By Chris Mohney
Dave Beran is chef-owner at the Michelin-starred French bistro Pasjoli in Santa Monica. His other restaurant, a small tasting-menu spot called Dialogue also recognized by Michelin, closed in November 2020.
Closing Dialogue was 100 percent related to the pandemic. Originally, it was intended to be a six-month restaurant in that space. The idea was that we were always going to move it because it didn’t have bathrooms, and it was in a food court. It was never a dream restaurant, but we made it into one.
It’s tough to close something that’s successful though. From a business perspective, it was profitable, as well as from a creative perspective. We were having a lot of fun there. But as the shutdown happened, and then things started to reopen, we took a step back.
With the mandatory social-distance spacing, we could only have four people in the restaurant at the time. That’s not a business model that works. Even if we get to a point where we can have 8 or 10 people, whose comfort level is going to be there? And not just from the diner’s perspective, but from the staff’s perspective. It was 700 square feet and had 18 guests at a time pre-COVID. And at the same time, our landlords let us know that they were looking to sell the building. We took that into consideration.
With Dialogue, it was like you have a dream car in mind, and you get the second-best version of it, then the whole time you’re like, “Wow, it’s so close to being the one I wanted.” Like getting a really, really nice Nissan instead of the Mercedes that I wanted. It did everything I needed it to, but it was clearly not the dream car. So we had a lot of conversations with the landlord. It helped that my business partner had a personal relationship with them. They really did put a lot of faith in a weird idea. We had people entering from the alley, and we had them using a separate elevator, and there was a door code. It was promoting the food court, but it wasn’t promoting the food court. We didn’t have any signs anywhere.
We came to an agreement about it. We didn’t need to bring in any investors. We split the cost of the restaurant with the building. And the unique factor, too, was we did an entirely percentage rent. On a slow month, our lowest rent was like $15,000, and our highest was $34,000, both for 700 square feet. It was insane. But if you look at it like there’s no investors, there’s just us, it’s not like you’re paying other people back. It became this mutually beneficial deal where we were helping each other out. The landlord benefited from the media attention, and they made their money back on the buildout from the structured rent because they were truly partners with us.
On the other hand, Pasjoli was a new restaurant. When it closed the first time, it was only five months old. We had investor responsibilities, and we were trying to keep that restaurant going because we owed people money. But that was a finished restaurant that we loved and had talked about for so long and put a lot into dreaming it up. We decided Pasjoli was the restaurant we needed to save, because unlike Dialogue, it wasn’t temporary.
Pasjoli will evolve—and it has evolved tremendously since it opened—but it’s not an incomplete restaurant. So we decided, from a business perspective, to let go of the Dialogue space. But we also saw an opportunity to retain the entire Dialogue staff—we moved them all to Pasjoli. And all the money we had left in Dialogue, we used as a bit of a cash injection into the other restaurant.
But even back when we originally opened the Dialogue space, we never stopped looking for other spaces. In the back of my head, Dialogue was an R&D restaurant while we were looking for the real restaurant. You’re basically having guests come in and try the food and building a relationship with the city while you’re designing what the next restaurant will become. I already had the French bistro concept in my head.
The more I liked the west side, and the more time I was spending over here, the more we started looking in this area. So about a year into Dialogue, I said we either find a new Dialogue space or we find a bistro space, and whichever one we find first, we’ll do. Right at the one year anniversary of Dialogue, we found a space for Pasjoli, and that opened pretty much at the two-year anniversary.
With restaurant spaces, sometimes you try to force a concept into a building, and other times you sit back and let it speak to you, and see what it wants to be. For me, with the Pasjoli space, there was no way that it was going to be a fine-dining restaurant. It just didn’t make sense in the neighborhood. I mean, originally it was a place called the Omelette Parlor that had been there for 30-some years. It just looks like a neighborhood restaurant. We really wanted to contribute to the neighborhood. Granted, we’re an expensive restaurant, but in our mind it was still cheap enough to not alienate people.
A lot changed even in the first five months of Pasjoli. I had all these crazy ideas. I love certain French restaurants. I thought Le Coucou in New York was an awesome restaurant. There were plenty in Paris that I really wanted to model this after. So when we first opened, I was like, every dish has to come with a side dish. We need lots of things on the table. The service style has to be a certain way. We had to have two people pouring water because we can’t have guests pouring their own water.
I learned four weeks into Pasjoli’s opening that half my ideas were not going to work. We were using too much labor. Guests were getting confused because you get your entree and your side dish. Four people would have four entrees and four side dishes and not know what was what.
I had imagined that if you and I sat down for dinner, we would each order our own appetizer and an entree. But every table shared food. I was like, “Stop sharing food!” I didn’t order enough face plates when we opened to give everyone a face plate and put the food in the middle of the table. For months I kept fighting that. “Tell them to get their own food!” It didn’t work. That was probably my biggest hiccup. I was on this mission to get people to stop sharing food, and that didn’t work at all.
When I was in Chicago, the first time I ate at Avec, which was Blackbird’s casual restaurant, I remember sitting down and the server saying, “Order for the table. We’ll send things out when they’re ready. Everything is intended to be shared.” I hadn’t been cooking very long—this probably 2004—and I was thinking, “They want us to share the food? That’s insane. Why wouldn’t they give us our own plates?”
