“Change can be a tricky thing,” says chef Thomas Hauck. Last week, Karl Ratzsch, the 113-year-old Milwaukee restaurant Hauck bought at the beginning of last year, closed. The chef, who also owns restaurant C. 1880, says that, looking back, it was clear that change would be difficult for Karl Ratzsch’s older crowds of regulars, some of whom took to social media to express their displeasure that the German landmark would be renovated.
Hauck felt that those renovations — a fresh coat of paint, new tables, and redone floors — were in keeping with the spirit of the original restaurant, but when Karl Ratzsch reopened, he says, “Some people would come in and they’d just turn around and leave, because they were so shocked by the changes.”
The problem is a familiar one. Revamps are risky, especially when restaurants have been around long enough to develop a devoted following. In January, the Formosa Cafe, a West Hollywood bar and restaurant, shut its doors after 92 years in business, a few years after a controversial renovation in 2015. The Formosa’s longtime operators painted over the restaurant’s memorable red interior, swapped kitsch for more blatant references to the Formosa’s Old Hollywood past, and took away some of the Chinese-American and comfort food menu stalwarts, adding, instead, avocado toast. When the the longtime celebrity hangout reopened, Eater LA reported, simply, “It’s awful.”
In February, Hudson’s on the Bend, a 32-year-old restaurant in Austin, shuttered shortly after Prime Thyme Restaurant Group bought and renovated the place, adding a wine cellar and expanding the patio. After completing service on Valentine’s Day, the restaurant abruptly closed, “due to challenges that could not be overcome.” Prime Thyme didn’t specify those exact challenges, but the proximity to the renovation is notable — it had been re-open for just three months.
Historic restaurants that survive years beyond revamps must do so by appeasing regulars while also growing their customer base. “You need to attract newer people because the clientele is not going to be around forever,” Hauck says. But, despite attracting some buzz (and a spot on Eater’s Milwaukee Heatmap), at a restaurant like Karl Ratzsch, the regulars are important. “If you lose 20 percent of your base, and you only attract 10 percent of what you need, and then the base starts to shrink because older people are not happy and they’re not coming back because it’s different, it’s hard to make those numbers work, and that was our problem,” he says.
When there’s a consistent family name to fall back on, change seems to be easier for diners to swallow. Seattle’s Canlis is a prime example, maintaining its status as one the city's top fine-dining destinations even as brothers Mark and Brian Canlis, grandsons of the original owners, hired a new chef and renovated in 2015. This year, Canlis earned James Beard nominations for Outstanding Wine Program and Rising Star Chef for Brady Williams.
Longtime family restaurant operators may have a particular dedication to maintaining the integrity of a space. When Ralph Brennan, the grandson of the original owner of Brennan’s in New Orleans, bought that restaurant in 2013 with partner Terry White, he embarked on a $20 million, year-long renovation. This renovation was more about refreshing an existing aesthetic and repairing the structure than overhauling the space, but Brennan’s as it is now is by no means a replica of the restaurant that opened in 1946.
The current owners moved the kitchen to allow windows to open onto the sidewalk, and updated the interior rooms to reflect historic themes — chairs modeled after those used in Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in one room, a Carnival motif in another. According to Brennan, locals embrace the restaurant, which had long been popular with tourists, now more than before. Known for its classic Creole cuisine, the new menu under chef Slade Rushing offers modern interpretations of Creole flavors, along with classic Creole dishes, and the same Bananas Foster that debuted back in the early 1950s.
A potentially safer way to attract new clientele: opting to expand, rather than revamp completely. In New York, Nom Wah Tea Parlor, has been serving dim sum at the same space in Chinatown since the 1920s, and the staff is as wedded to tradition as many of the restaurant’s patrons. “The kitchen is set in their ways and are resistant to change,” Barbara Leung, a spokesperson for Nom Wah says. But, when Wilson Tang took over from his uncle Wally Tang in 2011, he gently renovated the original space and took the opportunity to expand the Nom Wah brand, opening a location in Philadelphia and a fast-casual, counter-service Nom Wah in New York’s Nolita neighborhood.
The newer restaurants allow Tang to move the menu beyond traditional dim sum, a move that the older kitchen staff at the original Nom Wah might resist. Essentially, he can expand as an experiment, as Leung put it. Tang has even expanded his influence beyond Nom Wah as a partner in Fung Tu, chef Jonathan Wu’s boundary-pushing Chinese-American restaurant on New York’s Lower East Side.
Russ & Daughters, another New York institution, has adopted a seemingly similar model. The original shop opened in 1920 and still serves Jewish appetizing classics, like its famous bagel sandwiches. In 2014, the full-service Russ & Daughters Café opened, allowing customers to sit down to enjoy the classics they had previously waited in line for, alongside more hearty Jewish favorites. “So many of our customers don’t want Russ & Daughters to change. They’re afraid,” co-owner Niki Russ Federman told Eater NY shortly after the cafe opened. “And so when we first announced the restaurant we were worried about how it would be received. But if anything, the only complaint I’ve heard so far is, ‘Well what took you so long?’”
The concept worked well enough that Russ & Daughters opened another sit-down outpost at New York City’s Jewish Museum in 2016. All locations are still owned and run by Russ family descendants.
Keeping it in the family, of course, isn’t the only way to keep an old-time spot relevant. Sean Brock’s months-old McCrady’s Tavern, a lively update to his longstanding Charleston dining destination in a centuries-old building, is thriving. (Brock moved his tasting menu to an adjacent space.) The London Chophouse, the swanky Detroit restaurant that once played host to Frank Sinatra, is still open after a 2012 reboot (the original closed in 1991). And in Philadelphia, husband-and-wife team Chad and Hanna Williams’ January takeover of longtime Rittenhouse Square restaurant Friday Saturday Sunday, is, so far, being met with glowing reviews; this despite the fact that they seemed to have updated nearly everything but the name.
“We’re holding true to the Friday Saturday Sunday mission — what everybody said about it, ‘It was so romantic.’ We tried to keep the romance and still be a neighborhood restaurant,” Hanna Williams told Philly.com.
Time will tell whether others — the modernization of the French Room in Dallas and the long-awaited reopening of the Caucus Club in Detroit are two such examples opening in the coming months — will navigate the tricky divide between modern tastes and historic charm. There are no guarantees. As Hauck sees it, no matter the efforts, “It’s hard to reason with some people.”
Monica Burton is an assistant editor at Eater.
Editor: Hillary Dixler
• 113-Year-Old Milwaukee Restaurant Karl Ratzsch Has Closed [E]
• Renovated Longtime Hudson’s on the Bend Unexpectedly Closes [EATX]
• Everyone hates the new Formosa Cafe remodel [ELA]
• A Look Inside Brennan's, Now Open on Royal Street [ENOLA]
• Dallas Dining Icon The French Room Will Reopen This Year [EDFW]