pig, his first restaurant with April Bloomfield, when the place that he expected to be little more than a “neighborhood watering hole,” ended up an internationally renowned gastropub. Since the Spotted Pig opened in New York City in 2004, Friedman and Bloomfield have gone onto open a half dozen more restaurants together. In recent years, Friedman has set his sights on California, the place where, while hanging out at Chez Panisse as a young music industry exec, he had the first inkling that maybe he should work in restaurants instead.
Friedman joined Upsell host Greg Morabito to talk about the projects he has on tap, what exactly makes the Spotted Pig so darn successful, and how being a restaurateur actually isn’t so different from being an A&R guy. Listen to the conversation below, or read on for the full transcript.
As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe via RSS, or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.
Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell Season 3, Episode 6: Ken Friedman, slightly edited for clarity, right here.
Greg Morabito: Our guest on the Eater Upsell today is Ken Friedman, the restaurateur behind a ton of great restaurants that he operates with April Bloomfield in New York, including the Spotted Pig, the Breslin, the John Dory Oyster Bar, and now, White Gold, as well as Tosca Café in San Francisco. Ken, welcome to the Eater Upsell.
Ken Friedman: Great to be here. You might want to mention that I'm the James Beard restaurateur of the year.
Greg: Oh my god. Yeah. Congratulations!
Ken: Just saying.
Greg: What was that night like?
Ken: It was crazy because I was up against Stephen Starr and these Chicago-based restaurateurs who own all these great restaurants there, including Girl and the Goat and stuff. I got drunk, and didn't write a speech, and there was no way I was going to win. So when I went up there, I just blanked out and didn't thank anybody that I should have thanked at all.
Greg: Was that a goal for you? Did you want to win one of those?
Ken: No. I didn't really even think about it. And I kind of honestly didn't even really remember I was nominated. April said to me, "You're going to win," and I'm like, "What are you talking about? I'm not even a real restaurateur compared to these guys." So, it ended up being a fun night, and we ended up at — What's it called? The new [Alinea group restaurant].
Greg: Oh, Roister?
Ken: Roister. We ended up there and got even more drunk, and hung out with everybody. But, yeah, it was a fun night. Apparently, we had a great time. That's what I was told the next day.
Greg: Very good. So, Ken, I think of you as like a quintessentially California guy, who just happens to live in New York and have these great restaurants in New York. Are you originally from California?
Ken: Yeah. I'm from LA.
Greg: From around here, huh?
Ken: Yeah. From Hollywood.
Ken: I would have gone to Hollywood High School, but we moved to San Diego, so I went to high school in San Diego and then went to college at UC Berkeley, so I've been in California up until I was an adult.
Greg: Wow. Okay. For those who don't know, Ken had an illustrious career before the restaurant world working in the music industry. Starting when you were in college?
Ken: Yeah. When I dropped out of UC Berkeley to play in punk rock bands. That's when my career started.
Greg: What was the name of your punk rock band?
Ken: I was in four bands. I played bass guitar in one — well, three bands and one kind of performance art piece — but, I played bass guitar in a band called Flack. I played drum in a band called The Eggs. I played keyboards in a band that didn't really have a name, and then we did a performance art piece that didn't really have a name. And my bands were terrible and nobody would book them. No clubs would book them, so I started putting on shows in my co-op — they had co-ops at Berkeley — just so my band could play, and eventually I started to book all the cool punk rock bands from LA and San Francisco, and then New York.
Greg: How did that all come together? Is that just kind of your personality? Naturally organizing people and doing things like that?
Ken: No. I'm actually the least organized person in the world. I was an art major, I was an artist. I wanted to be an artist, not really the guy that organized stuff for other artists, but someone had to be doing it, you know? No one was doing it. There was a punk rock scene in San Francisco. There was a vibrant rocking scene right before LA and before New York, and that was my way to get into the scene, to kind of like hangout with the cool bands and stuff, putting on shows with them in Berkeley. And that led to putting on shows for UC Berkeley, for the student program board, called SUPERB, and then I started having a real budget. I did the Ramones, and Iggy Pop, and the Police. And then I dropped out of college and started doing shows on my own, and I did U2, and I did Susan and the Banshees, and The Gang of Four, and the Buzzcocks, and et cetera, et cetera.
Greg: So when did the food bug hit? Was that later as you became kind of a hot shot in the music biz, or was it always kind of there, lurking around the art and the punk scene?
Ken: Chez Panisse is how it happened. I was going to UC Berkeley, living on the north side of campus, and Chez Panisse was this amazing thing that was much more than just a restaurant, and I saw that right away. I had a girlfriend that worked there, and then I had a friend that worked there, and then I got a job there, and I just realized. I was then, and am now, kind of obsessed with “public assembly” — you know, the idea of throwing a party, or taking a space and taking it from one thing to another. That's what I was kind of fascinated with in the art world.
At UC Berkeley you had to do a project at the end of every quarter — it was a quarter system — and in the art department you’d do a project, and then you have to kind of have an opening for you to show your paintings, or your sculpture, or whatever. And I loved the actual throwing of the party. That was more fun than the actual piece, and I started to make that be the piece — that the party that I threw to show my work was the work. That led to putting on concerts and putting on parties.
Ken: And being a restaurateur is exactly that. What I do every night is just throw a party and try to have the people that work for us make sure that they pay attention to details.
Greg: So, back to the Chez Panisse thing: What era were you going there and maybe working there? Was this Jeremiah Tower, or post Jeremiah Tower?
