2016 Hale ‘Aina Awards: Champions of Chinatown
Here’s how two of downtown’s hottest new restaurants sprang from the partnership of Jesse Cruz and Dusty Grable. Two self-described “nobodies” (just try to find them in this photo!). The saga of Lucky Belly and Livestock Tavern shows that heart. Friendship and paying your dues make for an unbeatable combination.
Somebody must’ve been watching over Jesse Cruz and Dusty Grable the day they decided to open a hip ramen shop at the corner of Hotel and Smith streets.
For a first venture, it seemed counterintuitive (more noodles in Honolulu?), yet the landlord accepted their proposal over 11 others. When banks turned down their loan application, financial help came from a couple of regular customers they’d served at a Kailua restaurant. Even so, they couldn’t have pulled off the high-concept renovation they had in mind without the help of the landlord, who was a general contractor, along with family and friends.
In the end, says Grable, “We built Lucky Belly for $150,000,” ridiculously low for a startup. “In fact, I feel like a liar when I say it cost $150,000, because it was all the friendships that were willing to support this that got it done. My wife did the interior design, all for love.”
SEE ALSO: 2016 Hale ‘Aina Award Winners: The Best Restaurants in HawaI‘I
But that good luck ran out when Lucky Belly opened. Far from being a safe choice, says the chef, Cruz, “Ramen was dangerous. In this town, everyone’s an expert. The clientele were saying the broth was too salty, too this and too that,” on social media. “Yelping is a great tool,” he adds, “but it can destroy you. In our first three months our confidence slipped; we were getting torn.”
Changing the menu based on day-to-day reactions went against everything the duo had learned working at an array of eateries, but they were running scared. “I didn’t even know what we were doing anymore,” Cruz says. “Finally, I gave myself a slap in the head and said, ‘We need to stop the anarchy and start believing in ourselves and our product again.’”
Busan Star cocktail, created by Lucky Belly bartender Joey Joyce.
Flash forward three years, and the duo are running not one but two restaurants facing each other at the respective corners of Smith and Hotel streets, both of them critical and popular successes. Gleaming urban outposts of exposed brick and polished concrete, they’re also helping fuel Chinatown’s rejuvenation. “Lately we’ve had tourists who’ve come to eat at Lucky Belly and Livestock Tavern every single day of their trip,” says Cruz. An impressive achievement for “a couple of nobodies” (Grable’s phrase) who plan to open a third venture, The Tchin-Tchin! Bar, this month.
The partners have kept a low profile, but, after a couple of hours of conversation, it’s clear they’ve mastered the inner workings of restaurants—including service, food sourcing and accounting—by studying what worked in their earlier jobs. But what gave them the confidence to leap from Lucky Belly’s belly bowl to Livestock’s smoked prime rib with horseradish crème and au jus, lobster and squid ink pasta, and crab cakes with hollandaise?
Grable, 32, digs up a favorite Steve Martin quote: “Naivete, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do.”
Says Cruz, 37, “This is a passion-driven house.”
Even as a kid, I saw how people came to restaurants to celebrate, to be entertained,” says Cruz. Makakilo-born, the Mililani High grad started classes at Kapi‘olani Community College at 17, but was already working at Monterey Bay Canners Fresh Seafood, known for its views of lush, green watercress ponds.
His mother is Filipino, a bank secretary and an “amazing cook,” and his father Chamorro, a pipefitter at Pearl Harbor. He benefited from both culinary heritages. “Guamanian food uses a lot of coconut, a lot of seafood, citrus, ceviches. Like any of the Island cultures, they do great pork, lechon,” Cruz says. A fast learner, in 1999 Cruz was sent to San Francisco to open a Roy’s as sous chef under Roy Yamaguchi’s director of chefs Gordon Ramsey. Next he landed in Las Vegas as executive chef with another pioneer of Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine, at Jean-Marie Josselin’s 808 at Caesar’s Palace.
“At Caesar’s, you had the best Japanese chef in the country, the best Chinese chef and so forth, all under one roof,” he says. “Just having the materials, the ingredients and resources you could play with, was an education.”
It was also a disconnect. “A hotel restaurant has an abundance of stuff, while in Hawai‘i I would go back to counting spoons to make sure we had enough for that night’s service.”
