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Rolling in the dough: restaurant mogul Tristan Simon

Which Tristan Simon restaurant is your favorite?
Posted 8:52am on Wednesday, Apr. 04, 2012

Tristan Simon, founder and CEO of Dallas-based Consilient Restaurants, can no longer contain himself.

In the middle of expounding on a particular point, the 38-year-old restaurant developer and operator of such Metroplex hot spots as Fireside Pies, Victor Tango's, Hibiscus and the Porch, leaps up from his home office chair and bounds into an adjoining room. When the 6-feet, 4-inch, floppy-haired mogul returns, he is holding the very first newspaper review of Cool River Cafe, the massively popular Las Colinas steakhouse-and-billiards-bar that was Simon's baptism-by-fire first venture.

But it's not the slightly critical tone of the review that has Simon agitated. It's what the then 24-year-old, 1998 version of Simon is holding in the review's picture: a 21-inch plate of surf-and-turf, featuring a honking center-cut filet mignon, a hulking lobster tail, all but drowning in cilantro butter, and a leafy side dish dubbed spinach Mercedes -- a plush name for lots of spinach entombed in a viscous, nut-studded sauce.

"In any one of my places today, we would never serve something like this," says Simon. "We would never take a high quality Maine lobster tail and douse it in cilantro butter. That just shows no respect for the lobster. Today, not only would we trim back that massive center-cut filet, but it would be sourced from a well-respected, local grass-fed ranch. And, today, that spinach side would be wild spinach deftly sauteed with garlic, lemon and high-quality olive oil. All that was on that plate back then was heavy-handed, showing no respect for the quality of the essential ingredients."

As Simon recounts that anecdote (and the dish) with a diamond-cutter's precision, you would swear that you were listening to a classically trained chef or someone who, at the very least, grew up at the apron strings of a gourmet. But there is no crisp white toque hanging in Simon's closet, no culinary-school degree on his wall. He never apprenticed in any local restaurant's kitchen. In fact, he double-majored in economics and English in college, and his first serious job was as a sports agent.

"It's true. Tristan was not someone who grew up going to fine-dining restaurants -- he wasn't afforded those luxuries," says Mark Masinter, a close friend and investor in Simon's restaurant empire. "But today you'd never know that as he can go into any restaurant and both study and critique it. You would think listening to him that he was classically trained at the Cordon Bleu."

All of which makes Simon's rise as one of DFW's most influential restaurant moguls that much more fascinating and unlikely.

A kid who grew up in London and later near the Navy yards of Norfolk, Va., Simon had to fight, literally, to fit in. But by the time he was in his mid-20s, he had become the ultimate Dallas insider, dubbed the Czar of Henderson Avenue for his spectacularly successful run of restaurants and clubs that revived that area, and his cadre of friends and investors who included everyone from billionaires to celebrity chefs to NBA superstars.

And now, it seems, Simon may be poised to become the Wizard of West 7th in Fort Worth. In 2010, he turned his laser focus and Midas touch to Cowtown, where his mother, Erica Larkin, lives, and where, in 2010, he opened the fifth branch of his wildly popular artisanal pizzeria, Fireside Pies. It has quickly become the profit jewel of his restaurant crown -- and Simon plans to make Fort Worth the regional and national launching pad for his next high-concept cluster of restaurants. In early 2013, he will open his ultimate hybrid restaurant: American F&B -- or American Food & Beverage -- just down the street from Fireside Pies. Tapping into two successful formulas from his playbook -- Dallas' the Porch and Los Angeles' Westside Tavern -- Simon says American F & B will take the bar and grill-brasserie notion to a whole new orbit of refinement. (See sidebar.)

"What you will see in West 7th in Fort Worth will be a blueprint for our business plan for both of those concepts, built in one place down the road," says Simon, who plans to export the culinary-nightlife dynamic duo to Houston, Atlanta and, Washington, D.C. "These two restaurants will become, frankly, the best in our company."

When Simon says this, it's not a boast or a bold pronouncement. It's simply a reflection of his quiet confidence, ironclad will and, as Masinter describes it, "incredible intuition."

For Simon, the relentless pursuit of restaurant nirvana isn't just about recognition, empire building or even making money.

"Being a restaurant operator is my form of creativity," he says. "The other part of my creativity is my desire to be a placemaker, creating places that offer people an experience that is deeply, emotionally satisfying. That really is the essence of who I am. Also, with my itinerant past, my restaurants are my way of rooting myself in a community, becoming literally part of its food chain."