Ken: It was post Jeremiah Tower, and in fact Stars was another big, huge influence on me. I spent a lot of time in Stars after I dropped out of college. I was in college in the late '70s, early '80s. I'm quite old. So yeah, it was post Jeremiah. It was just before Paul Bertolli was chef there, but Alice [Waters] was always there. We became friends early on, so she was always my friend. But the spirit of Jeremiah was still around, and I was obsessed with Jeremiah's restaurants as well.
Greg: It's interesting. Chez Panisse is one of my favorite restaurants, and I love it, but what I've heard, and what I've read — I read that biography about Chez Panisse that came out a few years ago — is that it seems like there was some kind of scene there. Now it's a real establishment, and maybe gastro-tourists go there, but was that the era that you were there? Did you feel that? Was it a bit of a Hollywood spot?
Ken: It was Bay Area Hollywood. Steve Jobs would be there, and the owner of the Warriors would be sitting there, and big shots — not so much movie stars and stuff, but Kofi Annan and heads of state. They'd all go to Chez Panisse. But before it became this mecca for super foodies — and indeed the reason why it was created was really to be kind of like a coffee house where people could sort of talk about politics and read poetry — it was a bunch of UC Berkeley people that lived in Berkeley and were hippies and film buffs. It's named after Pagnol’s films. Greil Marcus, who is a great rock critic and writer, is one of the owners. So it wasn't just about food, it was about a place to gather, and hang out, and talk about things, and change the world. It had that feeling about it.
I think Alice went to France and was sitting in one of those grape country restaurants outside of Paris that you have to drive on Michelin tires to go get to while reading the Michelin guide. And I think she was eating goat cheese and was like, “Why is this goat cheese so good?” and they're like, “It's from that goat right there.” And, “Why is this salad so good?” And they’re like, “Because the lettuce is grown right there.”
I think she had an epiphany that the weather is the same in Berkeley as it is in this country French place. I think if you ask Jeremiah, he'll say it all came from him. Probably it was a combination of stuff. And I think that [Alice] got fascinated by food and the idea of local, and the idea that the shortest distance from the farm to the plate is best, and maybe that was more exciting to her at this point in her life than movies and politics, and [Chez Panisse] just became the super foodie place that it is now.
When I was a kid in college trying to figure out what to do with my life, walking into Chez Panisse, there was all this stuff going on — everything. Not just people talking about ideas, and politics, and movies, but also all these foodies. People weren't taking pictures of food as much as they are now, because they couldn't with their phones, but they were talking about it and dissecting it, and looking at it, and asking questions about it.
I realized it's like going to a club. I was in the club business. I went to clubs. I spent my whole life in clubs seeing bands, and doing kind of the same thing that was happening at Chez Panisse, and I realized, wow, a restaurant doesn't just have to be a place where you kill your hunger and then leave. It's like a club. And Chez Panisse was indeed like a club — a coffee house, a nightclub — and I loved that about it. I got the bug from there. It's my favorite restaurant in the world, still. And it's kind of amazing that as a 19-, 20-year-old, I got to hang out there. So that's why I am where I am today.
Greg: That's awesome. So how long were you in the music industry? Twenty, 25 years, something like that?
Ken: Yeah. I think so. I opened the Spotted Pig as a direct result of a midlife crisis, so I opened it when I was like 43, I guess.
Greg: What was that feeling? Were you burnt out, or were you just like, “I don't like the music industry anymore,” or did you just need to do some creative flexing?
Ken: All of the above. I was an artist, right? I wanted to be a visual artist, and I wasn't that good at it, or I lost interest. Then, I wanted to be a musician. In the late '70s, early '80s everybody who went to art schools formed punk rock bands in London, in San Francisco, and New York, so I was one of those. But I wasn't good at it. I just wasn't. I'm not a good songwriter. So cut to years later, I'm in the industry, and I'm managing bands, and I'm an A&R guy. I'm a talent scout and trying to figure out what high school kids next year are going to be buying, and I didn't really want to do that. I wanted to be an artist, you know? I didn't want to work for the artist.
When I turned 40 — and on the way to 40, even — I realized that I don't really care about music that much. I love it. It's a thing I love, and I still do. Well, in fact, I stopped loving it because it was my job, and I started to not like a band because I didn't like their lawyer, or I didn't like the manager, or I didn't like the label they were on.
Greg: The business took away from your —
Ken: Yeah. Which is funny now, because now I hate restaurants. No, that's a joke. I just had a kind of crisis. Like, what do I want to do with my life? Do I want to be that guy that looks back on his life and says, "God I wish I'd done that thing that I might have been good at"? And I didn't have kids, or a wife, or own a home, so I wasn't going to make people starve or affect anyone else's life. It was a victimless crime to decide to change careers so late in life, and everybody tried to talk me out of it, except for a lot of music business artists, people in bands, and people that I had become friends with over the years. A lot of these guys and girls were the ones that — because they'd see me throw a party, or see me do a barbecue — they'd say, "Wow. You're passionate about this, you should do this. You should do a restaurant, and if you do, give me a call. I'll invest."
Greg: Some of these people became your partners. Is that the story?
Ken: Yeah. Pretty much. Pretty much everybody who said that I approached, and most of them wrote checks. Some didn't.
Greg: So who were some of the names? Fatboy Slim, is that one of these guys?
Ken: He is. I always say this. I just find it sort of distasteful to talk about my celebrity investors. And some don't care, like Fatboy. Norman [Cook] loves that he’s always talked about as a partner in the Spotted Pig and stuff, but there's a bunch of my friends from the business that —
Greg: You can Google it.