While Cruz was up to his elbows in lobster stir fry, ‘ahi towers and diver scallops, Dusty Grable was growing up in Kailua and attending Kamehameha Schools. Food was an afterthought. “I ate. But food was more the fellowship that food supports, food as something you do with the people in your life.” After graduation in 2001, he moved to the Mainland. “I took the money in those little gift envelopes” and joined a Chicago social services nonprofit, Arts of Life, doing art therapy with underprivileged students. “I sought out the most poverty-ridden, gang-ridden city in the country. The work changed me—more, I’m sure, than I changed Chicago.”
When his money ran out after a year, he came back home to enroll in college. “Dad’s advice was to go be a waiter. ‘Your schedule will be flexible, they’ll feed you, give you money for books and maybe you’ll have some left over for a little beer.’” Grable had his sights on being a Disney animator, but, “I had no idea how much work that was.” He dropped out to wait tables at The Old Spaghetti Factory. Age 19, in debt, he moved to the Mandarin Oriental at The Kāhala. “I learned to be polite, to clean up, to mind my words.” From watching one veteran waitress, Wendy Kim, he discovered, “There is true joy in making other people happy.”
Meanwhile, Cruz had opened an 808 for Josselin in San Diego, then signed on with the Cohn Restaurant Group, which had grown from a diner to 24 restaurants in Southern California and on Maui. Cohn exposed him to a system that valued efficiency and execution. “There was a lot of repetition and learning and it compensated for my lack of schooling,” says Cruz. Every style of restaurant was represented. “I even opened a Mister Tiki Mai Tai Lounge, sort of a Trader Vic’s thing, with torches.”
The Cohn Group is credited with helping to turn around San Diego’s seedy but historic Gaslamp Quarter by opening five establishments there, ranging from a steak house to an upscale seafood emporium—and two wine bars. It also empowers and promotes employees. Part of its mission statement: “Your employee is your most important guest. Never treat an employee with less respect than you would a guest.”
Cohn kept Cruz busy and feeling valued. He opened a lot of restaurants. “There is a thrill to being wanted, someone calling and saying, ‘Open this!’ You’re needed, you’re a brand, you’re going to help them be successful.” He branched out, opening a restaurant in the landmark Hotel del Coronado, “where they blocked off part of the lobby so they could have a live tiger.”
And then Mom called. “‘When are you going to come home? You’ve opened seven restaurants on the Mainland. How many do you have to open before you come home and open one here?’”
So Cruz came back. “It was 2008, just in time for the crash. I thought it would be a cake walk. I had nothing. No job, no money to start a restaurant. After a few months I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to go work in a Zippy’s or an L&L.’”
And then Wes Zane called from Formaggio’s in Kailua.
After the Mandarin Oriental, Dusty Grable went to Alan Wong’s. “It was good, it was tough. I met Mike Ishihara, who was a waiter there; he’s now our beverage director.” After Alan Wong’s, he migrated to Chinatown and Indigo, then to Brasserie Du Vin, working under early Chinatown innovator, Dave Stewart. “I’d found a passion for hospitality, a passion for the industry,” he says. Then came Formaggio’s, where he met Cruz.
“The chef had just left,” recalls Cruz, “and had been out for two weeks. It wasn’t a nice handoff. I had to work 60 days straight to turn the room around. I needed to learn the culture of Hawai‘i food again; the materials are a lot different, the purveyors are a lot different.”
As the two became friends, says Grable, “I learned so much. The team was inventive and relentless: how they did fine wine, small pours, blindfolded dinners, family dinners, jazz dinners.” He adds: “From Formaggio’s, I saw that everything is about relationships. Food and beverage is a very small part of what we do. They’re just the vessels of all we do.”
Grable and Cruz started talking about opening their own place. Restaurant regulars encouraged them, including a couple that offered to back them if they ever went out on their own. In 2009, Grable says, he and Cruz got serious. “In Las Vegas and San Diego, Jesse had been doing bigger stuff than most of us local kids. He said I needed to work on the Mainland to learn more. So I went.”