Fighting for perfection

Look around Simon's 4,000-square-foot bachelor pad in University Park, and you'll find more than a few symbols of his almost pugilistic drive to succeed: an autographed picture of two of the 20th century's greatest boxing adversaries, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, during their immortal 1971 encounter; and a wall-engulfing painting of Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson, the ultimate loner-pool-shark.

Every morning, Simon sits in his home office, sipping his favorite brain-cell-building drink of green tea with powdered sage and Manuka honey, and poring over the previous night's "sales summaries." When, from one of the general managers' e-mails, he learns that they sold 45 salmon burgers at Westside Tavern -- a steady increase -- Simon sounds like a proud papa and a satisfied mad scientist.

"I remember working on the final version of that salmon burger," he says. "How we tried so hard to get the patty's moist texture just right, and how crisp we wanted its produce to be and how wonderfully yielding its whole-wheat bun would be and so we were so giddy about this beautiful, brilliant product we would introduce to our customers. Seeing that gives me so much joy."

Things don't always go so smoothly.

Warren Schwartz, the highly touted chef at Westside Tavern, recalls vividly Simon's quest to have his chefs construct the perfect pastrami sandwich.

"He was getting down into the very basics of how the mustard touched the pastrami, or how the bread and the mayonnaise worked with everything," recalls Schwartz. "Then, he wanted to play with the order of the ingredients in the sandwich. At one point, after four hours of this, as he was eating yet another sandwich, I just sprawled back in the booth and admitted that he simply would not stop eating those pastrami sandwiches until he found what he was looking for."

And the kicker to that sandwich saga? Pastrami never made it on the menu.

Blending with the best

Despite his exacting nature, Simon doesn't seem solely driven by ego or dictatorial desires. In fact, he says he never really wanted to stand out.

At the tender age of 8, the British-accented Simon was thrust into the hardscrabble world of Norfolk, Va.'s, naval base community.

"First off, my British accent immediately made me stand out," says Simon. "And not in an advantageous way. In fact it was a ticket to a constant ass-whipping. I was always a year or two younger than my peers. So everyone was naturally bigger than I was and with my British accent, it was just an invitation to single me out for some kind of abuse."

(Simon's mother was born in London and came to the States in 1973, after marrying an American who was studying abroad. The marriage lasted two years, and she and Tristan, who was born in Columbus, Ohio, moved back to England. That's where they lived until she married a U.S. Navy chief petty officer, and the family settled in Norfolk.)

Simon worked hard at blending in, starting with losing his British accent by 12. He also worked every summer on commercial fishing boats, and there he got his first meaningful food impressions. "For me, eating a crab-cake sandwich at Harrison's Fishing Pier near where I worked on boats was one of those signature childhood memories," recalls Simon. "I can never forget the taste of that freshly picked Chesapeake Bay crab meat."

An average student at best, Simon excelled at rebellion.

"No question I had built up plenty of anger," he says. "I always felt like an outsider. I had been picked on a lot between ages 8 and 13, so I would just lash out as this young, pissed-off immigrant."

But a crucial decision to have Simon attend his last two years of high school at the highly structured Christ Church Episcopal Prep School, in Tidewater, Va., turned Simon's previously rudderless life in a new direction. He began showing a tremendous affinity, not only for liberal arts (He was a standout in his advanced placement English composition class), but also such forbiddingly hard disciplines as advanced-placement chemistry and physics.

He graduated top of his class, a National Merit Scholar and enrolled at Duke University -- the "Harvard of the South" -- where he double-majored in English and economics, summing up the left brain-right brain approach to his academic, and later, his professional life.

After graduation in 1994, Simon took a job as a paralegal at a Washington, D.C., law firm, where he mostly ended up making sandwich runs. So when Cherokee Parks, one of the members of Duke's perennially strong basketball team, called to ask Simon to help him find an agent as he entered the NBA draft, Simon jumped at the chance. Parks would eventually sign with the Dallas Mavericks, and friends moved to Dallas in the fall of 1995.

"I honestly didn't envision being in Dallas for more than 12 months," says Simon.

But it would only take the 22-year old Simon a few months of meandering around Las Colinas to realize his new temporary home badly needed some kind of upscale nightspot or dining establishment.

"At that time, there was absolutely nowhere to go," he says.

He began slowly doing the kind of meticulous business and demographic analysis of Las Colinas that would soon become his calling card. He envisioned an upscale American bar and grill, combined with an attractive bar with pool tables. And he hounded Gene Street, the founder of Black-Eyed Pea and Good Eats, until he agreed to hear the idea. Impressed by the upstart, Street said he would be willing to partner with Simon, if he could raise the bulk of the financing.