Ken: Well, exactly, because I've either let it slip, either by accident or on purpose. People know, but I just don't want to be that guy that talks about “What does Kim Kardashian eat?” She's not an investor, by the way, but “What's her favorite entrée?” I don't know. I don't want to really do that.
Greg: How did you connect with April? She was working at Chez Panisse a little bit before you guys teamed up, right?
Ken: Yeah, because what became the Spotted Pig wasn't ready, and she had originally wanted to come to America and work at Chez Panisse. She, like every chef in the world, is sort of obsessed with Chez Panisse, and going there, and being there, and meeting Alice. So, when I made a deal to bring her over just to be my chef, at that point she was just going to be my hired chef, we weren't ready. What happened was the space that was going to be the Spotted Pig, a space on Elizabeth Street, fell through.
Greg: What space was it? Do you remember?
Ken: It was called M&R Bar back then in 2004. It's been a bunch of things since then. It's kind of one of those jinxed spaces that never really works.
Greg: There's no restaurants on Elizabeth Street now.
Greg: It's just boutiques, I feel like.
Ken: There was Public. Maybe that’s still there.
Greg: Yeah. Public’s still there.
Ken: But there were so many. This had a little courtyard, and a little garden in the back. But what happened was, I met April through Jamie Oliver, and Jamie Oliver suggested that this girl April Bloomfield that he had worked with at the River Café might be someone that wanted to move to America and do what became a gastropub, the Spotted Pig, with me.
So I started to email back and forth with her, and I liked her a lot. We sort of bonded over email. We had never met or anything, and she was sort of obsessed with coming to Chez Panisse, so I said, "Well, look, I'll get you a stage there for maybe a few weeks." But then she came over to New York, and she saw the space that was going to be the Spotted Pig, and she hated it.
What I learned then about her is that she's really great at kind of just walking into a room and deciding if it's going to work or not. She's just got this great sense of feng shui, or whatever it is. And, she was like, “You know, could I be honest? I don't like this room.” And luckily it fell through. The community board wasn't going to give us a liquor license, all this stuff happened. So then I went back and found the space that's now the Spotted Pig that was right across from where I lived, actually, like directly across from my apartment. And I didn't know it was available until I was telling the guys who owned the Zoo, the restaurant that it was before, that I was looking for a restaurant space.
Greg: Now, a completely iconic restaurant space and corner right there.
Ken: It is. Yeah. I mean it’s just everything worked, and it was like lightning in a bottle. The neighborhood worked. I didn't really know the difference between a corner space and a mid-block space, and I didn't know the difference between being in an area where people work versus an area where people live, versus an area where there's both, and it just kind of worked in every way. And April worked as well. This is somebody I didn't know at all, and I offered her a job and sent her a plane ticket, and she came over to New York.
Greg: Did you taste her food?
Greg: You were just going on Jamie Oliver's word?
Ken: And, Mario. Mario Batali is my friend. I knew Mario just because I would bring kind of famous people to his restaurants, music people. And he was obsessed with music, and I was obsessed with food, so we became friends. So I kept leaning on him, you know, “Tell me, what do I do?” And he said, "You don't need to taste her food. She worked at all these great restaurants. You've been to most of them. She's got burns all over her arms, which means she's a badass, which means she'll reach into hot ovens, and that's really important."
We did a tasting later. Mario and Joe did a tasting just to make sure, because then it was becoming real, and I think Mario went to Joe Bastianich, his partner, and said, “This guy Ken, this friend of mine, is doing a restaurant. It's for real, but I told him we didn't have to taste this girl’s food, and maybe we should. I may have steered him wrong.”
That was great, being at a tasting with Mario and Joe. I learned so much, just from that tasting, because I didn't have any confidence in my palate — my ability to just distinguish between great, and good, and bad. But, the way I am now about movies is people say, “Wow, what a great performance by that actor.” And I think, Hmm, I don't know, I can’t tell. I wouldn't be a good voter for the Academy Awards. I don’t know.
Greg: So, menu-wise, was that a collaboration? You change things out. You have seasonal things, but I feel like now it's just classics, and the gnudi, and the burger, and a few other things, they're never going to leave.
Ken: Right. We try sometimes, but it doesn't work. At times April says, "You know, I get all these kids who are culinary school students, and they're in debt to their parents, and they come to work at this Michelin-star restaurant, and all they do is flip burgers all night. Let’s take the burger off the menu."
And I always say, "We can’t. There will be riots in the streets. It's our signature dish.” So we end up raising the price, and then we sell the same amount or more. I think April realizes — and I realize — it's not an art piece. Even though the best art, I think, is done for the artist. Bob Dylan makes an album that he wants to make, not an album that he thinks will sound good on the radio. And the same with painters, and poets, and chefs, I think too, and restaurateurs.
But I think in lots of ways, when you're in the food business it's not all about you. It's kind of about the customers, too. Especially at the Spotted Pig. It's hard to get a seat at the Spotted Pig — you've got to make a real commitment. You’ve got to travel from somewhere else, you've got to wait, you have no guarantee when you're going to sit down.
Greg: It's a fun wait, though.
Ken: That's what we always say. It's a fun wait. It's a great neighborhood to wait. It's great to sit there, you know.
Greg: It's one of the rare restaurants where people enjoy — you know, it's not like the Cheesecake Factory where you wait for two hours out in a mall.