Crable’s then-girlfriend, now wife, Elyse Grable, had a good job as an interior decorator but was willing to move to San Francisco. Grable had a short list of places to work: “Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa, Cyrus in Healdsburg, Ame at the St. Regis in San Francisco.” He started at Gary Danko, where he found “an understated menu, but everything represented: local fish and shellfish, meat and game, no duplicated sauces or sides.”
An upper-crust sanctuary, “Gary Danko is a machine in which you play your role,” Grable says. When he felt ready to move on, he landed a dream job: Ame at the St. Regis hotel. “The St. Regis taught me the business skills I didn’t learn anywhere else—they held me accountable for labor costs, ingredient costs, beverage costs.”
Grable and Cruz would call each other and Cruz would report on the search for a space. But progress was slow. Once, Cruz said he was thinking of opening a shrimp shack in Kailua. “I said, ‘Awesome, but it doesn’t sound like a two-man operation.’” Finally, in 2012, a call came out for applications to lease a space on Hotel Street, former home of the old-school Mini Garden restaurant. Grable asked Dave Stewart of Du Vin, on nearby Bethel Street, to look at it. His advice: Do it. “I called Jesse: ‘You got to get that spot.’”
But there were 11 other applicants, many better qualified on paper. How to convince the landlord?
In San Diego, Cruz had recently opened Underbelly for the Cohn Group, with a boundary-pushing hipster ramen menu similar to David Chang’s Momofuku in New York City. “We’d looked around Chinatown,” Cruz says, “and asked ourselves, ‘What does the area need?’ Not pho and not dim sum. We don’t have the capital to do wine or steak.” They saw ramen getting a lot of attention on the Mainland, in New York and Los Angeles. “We thought, ‘We’re from Hawai‘i, we know what ramen is. Why can’t we make a ramen that is the best in the state?’”
And ramen was cheap. But how, then, to make it an experience? “Eating noodles is part of the culture here,” says Grable. “Ramen shops are great, but they want to turn over the table. You can’t linger.” Their ramen would be served in a restaurant, not a shop.
Once Lucky Belly’s concept won over the landlords, Grable and Cruz reached out to those regular customers at Formaggio’s, Marites and Ron Calad, who’d once offered financial backing. “We asked them, ‘Were you at all serious?’” They were.
They started with a small menu done well. “We served what we could afford,” says Grable. With success they could evolve and find customers “willing to spend more money on seared duck and crab if we put it on the menu.”
Not even a year had passed when the landlord came back with a new opportunity: the opposite corner of Hotel and Smith.
Once again, they asked the question: What does the area need?
“In Hawai‘i, it’s so easy to smother food in a kim chee marinade, to serve kalbi ribs and steamed white rice,” says Cruz. “It’s so easy, it’s kind of nuts not to do that. But we wanted to make a nice room like Ame in San Francisco, like Cyrus in Healdsburg.”
This time, the partners aimed higher: “What Hawai‘i doesn’t have is a New American Modern restaurant. We’ll do seasonal—and pilafs, not white rice.” It would be a risk, because it could be out of their current customers’ comfort zone. The ingredients would be pricier and, if they wanted continuity in the menu, the sourcing would be an ongoing challenge.
But, says Cruz, “Flavor is flavor.” And Livestock Tavern would draw on Cruz’s understanding of what diners universally crave: “Any dish needs acidity, needs salt, needs crispness—the technique can be different, but everyone is looking for the crispness and the charring. If you’re from Japan you add soy sauce, if you’re from Italy you want balsamic. Then you change things up with your ingredients, your spices, your rosemary and tarragon, every one giving the dish a little twist.”
To go with a seasonal menu rich in color and savor, one that would draw inspiration from early American and Eastern Shore comfort food, Elyse Grable took the space down to its exposed brick walls and then created a hip tavern vibe with dark woods, tall windows pouring down light, and a hammered metal sign on the exterior. A modern Paul Revere could hang his hat here and let the Thomas Crown Affair cocktail ring his bell.
When Livestock opened its doors in 2014, this time there was no rocky start, no trashing sessions on Yelp. The place was packed from the outset. Comfort food beckoned—scallops with bone marrow on truffle grits, mushroom bread pudding with smoked Gouda, beet salad frisee and a darn good New England clam chowder—and won approval and acclaim. Quirky touches include a cocktail menu themed to cult classics (think The Princess Bride, Labyrinth and Robert Frost). Turns out we were just waiting for New American Modern to come along.