"That was a major breakthrough," says Simon. "That Street did not think of my idea as a pure lark, coming from someone of my age and given the kind of scale I was shooting for. It was that first sign that I might parlay this into a real business."

And then Simon faced a potentially devastating obstacle. He learned of a competing project: A 15,000-square-foot steakhouse, with a bar and pool tables to take root in Las Colinas. Its name: Cool River Cafe.

Simon tracked down Cool River's main money and landman, a successful futures trader named Steve Hartnett, who had already had success opening the Fox and Hound. And in a three-day, marathon meeting set up by Simon, he convinced Hartnett to join with him and Street as a tripod development team.

Cool River, Simon's first DFW restaurant project, went from dream to a very big reality. When it opened in January 1998, Cool River Cafe comprised 20,000 square feet, employed 250 and, at $8 million, was at the time the most expensive restaurant ever developed in the Metroplex. Its first year numbers are still astounding: $250,000 a week, or $11 million a year, in sales during its first year, making it the highest grossing restaurant in Texas.

"In my time at Cool River, I was fueled by such a great belief in our vision, and also an enormous fear of failure," admits Simon. "I was afraid of being exposed as someone who talked his way into an opportunity that I was maybe not qualified for. But the vision turned out to be right."

Highs and lows

The launch of Cool River would ignite one of the most impressive runs of restaurant and club openings by a single individual in recent Metroplex memory. In less than a decade, Simon single-handedly reshaped the once-dilapidated North Henderson Avenue strip in Dallas with the rapid-fire openings of Cuba Libre, the Candle Room and Sense nightclubs, Fireside Pies, Hibiscus, the Porch and Victor Tango's. In L.A., Westside Tavern was Simon's first venture outside DFW, and the critically acclaimed Alma would take over in the old Cuba Libre space. All finally culminating with Fireside Pies 2.0 opening in Fort Worth.

"In that time, Simon did nothing short of pinpoint an entire Henderson [Avenue] neighborhood that had been so desolate and brought it to life," says Tracey Evers, executive director of the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association. "And he did it risking other people's money and, ultimately, his reputation -- a scary thing to do."

Such was Simon's dominance that he earned the moniker "Czar of Henderson Avenue."

From his Cool River beginnings, Simon honed a definite way of doing business. He cultivated a coterie of deep-pocketed, boldfaced name investors such as Mark Cuban and T. Boone Pickens, or NBA players such as Steve Nash and former Dallas Mavericks guard Jim Jackson, and then wooed some ultra-talented local chefs to make their culinary mark in his restaurants.

"Me and my partners put a six-figure investment in Tristan and Fireside Pies," says Masinter, founder and president of Open Realty Advisors. "Because I saw Tristan had character, the cash flow components of a good business, and he had a unique concept. I just totally trusted him as the steward of my money. I can say confidently that my investment value is now worth many, many multiples of what I initially put in."

What gathering those investors together illustrated was "just what an extremely effective salesperson Tristan can be," says Nick Badovinus, who for seven years was responsible for developing menus at four of Simon's earliest restaurants, and who runs Neighborhood Services and Off-Site Kitchen. "He's always run the risk of not being able to deliver, but because he's got such an intense belief in what he's doing, he is incredibly good at creating huge expectations and getting people to believe."

To be sure, Simon's trademark time-consuming, occasionally tedious, process of tweaking and polishing a dish until it all but glows hasn't pleased every chef. Some simply threw up their hands in frustration and walked away.

"One particular chef we had," recalls Taryn Anderson, the Porch's managing partner, "simply wasn't flexible and resisted Tristan's editing process. When we were trying to fix something, in his mind, it was just fine, and he would just move on. For a lot of creative-minded people, it is tough to be that disciplined." That chef, in fact, would subsequently leave Simon's company.

And not even the relentlessly committed, preternaturally upbeat Simon would admit that his rise to the top has been free of friction or business missteps.

He lasted only two years at Cool River Cafe, where he clashed with his main financial partner, Steve Hartnett.

"Clearly Steve did not get as much credit as he should have for his role in financing and envisioning Cool River and for mentoring a young protégé who didn't know anything," says Simon. "But at that time, 14 years ago, people liked to seize on the idea of the precocious young entrepreneur -- me -- being responsible for much of Cool River's runaway success. I guess that just pissed Steve off."

When Hartnett, Cool River's controlling financial partner, began reversing several of Simon's business decisions, Simon says he had to make a choice: "Be an instrument of Steve's will or get out."

"I guess my ego was pretty healthy at that point," Simon adds, "so it was out of a combination of ego and insecurity that me and Steve clashed in the middle of all this grand success we were having at Cool River. This was not a battle I was going to win."