Greg: You're in this really nicely lit space, and everyone is having a good time.
Ken: And, you're in the West Village of Manhattan, so if you want to wander around, there's great bars and restaurants, and now we'll text you when your table is ready, or we'll go get you at the place next door. But, once someone gets a seat finally, to say, “Oh, we took the burger off” or “We took the gnudi off.” People are like, "Well, this is why I came here and waited."
It's like bands. One of the bands I worked with years ago was a band called Simple Minds, a band from Glasgow, Scotland, and they had a hit in America called, “Don't You Forget About Me.” It was the only song they ever did that was written by somebody else. It was a number one single in America, and when they went on tour after that came out, they wouldn't play that song, because they were not proud of it.
And I remember I was their manager, and I was standing by the side of the stage seeing people booing and throwing things, and I realized, it's not about you. These kids paid money to see a band they only knew because of that one song. You can’t just decide, “Now I hate it.” I mean, you can, but it's just not really right to do. And so I took that idea [and applied it] to why we can’t take the burger off the menu.
Ken: If April really wanted to do it, I'd go with her. I never tell her or any chef that I work with what to do, just like I never told bands I'd sign when I was an A&R guy what songs to take off the record or put on the record. If I'm so smart I should make my own record, I always thought. So we do have stuff on the menu that we just can’t take off.
Greg: I feel like it's not an overstatement to say that the Spotted Pig is one of the most popular New York restaurants in the last 15 years — certainly one of the most commonly emulated restaurants, I think, nationally, and perhaps around the world. What was the thing that pushed you guys over the edge and made it just this big place? Like, was there one review? Was there one mention?
Ken: No, there was a bunch of stuff. I think, part of it was, there wasn't really, in 2004, a bar with really great food. People love bars in New York City, and people love great food, but never the twain shall meet. I used to go to these bars and sit by myself with people, and I'd wonder aloud, “Who made the rule you can’t have great food?” Like, why do bars just have bar food? They have kitchens, why can’t you just have restaurant food? Why can’t you put up a restaurant chef in this kitchen instead of just someone defrosting stuff? So, I think part of it's that. And it was the West Village, which is an area that's full of hipsters, but it's not very hip. There's not hip places to go. People would go to different neighborhoods other than the West Village.
Greg: It's true. [The Spotted Pig] is de facto the hippest place in the West Village, and a place that a lot of tourists come to, because it's lovely.
Ken: Yeah. What I set out to do was a neighborhood watering hole, and it became an international destination, which is great. It means we can use the money we make from that to do other things, and we have staff that, they survive and have families and stuff now on just the money they make from working there, because the servers, and bartenders — everybody makes a huge amount of money, because we do big numbers there. So it's great. But, there wasn't one thing. I mean there was a review that Jay Rayner did for the UK Guardian that came out about a year in. That was a big deal in terms of people in the UK, and for April it was a big deal. All of her peers read about this gastropub. It's basically him saying it's the best gastropub in the world, and it's not in England.
It also makes it harder for us to open A, other Spotted Pigs, which we're always back and forth, should we or shouldn't we. But, specifically, it's hard to go to the UK to do a gastropub, because the press — I think I'm more afraid than April is of this — but I'm afraid the press is going to crucify us by saying, “Oh, they're trying to teach us how do a gastropub properly.”
Greg: They're pretty vicious.
Ken: Yeah. And, it's sort of like the Rolling Stones when they copied Little Richard and Buddy Holly and people like that, and then came back to America, and I think apparently some of the press in America was like, “Oh, great, these pimply-faced British kids are teaching us about Chicago blues.” But, they survived, and we probably could, too.
Greg: So, we've chatted a little bit before, but something I don't think I've ever mentioned to you is that I actually worked at the Spotted Pig for about four months, and I got fired.
Ken: By me?
Greg: Not by you. No. I got fired for a good reason. Everyone was having a staff party. I was one of the people behind the bar, that was, you know, maybe pouring people some beers and stuff. And, you know, at the time I thought it was really kind of an injustice, because I thought I was not doing anything that everyone else was doing that night, but I gotta say, it was the thing, the experience that got me excited about working in restaurants, and the thing that made me actually want to write about them and get into it. So, everyone should get fired from a job at least once, I feel like.
Ken: Yeah. I think I remember you. Right. I remember you.
Greg: I was a food runner and, at the end, a back waiter.
Ken: Right. I remember you now. I remember two things. One: one night you spilled a whole thing of oysters on what's his name — was that you?
Greg: I don't remember this, but I could have just blocked it out. Oysters.
Ken: Did you spill, like, all the ice and water from an oyster tray — I think you were clearing the plate — on Thomas Keller?
Ken: That wasn't you?
Greg: I would have remembered Thomas Keller, I think.
Ken: Okay. It wasn't you then.
Greg: There was another guy that looked a lot like me that it could have been. Somebody else.
Ken: Were you or are you a huge U2 fan?
Ken: That was the other guy then, okay. There was a huge U2 fan that only came to work for us because he wanted to meet the band.
Greg: Oh, really?
Ken: Yeah, okay, that wasn't you. Thank god.
Greg: No. It was a very busy time at the Spotted Pig, and I had a tremendous amount of respect for what you and April did. I learned, you know. I made some connections that are still with me today.
Greg: But I gotta say, I learned from being there at that time. This is like a decade ago. You guys had just opened the second floor.
Greg: I just remember learning basically about what I think is, for the lack of a better term, X factor, you know? Why is this the most popular restaurant in New York? It's greater than sum of its parts, you know?
