Chopped Judge Chris Santos’ Vibrant Nightlife and Quality FoodOctober 8, 2013 By: Steve Lewis
Perfecting the art of a vibrant nightlife is hard enough but coupling it with quality food is relatively unheard of in New York. Vegas lives on perfecting this concept but in NY there are only a couple notable exceptions. The majority of nightlife patrons like to eat and play in separate spaces.
Of course the trend towards the ‘gastropub’ and ‘resto-club’ is increasing as operators see the revenue potential. The ability to serve brunch at 11am and close out bottle service at 4am is a dream come true. But Chris Santos makes this dream look easy.
Food Network fans know Chris as one of the judges on the popular show Chopped but New Yorkers know him for his packed eateries Beauty & Essex and Stanton Social. Here is our recent interview with Chris to get the full lowdown on his vision.
Nightclub & Bar (NCB): What considerations need to be made when creating a menu for both evening and late night?
Chris Santos: We talk a lot about balance in our day to day philosophies, and one of the things we have tried to balance is creating a menu that is as equally appealing to a 5pm table of two as it is a 1am table of 10. I think the sharing/family style of service and menu writing has had a large part in that.
The Stanton Social
NCB: How do you judge the success of the evening? Is it based on food or beverage? Is it important to have the food service finished and gone to ensure late night profit?
Santos: Not at all actually….While certainly liquor and bottle sales help to drive a healthy bottom line we have never wavered from the fact that we are a restaurant first and foremost. It’s been important from day one that we work hard to fight the idea that we are a “nightclub with great food” and prefer to think of us as a great restaurant that has a nightclub vibe especially as the night gets later and later….Certainly we could take last reservations much earlier than 1am and flip the space into an even more nightclub type vibe but that’s not what we want to be. I do love the nightclub vibe and think we have become exactly what we set out to be, which is a beautiful, high energy, and super fun restaurant.
NCB: Is the concession front of Beauty & Essex profitable or just a design hook?
Santos: Initially it was really meant to be a design hook and a fun unique interactive experience for guests on the way in and out, but together through our partnership with Lauren Kaminsky (of the E-Z Pawn Empire) it has become incredibly successful in its own right – both from a business end and as something guests have responded overwhelmingly positive to. It’s been successful beyond my wildest expectations, to be honest!
Beauty & Essex
NCB: Unlike most restaurants your venues are busiest late night. How do pace yourself and still find time to keep the recipes fresh?
Santos: It’s a balancing act – I think it’s important to be in the restaurants when they are at their busiest and for us that is late night. I also like to support the Tao Group venues (who are my partners) and that requires going out pretty late and is a great way to connect with guests. Certainly the days of going out night after night after night are over, and I try to pick my spots when I don’t have a super early start the next day. I make sure to make time always to collaborate with my amazing team of chefs and sous chefs who all have significant creative input when it comes to dish creation.
NCB: Are there plans to bring your concepts to other cities?
Santos: It’s important to me to be as hands on and as present as possible…So, while I have been looking at spaces in NYC for a new concept it is not something I’m rushing to do. It was six years between the opening of Stanton Social and Beauty & Essex, and Beauty has been open now just under three years. If I find a unique amazing space then I’ll jump on it but I’m not in a rush. I am also in interested in taking my brands to Las Vegas, and think we would be a great fit there and prove to be very successful, especially with the support and partnership of the Tao Group. We have begun to explore that, though there isn’t “exciting news” to report just yet.
NCB: Tell us about working with Rich Wolf.
Santos: Rich and I met 20 years ago when I first moved to NYC, as my first NYC position was Sous Chef at Time Café on Lafayette where he was a partner. We remained friends and would get together and have dinner from time to time and say “we need to open up something together.” He really has been the catalyst for my success as he took a chance on me and opened up Stanton Social, and later Beauty & Essex, when really he didn’t need to.
Rich and Mark Packer, along with Jason Strauss and Noah Tepperburg of Strategic Group in various arrangements own Tao/Tao Vegas, Lavo/Lavo Vegas, Marquee NY/Vegas/Australia, Rue 57, Avenue, PH-D and that’s not even including the dayclubs in Vegas and other spots. But he wanted to work with me, and his partnership, and support from the Tao Group/Strategic was critical in the early days of Stanton Social while I was still making my own name so to speak.
He’s also been an incredible influence and mentor, and is one of the greatest guys you will come across in this business. He’s as driven and dedicated as anyone can possibly be and leads by example. His work ethic and commitment are second to none, and he’s a fun guy to hang out with as well. It’s cliché to say but he’s truly that work hard play hard kind of guy and incredibly smart. With all the horror stories out there I feel incredibly fortunate to have him as a business partner.
NCB: Why the lower east side locations? Have you considered a midtown or uptown destination?
Santos: This is my hood. I live here, I hang out at the bars here, eat at the restaurants here, it’s my home and I’d like to think it will always be, and was immediately the neighborhood I was drawn to when I moved here 20 years ago even though I didn’t live here until a few years ago. However, I can’t say I wouldn’t consider the right space in another neighborhood, and I have looked at a countless number of spaces citywide over the last five or so years, but given a choice I’d love to open my next restaurant here as well, which is one of the reasons finding THE space can take a while.
NCB: Tell us about the cocktail revolution and how it affects your bottom line/menu.
Santos: I think more than anything it has just motivated us and inspired us to create killer cocktails, and treat developing and evolving the cocktail menu with just as much care as we would the food menus. We also incorporate more “kitchen” prepared elements into our cocktails as a component or garnish. Guests critique cocktails in the same fashion they do dishes these days therefore you have to be on point and that’s a great thing for everyone.
NCB: Avroko provided both places with brilliant design. Were they aware of the wear and tear from the long hours and success?
Santos: It certainly was a big part of the design process, and we certainly had to make some decisions that were based on practicality considering our enormous volume. But I think we struck a great balance between Aesthetic and durability for the most part.
NCB: Tell us about new burger on the menu at Stanton Social.
Santos: My Executive Sous Chef at Stanton Social, Jonathon Kavourakis, is nicknamed “Big Sexy”. In truth I think he coined that himself, haha. Anyway our new late night burger, “The Big Sexy” is our first full size burger we have ever had on the menu, as we were one of the first restaurants nine years ago to really run with the slider craze concept. We love sliders as much as the next guy, but thought it was time to have a real burger, and this is his creation. It’s a blend of dry aged prime ribeye, dry aged prime ribeye fat, chuck, short rib and smoked bacon and is topped with coca-cola caramelized onions, “fancy sauce” and a thick slice of American cheese on a Martin’s Potato bun. We serve it after 9pm only Sunday-Thursday nights and only 24 are available. We just started running it and we have sold out every night. It’s a fun, messy burger great for sharing.