So, in 1999, a mere year after Cool River opened its doors, Simon left. (Hartnett, who also developed Fox and Hound, Flip's and Mi Dia, died in November 2011 of prostate cancer.)

Although Simon would go on to great success, he faced his share of failures, too. Most notably, in 2003 when he became an investor in Genghis Grill, a Mongolian barbecue grill concept with several Dallas locations. "It ended up being the single worst business decision I've ever made," he says.

When Genghis' owners defaulted on the loan, Simon felt compelled to take over the company and try to salvage a gradually collapsing investment. Soon he was up to his eyebrows in tangled franchise issues, closing various stores, before eventually selling the entire brand to a franchisee.

It might also have been the deal that nearly shot a small arrow in his almost brotherly relationship with Consilient's founding chef, Nick Badovinus.

"We were so the wrong group of guys to tackle that Genghis Grill deal," says Badovinus. "I didn't go to culinary school and work for Phil Romano and Dean Fearing to then work with an organization that pours high-fructose corn syrup over some substandard meat or frozen shrimp. It's just not my type of food business. And it was certainly not in the job description when I took the gig with Consilient.

"So yes, I felt it was a bit of a bait-and-switch and there was a definite source of tension. I had come to play football and suddenly we're playing darts," he says. "As it was, I thought Tristan was masterful at getting out of that deal while losing the least amount of skin."

And finally there was Alma, a chef-driven, authentic regional Mexican restaurant, which Simon had built to replace Cuba Libre last year.

"I knew it was a risky move as our company, with a long track record of making modern American restaurants work, was now venturing into authentic Mexican food restaurant territory with high-volume expectations," says Simon. "But I still thought I could pull it off."

After spending more than $1 million on renovating the old Cuba Libre space, and recruiting star chef Michael Brown from L.A.'s Red O, things began to unravel. Brown left after four months, diners balked at $19 enchiladas and, despite glowing reviews, Alma shut down after only 10 months.

"It was a total misjudgment on my part -- mis-sizing the restaurant relative to the size of the market," says Simon. "I'm not only driven by money, however. I won't do a restaurant just for the money or the passion. It has to work for both the customer and the owners."

Master of mirth

In a business notorious for its daunting 70 percent failure rate, Simon has been able to sustain a string of highly successful eateries because he is not just the ultimate owner, he is the ultimate customer. A surrogate patron.

Simon is so bent on getting customer feedback that he sends e-mail blasts to his restaurant regulars, and he admits to trawling for feedback on such user-driven blogs as Yelp and Urban Spoon.

"Tristan is constantly encouraging me to just stand in a corner and watch the guests' reaction to their first bite of food," says the Porch's Anderson. "He wants to know everything from the customers, from how the lighting feels in a booth, to whether the music is too loud or too soft, or from watching the plates come back to the kitchen for what is eaten and what isn't."

He is prone to pop into one of his restaurants, often with several guests in tow, at the restaurants' busiest time. "I'll listen very carefully to the sound in the room," says Simon. "I purposely listen for the sound of a bunch of people talking, and it becomes this great garble, and I feel the room has a special mirthfulness to it -- the sound of customers letting loose and enjoying life at that moment. If I don't hear that sound, then I become agitated and I start looking for reasons why it isn't there."

When Simon does stop in unannounced, he pays extra attention to the level of customer service, and he has very specific expectations.

"For instance," says Simon, "when our wait staff goes to clear and reset the table, they should do it with an economy of motion so as not to be continuously reaching in and out -- which is simply disruptive and annoying to the guest."

He expects his staff to know the menu, but not in a scripted, rote-memorization way.

"What I don't want is one of my servers introducing themselves by name to the customers -- it's like fingernails on a chalkboard for me," says Simon. "And them talking about their favorite dishes makes the dining experience more about the server and not the guest. And I will absolutely fire someone for 'upselling' or purposely steering a guest toward a more expensive item on the menu."

Recently, Simon took several guests to Fort Worth's Fireside Pies. In a highly detailed e-mail to the restaurant manager the next day, Simon gave the restaurant a generally positive review -- finding most everything "on point." Though he didn't hesitate to point out the flaws:

The Bibb salad was "slightly overdressed," while the salumi salad's dressing was "too sharp." He wasn't fond of the "the pool of butter" in the sweet potato agnolotti, and he found three of the pizzas were "slightly overbuilt."

However, it was an orange extension cord that really raised Simon's blood pressure.

"When I saw the orange extension cord somehow running along the bathroom hallway," says Simon, "My e-mail mentioned how 'low-rent' that looked, how it 'had to go, no matter what purpose it serves.' Believe me, I take my role of chief critic or chief customer advocate very seriously."