Ken: Absolutely. You know, I don't know. I mean, in a lot of ways April and I both just kind of ducked. We got out of the way. It was just happening. We both have this philosophy — I probably said it first — but if it ain't broke don't fix it. I didn't say it first in history, but in the context of the Spotted Pig. A lot of stuff that I think, oh, I should do this or do that, and I should change a different light bulb here or a different piece of art, or change the fabric on the banquette. Let's just keep it the same. Something’s happening here, and it's working, and it's full. Don't overthink this. And, it's same with the menu, too. The menu doesn't really change as much as maybe she, or a chef at her level, wants to because let's not fuck with this too much. And the same with staff and our head chefs. We don't pull the trigger. I mean, I'm sorry we fired you.
Greg: No. That's okay. Seriously. It was like one of the best things that’s happened to me, professionally.
Ken: Maybe you should do some kind of article. You should come back and try again. Come into work as a back waiter and then write about it. Write about the experience.
Greg: Oh, yeah. I was honestly afraid to go back for many years, for no good reason, and then I went back like two years ago and absolutely loved it.
Ken: I'm glad. People have quit and been fired. Who fired you? Was it Tim?
Greg: No. Tim was always a nice guy.
Ken: Randy? No. It wasn't Randy.
Greg: No. It was this new manager. He was kind of a short fellow.
Ken: The Latino kid?
Ken: Oh, god.
Greg: I think so. Yeah.
Ken: Oh, yeah. Yeah, that guy. He came with Mario. Right. That guy.
Greg: It was cool. I feel like I was fired — as somebody explained it — as an example, because they didn't want everyone partaking of the libations after work, which I understand. Everyone's got a business to run, you know?
Ken: Well, no, but see that's not how we are. See, the thing is these managers come in, and they start to implement these rules that other restaurants do.
Ken: I — because I can only speak for the front of the house; April with the kitchen it's actually the same, but I don't speak for what she does with the kitchen — but, we're a team. We're a sports team, we're a football team. We're on the battlefield together for hours and hours and hours. After work, I want to hang out with my peers and recap what happened and have a few drinks.
Ken: So, not only do we allow our staff to sit at the bar and drink together after work, sometimes way after work, but we want them to have their friends come to the Pig, who work at other restaurants, and meet them, and drink there, and hang out there, and exchange stories — which is something I stole from Jeremiah Tower, by the way.
Greg: Oh, yeah?
Ken: Stars was this place that the kitchen closed at midnight, and the bar closed at two. And Jeremiah noticed that all of his super groovy young, hip, gay, straight, tattooed cooks would finish work, and they’d all leave. They'd all rush out and he said once, "Where are you going?" And they’d say, "Oh. We’re going to go to this bar over here. We're meeting all of our friends from other restaurants. We all go there.” So he said, "Here's a bunch of drink tickets. Have them all come here, and you all can all drink for free at my bar." So the Stars bar was always full of the coolest cooks, and restaurant and hotel workers. I completely stole that idea from Jeremiah Tower. Part of the reason why the Pig has the whole industry, and still does, and other cooks and everybody comes to it is because of that. We not only allow, but we encourage our bartenders to do buy backs and frequent dining miles, frequent drinking miles. We want people to have shift drinks. Plural.
Greg: I worked really hard at that job. I had a lot of fun. I made a lot of money, too. I gotta say.
Greg: It was like the most money I had made for many years.
Greg: The one kind of warm fuzzy memory I have from that, those after hours, is I was cleaning up and the guys from Cold Play were hanging out. And, they got all the servers together and they said, "Let's all get these guys a shot," and I was like, these people are so nice. The Spotted Pig is where it all happens.
Ken: A lot of stuff does happen. I'm always tempted to tell stories, but's distasteful to tell stories, and some of them I really don't remember anyway. But yeah, there's amazing stuff that happens late night there, and not late night.
Greg: So, your followup to the Spotted Pig is a restaurant that I know a lot of my colleagues really love — the original John Dory Oyster Bar.
Ken: Yeah. That was a great place. Well, that was just the John Dory, the second one. Just to kind of set it apart from the first one, we called the Oyster Bar the John Dory Oyster Bar. That was an example of a bunch of things gone wrong. One of them is just overthinking. Me, still being a music business guy, thinking this is my second album. My first album was the Spotted Pig, and second albums are often really bad, when you think about artists throughout history. The first album is the greatest hits of your whole life, all the best songs you've ever written. The second album is the songs that didn't make the first album, and often you were on the road promoting the first album. You didn't really have time to write great songs, and you didn't think it through, and you and the other members of the band didn't really know each other that well yet because things happened so fast.
All that happened with April and me. This was at a point where now April is my partner, not my employee. This was a time when I wanted to do one thing and she wanted to do something else, and we forgot to talk about it, and Mario and Joe talked us into a space that wasn't a great space for us, but because it was next to Del Posto, they wanted us to be near them. We loved it. It was a great, great place, and it was crazy.
Greg: Yeah. It had a lot of integrity. People really loved the space and April’s food. I remember the Times review of it. In the photo, there was Mike D from the Beastie Boys.
Ken: Oh. That's right.
Greg: And, I was like, what a perfect little encapsulation of what this place is, you know?
Ken: That's right.
Greg: And you guys got three stars, right? Or two stars.
Ken: I think we got two stars from Frank Bruni.
Greg: Two stars.
Ken: I think he wrote that he didn't give us three because the seats weren't comfortable or something.