From that point on, for the next five years, it became a thing for every restaurant to say, “Order for the table. We’ll send the food out when it’s ready. We’ll take care of coursing it out.” This became a lazier method of doing things. It was like, “We’ll just bring it to you when it’s ready. Don’t worry about it.” If you go to a bistro in France, you get your own appetizer and your own entree. So I was determined to be the one that stopped doing this. I was like, “No, we’re going to bring back a little more of that individuality to fine dining.”
And it just didn’t work. People didn’t want to go back, and it was fine. I remember doing friends and family meal after I had talked to my wife about this for months, and the first thing she and her friends did was order something to share. I was like, “What are you doing? We literally talked about this for I don’t know how long!” And she was like, “Oh, we just wanted to share a couple of things.” So that was it. Right out the door.
From the day that restaurant opened, it was a constant—I don’t want to use the word “pivot,” but it was more of a reactionary restaurant. I hadn’t worked a la carte since 2004. I had only done tasting menus. It was 15 years since I’d worked a la carte, and all of a sudden here I was running and owning an a la carte restaurant.
By the time we hit January 2020, we were figuring out what we wanted to do. And then we closed for lockdown. When we reopened the first time, we weren’t allowed to do anything tableside. We had been doing caviar, duck press, and some desserts tableside. You weren’t allowed to do that. You couldn’t pour water. You couldn’t pour wine tableside. We started going against service. If you and I are sitting down and we each order a glass of wine, what the server should do is carry a tray with two glasses on it and put the glasses down. They would carry them on a tray, except when we did that, we had to bring the tray back and sanitize it. I was like, “Okay, if they get two glasses, we’ll carry two glasses.” So that was a change.
And then we had to give you silverware in roll-ups. All of these things that I never in a hundred years would have thought about doing in a restaurant, we had to do. Because of that, it made us take a step back. If we stop pouring water for the guests and give them a bottle of water—which we have to do anyway—what can that server do instead to make the experience better? Forced changes like that made us really rethink how we could approach the guest experience, and what more we could do with the same amount of labor.
Finally, as a result of the fact that now no one has any labor, that you can’t find any employees anywhere, we had to figure out how we could manage to be the same level of restaurant with two-thirds of the staff. So we shrank our menu. We got rid of all the things people didn’t order anyway. Now we run a couple of specials, and we can have a smaller kitchen staff and put more focus on the food. Now the size of it feels great. Including the duck press, we maybe only have six entrees, but we also run specials all the time. Before when we had nine entrees or ten entrees, we didn’t run any specials. We were barely getting those done. And some nights, one of the entrees you might only sell two of. It’s like, why is that there? Out of obligation?
We haven’t brought back any tableside service because we have two outdoor dining rooms and fewer seats inside, and you can’t wheel carts to four different places. Logistically, it just was a mess.
All of these forced things made us reevaluate what service meant, what was important, and whether there were steps that maybe were a bit antiquated at this point. Now guests don’t have any issues with pouring water, but imagine 15 years ago if you told every guest they had to pour their own water.
One of the biggest things that we did that benefited the restaurant on a multitude of levels was to move our host stand outside. It’s Southern California, so you can do that. Because there’s a dining room that’s essentially outside on the street, this nice outdoor patio area, we have our front door open when it’s warm out, we have dog treats in the host stand. Our neighbors come by, and they’re not intimidated because the windows are mirrored over. They can see in, they can walk inside. So that has changed our relationship with the neighborhood. That’s a great silver lining to this.
I’m still thinking about bringing back Dialogue. Everyone needs a dream, and mine is to have guest bathrooms in the restaurant. It’s not that Dialogue wasn’t a “real” restaurant, but I want its next incarnation to be a real restaurant. It’s not going to be an 18-seat counter. Depending on the space, I’m sure we would have a small counter to nod back to what it was. But I would imagine 40 to 50 seats and a much bigger kitchen. It would be a proper fine dining restaurant with a tasting menu.
At Dialogue, I think the shortest menu we did was 19 courses. The longest was 24 or 25. I have a different view of how the menu should be written now. Before, I wrote four menus a year, one for each season. It was all about the storyline and connecting forward and connecting backward and tying everything together. You realize that part of the reason you’re doing is to force yourself to grow and constantly change so that you don’t fall into the habit of doing the same thing over and over again.
We did 12 menus with an average of 20 courses each. That’s 240 dishes over two and a half years at Dialogue. Most of those were great. Some of them weren’t. But talking to almost every guest about their experience while they’re having their experience, you learn what works and what doesn’t, and how people react to it. I miss the idea of the course where someone can almost take a nap in the dish, a little time to sit with that meal. The invasiveness of the 20 courses means that someone’s at your table 40 times, not including wine. They have to put it down and take it away.
I think some maturity comes with the fact that we did that, and now we can step back and look at it. I think there has to be a higher level of refinement. The new Dialogue should be the dream version of what Dialogue started out as. We move from a treehouse to a real house.
We’ve actually got a few concepts in mind for the next restaurants. We’ve been close on two or three leases. Things fell through for different reasons. If a space comes along, and we can sign the lease, we’ll have the restaurants going. We have a great baker on our staff. I’d love to do a little café-bakery with him. His girlfriend works for a bakery right now, and the two of them have their little side business out of their house making bagels.
Our whole philosophy is to build the company around the talent that we have. I can’t bake anything. I’m a terrible baker. So it would be our company’s bakery, but the point is to elevate them into showcasing the fact that we have this other talent in the company. I just want to open a bunch of places that I would go to, but don’t exist here yet.