Taking on Fort Worth

The evolution of Fireside Pies -- from its first opening in Dallas in 2004 to locations in Grapevine and Plano to its highly polished Fort Worth model -- offers perhaps the clearest window into the meticulousness of Simon's approach to all his restaurants.

Before opening what would become his signature eatery, Simon had virtually zero appreciation for the virtues of rustic Italian cooking, let alone the finer points of artisan pizza-making. So he immersed himself in the material by eating at the best artisan pizzerias in the U.S. and Italy. The result has become a Fireside menu filled with authentic Italian regional touches.

For Fort Worth's Fireside, Simon wanted to make the idea of the artisanal wood-fired pizza more of an upscale concept while editing out what Simon perceived as the flaws in all the earlier Fireside branches. As a result, the pizza crust at Fort Worth's outlet is measurably lighter than that at its Dallas counterparts. The pizza sauce in Fort Worth has gone from a cooked sauce to a fresh, brighter tasting ragu using San Marzano tomatoes. Fireside Fort Worth has a considerably expanded selection of pizza cheeses, including fontina, Taleggio and house-made ricotta.

Simon has drawn the line at one Fireside's overzealous use of all of these ingredients for the recently abandoned launch of a pizza with nine cheeses.

"It turned out exactly as I thought it would," Simon says. "Making a pizza with nine cheeses is hack work. What is the point of spending the time sourcing nine fantastic artisan cheeses if you are going to put them all together, allowing none of them to shine individually? It's like what your kids would do if they were let loose in the kitchen. No restraint. No balance. No simplicity. No essentialism."

At Fireside Fort Worth, the ovens were pulled outside the walls so the chefs are easily visible and the bar is almost in the kitchen, giving bar customers a ringside seat on the food production. The floors are formed from distressed, 60-year-old cobblestone-shaped tiles. Much of the interior wood is reclaimed South Texas barn-wood pine. Every piece of furniture, from the bar stools to the light fixtures and the table tops, is custom designed, mostly from local manufacturers.

All of that building expense -- to the tune of $1.8 million, or $500,000 more than on any other Fireside restaurant -- seems to be paying off as, so far, it generates the most annual sales of any of them. And it should generate even more income when it starts doing lunch business in early summer.

Before hammering the first nail into the Fort Worth Fireside design, Simon made sure to acquaint himself with his new Fort Worth customer, getting a few pointers from friend and fellow restaurant chef-operator Tim Love.

"Tim strongly emphasized how important service and genuine warm hospitality was to the Fort Worth customer," says Simon. "If you come here, he said, with an attitude, even if your food and service were great, you'd have problems."

Then Love revealed to Simon, perhaps the most significant distinguishing feature of the Fort Worth versus Dallas customer: "He told me that the Fort Worth customer really loves to drink. Sure enough, we've sold more alcohol in Fort Worth than in my other Fireside locations."

"We've known each other for five years now," says Love, who will often share a beer or two with Simon at the White Elephant Saloon. "And I essentially told Tristan that the way to win the loyalty of the Fort Worth customer is to treat everybody with the same amount of respect. It's not like in Dallas where some people insist on being thought of as VIPs. In Fort Worth, everybody is a VIP."

Opening more doors

Simon's next chapter, to play out over the next five to eight years, will take its cues from the success of its Fort Worth tandem of Fireside Pies and American F&B as he exports them to three new markets: Houston, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

"Tristan is so totally focused on those two concepts launching in other cities," says his business partner Masinter, "because he thoroughly believes those are the two properties that deserve to grow outside DFW -- because they aren't duplicates of anything else."

But if it sounds like the dreaded term "chain" is sneaking into Simon's carefully laid-out business model, perish the thought.

"Nothing about American F&B or Fireside will ever feel like a chain no matter where we go," says Simon. "Our goal with both of these properties is to build the kind of high-quality restaurants that will become quasi-permanent parts of whatever community they move into."

All of which begs the question: Why won't Simon slow down and enjoy the already glowing results from his Dallas and Fort Worth eateries? Why the almost obsessive need to keep proving himself?

"I am a serial entrepreneur in one of the most difficult businesses there is," admits Simon. "Because I need that constant challenge and complexity to feel fulfilled.... I know there are a lot of other ways I could have chosen to make more money, but I've always wanted to be involved in an incredibly dynamic business that happens to give enduring value to the community. It continues to be a hard, but wonderful, ride."

Much like the journey of a feisty kid with a chip on his shoulder from London, to the docks of Norfolk, Va., to the summit of North Texas' restaurant trade.

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