Greg: Something like that.
Ken: Which is what he also wrote about his review of the Spotted Pig when we did the second floor and he reviewed it as a restaurant and said, “I'm not giving it more than one star because lack of lower lumbar support.”
Greg: The stools.
Ken: The stools. Yeah.
Greg: Yeah. Well, stools are everywhere, now.
Ken: Well, the idea of the stools was mainly me spending a lot of time in Ireland, and pubs in Ireland where people would lean in and talk to each other, because they were on these stools. People would be having these in-depth conversations, which I loved — maybe from the Chez Panisse days of like this is more than just eating food. It's like a place to exchange ideas and stuff, so let's kind of encourage that and encourage people to sit there.
When you go to the Pig as a customer, you sit there and you're so close to the person next to you that if you look at them, they start off as strangers and 10 minutes later they're sharing food and exchanging numbers. I heard someone out in front of the Pig a few years ago say, "I've made more friends at the Spotted Pig then all throughout high school and college combined."
Ken: This was just a customer, you know?
Greg: That's great.
Ken: Yeah. It's cool.
Greg: Well, jeez, you've opened up a bunch of restaurants with April since then, including Tosca in San Francisco, which is amazing.
Ken: You went?
Greg: Yeah. I thought it was fantastic, and I had never been. I'm from the Bay area, but I had never been to the original Tosca. Did you guys have to change a lot in your operations when you started doing something on the West Coast? And you're planning another San Francisco project, as well, right?
Greg: In the former strip burlesque house?
Ken: Yeah. In the Lusty Lady. The Lusty Lady, which was a peep show place. One of those places that you'd — well, you wouldn't and I wouldn't, but some people would — go into a booth, a private booth and you put $5.00 in a thing, and the window would open, and there would be naked girls dancing on the other side of the glass. So the Lusty Lady closed, and the landlord, the same landlord that we have at Tosca said, "Do you want this space?" And, it connects. There's a door that connects the two spaces anyway, just from 1919 when they were built.
Ken: So we took it, without really knowing what we were going to do with it. It's now been — we've been paying rent for, I don't know, a year and a half now, but we only just now are figuring out what we're going to do with it, aside from we needed wine storage and a walk in, and a trash room, and a staff room. We needed all this stuff. We had no prep area at Tosca. The basement of Tosca is the Hustler Club.
Greg: Oh, wow.
Ken: Which is nice in some ways, but it's not good for prepping for the dinner. So we just took the space. It's been a raw space since we sort of gutted it after the Lusty Lady left. We're only now kind of about to figure out what we’re going to do with it.
Ken: I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you.
Greg: So you've been in New York. You guys have been opening a lot of things as well. The latest is White Gold, a butcher shop on the Upper West Side, some place that we would never have expected to see you guys move, but I know the people of the Upper West Side are hungry for it and super excited.
Greg: As am I, because I do not have any idea where to go and eat up there.
Ken: Right. Yeah. People are pretty excited about us opening up there.
Greg: That and Salvation Burger and Salvation Taco — I kind of see these as kind of interesting spin-offs of, you know, your main kind of gastropub thing, where there are kind of like these smaller places that are really fun and energetic, but like a little bit more casual. You pop in. Salvation Burger, which I really loved, is just like the best iteration of a Big Mac you could possibly make in a restaurant kitchen, I feel like, which is very in line with how I like to eat when I go out.
Greg: You want to eat it with the best everything and cooked really nicely. So you're working on something in LA, right now?
Ken: We are. We took over the old Cat & Fiddle, this great, great iconic British pub on Sunset just past Highland, between Highland and Vine. And it was sort of like Tosca. The Cat & Fiddle space became available, the landlord approached us. He asked us if we would do a British pub. I don't think either April or I wanted to just do a British pub at this point. I maybe would have if she wanted to, but she didn't really want to just do a British pub. That's not, at this point in our lives, what we want to do.
Ken: So, we said, "Look, we'll do something there, but we'll do whatever we want to do. We don’t want a landlord to tell us what to do there.” And they said okay. So, yeah, LA's a town with a distinct lack of outdoor dining. I'm not sure why. The Chateau Marmont, where I'm staying now, last night they covered the courtyard for the winter. I mean, it's like 80 degrees today here. I don't really get it.
So this space has a great courtyard, an amazing courtyard that when you look at old pictures of it from when it was built in 1927, it was this enchanted garden with a fountain. And over the years — it was a tea house for years, then it was a Polynesian restaurant for years — the garden was used. But then I think with the Cat & Fiddle — they used it, people sat out there — but it didn’t seem to have beautiful, indigenous plants, and there weren’t avocado trees, and lime trees, and lemon trees, and herbs. It didn’t smell like a beautiful Southern California place.
Greg: Not as awesome as it could be for a space like that, huh?
Ken: Right. So, our intention is to make an enchanted garden in the front of what was the Cat & Fiddle, and then also have the indoors, which now that we've gutted it, is light and airy, and it's not a dark kind of British pub-looking place, anyway. It's wood and it's stucco and it's light. So even if we had committed to doing a British pub, it wouldn't really feel that much like a British pub, and I think at this point April doesn't want to do just British cuisine only. So we're going to do something awesome there. We're not exactly sure what it is. She has a pretty clear idea of what she's doing with the food, and I'm working with Roman and Williams, who we've worked with on a couple of restaurants.
Greg: Oh, amazing.
Ken: They've never done a restaurant in California, in LA.
