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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

With Locanda da Eva, Former SF Weekly Critic Robert Lauriston Switches Sides

Posted By on Tue, Jul 13, 2010 at 10:41 AM

click to enlarge LOCANDA DA EVA
  • Locanda da Eva
I find myself in an odd position: Interviewing one of my former restaurant-critic colleagues about the restaurant he's opening. Robert Lauriston, prominent Chowhound and eater-about-town, has written restaurant reviews for both the East Bay Express and SF Weekly, as well as SFoodie (though never during the same period as I have). Now he's opening Locanda de da Eva in Berkeley, in the space that once housed Mazzini Trattoria and Zax Tavern. I thought I'd ask the aspiring George Bernard Shaw straight out: What's a restaurant critic doing opening a restaurant?

SFoodie: So how's it going?

Lauriston: I'm doing fine. It's sort of an odd situation. I don't know what I'm doing, so I hired a chef (Huw Thornton, last of SPQR at A16 ― his sample menu is posted on the website), who is handling everything in the kitchen, and a GM (Matt Derrick of Terzo, Pesce, and Cortez) who is handling everything in the front of the house. I'm just handling the administrative details ― decoration, contracting, the wine list ― so I'm caught up while everyone else is slammed with friends-and-family [dinner] stuff.

click to enlarge The facade took a stripey turn under previous tenant Maritime East. - MIKE L./YELP
  • Mike L./Yelp
  • The facade took a stripey turn under previous tenant Maritime East.
How long were you looking to open a restaurant? I had another project in mind, working with a brilliant baker who wanted to do a pizzeria on the lines of Una Pizza Napoletana. Then I saw this space and thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The weird circumstances of Maritime East (the short-lived restaurant that preceded Locanda da Eva) had made people think of the space as doomed, so it was closed for almost almost two years. Nobody bid on it.

Where did the impulse to own a restaurant come from? I was looking for something to invest in that would give some kind of a return, and stocks and bonds are terrible right now. Ironically, I could get a good deal on the space and a reasonable lease, and I was able to hire really good people, and we were able to get equipment really cheap through auctions. If you've got some capital, it's an awesome time to open a restaurant.

What about the notoriously low returns in the restaurant business? Well, when you look at returns on stocks and bonds ― bonds are paying under 1 percent, for instance.... It's a funny moment.

What surprised you about opening a restaurant after writing about them for so long? I think maybe the thing that surprised me was how technologically backward the restaurant industry is, except for point-of-service systems, which are integrated into the culture. The billing, the people using faxes, all this paper ― things I thought I was never going to have to work with again.

Starting a wine list also is a lot more work than one might imagine ― a lot less time drinking delightful wines and a lot more quality time with your spreadsheets.

What wasn't that much of a surprise, because I read up beforehand, was the extent to which the business side of running a restaurant is a numbers game. I'm spending a lot of time looking at detailed budgets, trying to figure out where I can trim costs, where I can trim staff on nights when it's a little slow ― you fine-tune this stuff, and that's where you make the money. You can have a restaurant that's full, that's making beautiful food and full of happy customers night after night, and they might not be making money.

Having been a critic, are you more self-conscious ― or hyper-conscious ― about certain things? Yeah. I've read every word that [SF Chronicle critic] Michael Bauer has written, practically since he moved to California. I'm highly conscious of what he and other critics might seize on. For example, wine-serving temperatures. [Incorrect serving temperature] is one of his bugaboos ― and I also feel the same way. So I've said to my staff, we need to spend x on a wine cooler. Why can't we just store the wine here? they ask, and I tell them no. If we try to do that it will come back to bite us in the reviews.

I realized at a certain point that I'm an outsider in the restaurant culture. I think it's a valuable perspective, when you're designing a restaurant, not to be too close to the guts of the operation, to be looking at the big picture.... I like to hire the right person and delegate. I absolutely hired fabulous people, and I'm thrilled with what a great job they've been doing.

Are you going to keep posting on Chowhound? I've pretty much stopped posting about something in the same market as my restaurant. What a competitor has to say about somebody always comes off wrong. Besides, I'm really busy right now.

Locanda da Eva opens for dinner Tuesday, July 20 ― given that the restaurant has passed all its permits and inspections, there are no anticipated delays. On Friday, July 16, early adapters are welcome to attend a public open house the restaurant is holding for Laura Hoffman, the artist who did the paintings on the walls. (Only the bar will be open for business that night.)

Opening July 20:
Locanda de Eva 2826 Telegraph (at Oregon), Berkeley, 510-665-9601;

plans to open Tues.-Sat., 5 p.m. - midnight; Sun., 5-10 p.m. Bar menu after 10 p.m.


us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Follow

me at @JonKauffman.

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