Cruz and Grable still sound surprised by success. They’d been so focused on the journey they hadn’t noticed they’d arrived. “We were kind of uncertain about going onstage to receive the Hale ‘Aina [for Best New Restaurant],” says Grable. “But when we were standing there looking out over all these people, it hit us. I turned to Jesse and said, ‘You know, we’ve got to start taking this seriously.’”
When the night of celebration was over, Grable and his wife went home to their apartment above Hotel Street. There he reached for his comfort food since he was a little boy. “Top Ramen,” he says, then, like James Bond ordering his signature martini: “Dry.” Of course. “I open the noodle packet, tear open the spice packet, shake it all up. Eat it uncooked.
“The night of the Hale ‘Aina Awards, my wife looked at me and said, ‘You’re crazy.’”
Today there is a new theory in restaurant land. The old way, from New York’s Lower East Side and Kaka‘ako’s gentrification, relied on artists to take over down-and-out buildings, building lofts and buzz until the neighborhood changed; then the landlords would kick them out and convert the lofts into luxury condos.
The new theory doesn’t rely on artists but on artisanal food and drink. Instead of brave but lonely pioneers opening solo ventures, the new urban game-changers build clusters of restaurants and bars, like the five opened by the Cohn Group in the Gaslamp District and the 10 opened by Eric Hilton in the Black Broadway section of downtown Washington, D.C. In a recent article in The New York Times, Svetlana Legetic, webzine founder and event promoter, asked, “Why would you open eight bars that almost directly compete with each other? People thought they would cannibalize themselves, but the genius of it was that it created a destination.”
Among Honolulu’s scene changers are Cruz and Grable’s landlords, Christy and Juvie Vicari-Coito, who weathered Chinatown’s worst: In 1998 the city tried to seize the building where Livestock is today, citing 64 crack-cocaine purchases on the premises in three months. They fought the forfeiture and in 2009 backed Manifest down the block, which helped spark the Hotel Street turnaround.
Chinatown now is a Honolulu destination. “It’s got entertainment, it’s got fashion, it’s flat,” says Grable. “People can spend an entire day here. We need more places opening—losing Du Vin hurt. We need landlords like ours that help places continue and to excel. Places like The Pig & The Lady, Grondin, Little Village, which has been handling it for decades, J.J. Dolan’s—right now we’re gambling that, with the help of the entire neighborhood, we’ll get there.”
The pair isn’t fazed by Chinatown’s gritty side and people. “They’re part of the charm of Chinatown,” says Grable. “We are concerned about the comfort and safety of our guests. But the homeless, most are just down and out.”
They resisted opening a restaurant in Kailua, Hawai‘i Kai and Kāhala. “Those neighborhoods are going to dictate what you do, how you do it and whether you succeed. Chinatown allows us the flexibility of doing it our way. You don’t have to heed the will of the neighborhood. If The Pig & The Lady or Grondin had opened in Kailua, they would struggle.
“Only in Chinatown can places like this thrive.”
And, so, it really doesn’t come as a surprise to hear that the partners next plan to open The Tchin-Tchin! Bar a couple of doors down the block at 39 Hotel St. “It will be a Mediterranean wine bar serving Spanish, Portuguese, Moroccan, Greek and other cuisines,” says Grable. “We’ll have a full-bottle nitrogen preservation system so we can have up to 300 selections, which will allow us to offer 40 to 60 wines by the glass every day.”
A new restaurant every 18 months seems a grueling pace, but keeping them within 100 yards of each other certainly helps. When asked about the future, Grable replied in an email, saying, “I don’t know if it’s worth mentioning, but we like to dream … [And] it is a dream of ours to have about five concepts here in Hawai‘i. Hopefully our team will grow and we will outgrow ourselves.
“We are so very fortunate,” he continued, “to have such an incredible team of passionate, talented and driven people. We hope that together we have provided an environment that nourishes their passions and allows them opportunities to grow. If we have too many cooks who are capable of being chefs, too many servers who want to bartend, too many leaders who want to manage, too many managers who want to own … [then] we hope to have the opportunity to open more venues for them to continue their growth.”
Which sounds like more good luck for the rest of us.
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