Greg: Oh, wow.
Ken: And they’ve both lived here forever, Stephen — who is Williams, I guess his grandfather is Williams — is from Southern California, so we're going to do something amazing.
Ken: And it's going to go way over budget. and, it's not going to open when we say, so I won't even say, because it will never open when we think.
Ken: But, yeah, we're the ones that have taken over that iconic space and hopefully we'll make it better.
Greg: That’s incredible. I love the idea of an outdoor restaurant. One of my last questions for you — I'm just kind of curious — I find it totally awesome and fascinating how you and April keep taking on these new challenges and keep going to these new neighborhoods and to different cities. What is the big motivation there? Is it that you you guys like different neighborhoods and different cities, and have ideas that are on the back burner? Or do you want to put your staff into new restaurants and let them lead it? Is there a grand plan, or is it a little bit more up in the air?
Ken: That's the great question. We tried to have a grand plan. A few years ago we sort of decided, let’s stop reacting and start being proactive. Let's stop just getting an offer and going and doing. Let's just decide what are we going to do as a restaurant group. I'm much more promiscuous than she is when it comes to deals. I want to do more things. And part of why we're great partners — and she's a great partner for me, I'm lucky to have her — is she says no to a lot of things. She just thinks she's not ready, we're not ready, it's the wrong thing. I have three things that I've done without her, because I just wanted to do them so badly. She said, “Go do them.” Locanda Verde is my project. I put it all together.
Ken: I brought in Carmellini.
Greg: The only revamp like that that's ever worked.
Greg: And it worked spectacularly well.
Greg: I mean, just a singular sensation there.
Ken: Yeah. It's a little bit like the Spotted Pig in some ways. It's like, it just kind of happened. Everything kind of worked — the location, the owners of the hotel, the whole thing. But she just didn't want to do it. And David Chang introduced me to Andrew Carmellini who had, at that point, had left Daniel to go to open A Voce, and that wasn't working. And he was sitting there available, and he's an Italian-American guy, and he was doing French food. And then he finally did some Italian food. It was perfect timing, and he's super ambitious. He's opened tons of restaurants since Locanda Verde. Way more than we have.
Greg: He's on a roll.
Greg: It's still a blast. Still a super fun place.
Ken: Yeah. It's great.
Greg: I like to go there in the afternoons, actually.
Ken: The light is so incredible coming in.
Greg: Yeah. It's pretty mellow.
Ken: So, anyway, April and I, we want to have a grand plan, but I don't know that we have one yet. I think, we don't open as many restaurants as probably I would if she wasn't my partner saying no most of the time. And, we try to do interesting projects. We try not to recreate things. But the Salvation brand is something that we thought might be cool to do something with these hotel guys that we like and believe in, and they're doing their first brand. They've been together for years, and it's the first time they've don, like, a brand — the Pod Hotels.
Greg: Would you guys do more Salvation-branded restaurants? Would you do like a pizzeria or something?
Ken: Yeah. We're doing a Salvation something in Williamsburg. They're building, right now, a Pod Hotel right in Williamsburg on Driggs. It's between the new Apple store and the new Whole Foods.
Ken: It’s the official end of Williamsburg. It's now done. It's not cool officially anymore, and we're right in the center of that.
Ken: We may do taco. Mainly because when you look around there, there's already burger and there's already chicken.
Ken: There's already everything else, and the one thing that really isn't right there is taco, and Salvation Taco is such a phenomenon. It's so big, mainly because of the outdoor spaces. And this Pod in Williamsburg on Driggs has like seven outdoor spaces, so we might recreate Salvation Taco again. But the idea was different Salvations: Salvation Chicken, Salvation Dumplings, Salvation Pizza. We passed on the Pod hotel in Times Square — we were going to do pizza — just because we had too much going on and stuff, and the Torrisi, Carbone guys took it over. They're doing something there.
Ken: Instead of us.
Greg: At the Pod?
Ken: At the Pod in Times Square. Yeah. They're doing a Parm and something else.
Greg: Oh, right. That's right.
Ken: On 42nd Street. It's a big one. It's a huge hotel.
Greg: Yeah, well, you guys don’t need to be in Times Square.
Ken: Again, I wanted to do it. April said, "We have all this other stuff going on." And she's right. We wouldn't have done it right.
Ken: We would have done it half assed. We’re not yet an organization. We're still mom-and-pop.
Ken: I'm pop, she's mom. We're trying to grow up and become an organization that can do things, but not lose our attention to detail.
Greg: There you go. And, now, it's the lightning round, Ken, and we have questions from the Eater Upsell's co-host, Helen Rosner.
Helen Rosner: Hey, Ken. Hey, Greg. Super jealous that I am not out in LA with all of you guys, but I have some questions for you. All right, Ken, question number one: What is the most recent thing that you ordered for delivery?
Ken: Um, pot.
Greg: Good answer.
Helen: If you were in disguise and you knew you were just going to be treated like a random polite tourist, how long would you personally be willing to wait for a table at the Spotted Pig?
Ken: Not that long. I say a lot, if I didn't own the Spotted Pig, I probably would never have tried it, or certainly not at night. I'm the worst that way. My attention span is way too short. Do as I say, not as I do.
Greg: Lunch is pretty mellow at the Spotted Pig, right? You can just usually walk in.
Ken: You can usually walk in. It's not mellow. Friday’s not mellow and some days — but yeah, you could usually walk in and get a seat at the Spotted Pig, you know, maybe at a bar stool.
Greg: Last time I was there, it was lunch, and every seat was full, but—
Ken: Yeah. It's not the scrum. If you're willing to sit at the bar, you can have lunch there for sure. And, it's great, the light is amazing. When you have a corner space you have all this stuff called frontage, all this light coming in.
Greg: It's pretty chill. Okay, lightning round question number three.
Helen: What's one thing that you see a lot of restaurants do wrong, or badly that drives you totally crazy?
Ken: Making customers stare at filament light bulbs. You're not suppose to stare at a light bulb. So you're not suppose to sit for two hours and look at the filament of a light bulb, and this whole like bareness and light bulb thing, it's just not very comfortable to be doing that. So that, and music that's too loud, where you have to yell. That's no fun. I'm talking to you, David Chang.
Greg: Okay. Next question.
Helen: What's one way most people don't realize that the restaurant industry and the music industry are alike?
Ken: There's many ways, but one thing is that if you're a songwriter, and you write a great song, you make money while you sleep. You wrote that song. It's your song. No matter what you're doing, someone’s going to buy that song. Same with the restaurants. If you make a great restaurant, whether you're there cooking the food, or running the food to the table, or cleaning the bathrooms, you make money for the rest of your life off that idea you had and the fact that you built that restaurant. That's one way.
Greg: Right on. Do we have anymore questions? Maybe one more?
Ken: Keep them coming.
Helen: Okay. A fact about me, that is relevant to this question, I am often really awkward and shy at parties, and you are really smooth and cool, what advice would you give me about being a better schmoozer?
Ken: Alcohol. That's what I do.
Greg: What's your drink of choice, if you go to a bar that’s an open bar?
Ken: Inexpensive white wine. Inexpensive, dry — I mean it doesn't have to be inexpensive, but like a white wine, because red wine makes me sleepy, and spirits, I can only have one or two, then I'm too drunk to drive, or talk, or whatever. White wine, and I'm like my mom, I put ice cubes in my wine, so I get a little bit of water with it. So, yeah, white wine. I can drink white wine all night, and stay awake, and stay sober, and not want to pass out or get in a fight.
Greg: There you go.
Helen: Which of your restaurants is the best one for me to bring my mom to?
Ken: Where's your mom from, and how old is she?
Greg: I think that Helen's mom is from Chicago, and I think that she's maybe in her late 50s or early 60s.
Ken: I mean probably the Spotted Pig, because it's the best and it's the first. Especially coming from Chicago, a great drinking and eating town, the Spotted Pig would stand up to what I imagine are great places she's been to in Chicago. And she's not so old that she's going to not be able to sit on a stool, or not be able to stand in line, and stuff, so I would say the Spotted Pig. And, my second idea would be probably the John Dory Oyster Bar, because it's elegant and grown up, and everyone likes oysters and champagne, and it's a little bit more feminine maybe than some of the other restaurants.
Greg: Okay. Do we got one more?
Helen: Would you rather be the first person to know about a hot new band, or the first person to know about a hot new restaurant?
Ken: Well, now, a restaurant. Because I don't care at all really about getting brownie points from my friends regarding like some new band I knew about, but with restaurants, yeah. And also I'm the guy everybody calls to say, "I'm coming to New York where do we eat?" So, yeah I mean I could use that information to help out people. With bands, I mean, I used to be an A&R guy. My job was in fact to go find the hot new band and stuff, but now I don't mind waiting until the bands not the hot new thing anymore. You know? I mean, now I'm in LA and I turn on KROQ and KCRW, and stuff, and I hear these new bands, and I'm glad I heard them. It's great. But I don't start texting my friends saying, "Quick. Check out this new band." But, with restaurants I do do that.
Greg: All right. Well, Ken, thank you so much for chatting with us today on the Eater Upsell. Where can we follow you on social media? You’re a little bit of a social media guy, right?
Ken: Not enough, but I mean I am. Facebook. I'm a Facebook guy. I don’t check it all that often. Often I'll see a message from like months ago that I forgot to respond to.
Greg: What's your Twitter handle?
Ken: My Twitter handle is @kennewyork. I have an Instagram handle. Is that what you call it, a handle?
Ken: I never go to it, but I should. Everyone's trying to convince me I should drop Facebook and go to Instagram. Instagram is @iamkenfriedman, but I don't even know how to check it on my phone. But yeah, Twitter and Facebook, and I even have a Snapchat thing, but I don’t use that either.
Greg: Oh, awesome.
Ken: We almost did a cafeteria for [Snapchat] in Venice.
Greg: Oh, really?
Ken: So, they gave me a handle, or whatever you kids call it today, yeah.
Greg: Wow. All right. Well, Ken, this has been a pleasure. Thanks so much.
Ken: It's been fun. I'm sorry we fired you.
Greg: No. That's okay. Seriously, it was like the best thing that ever happened to me. I'm not even saying that as a joke.
Ken: You should do a story. I seriously think you should come back and work as a back waiter and write about it.
Ken: I think it would be a fun idea, seriously.
Greg: You never know, maybe I'll do that. I think that there's still some people that I used to work with that are there, like last time I was there.
Ken: You know when you go to these old diners, there's like Mabel, the waitress that's been there for 50 years? The Pig is kind of like that. We have people that have been there for 13 years, a lot of them, and 10 years, and 11 years. It's kind of crazy.
Greg: That's awesome. All right.
The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan and Los Angeles
Hosts: Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producers: Patrick Bulger and Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor: Daniel Geneen
Associate Producer: Monica Burton