I WAS SITTING AT MY DESK earlier this year wondering if anyone would notice if I left for lunch at ten-thirty when the phone rang. Cruelly torn from my reverie of cheese enchiladas, I picked up the receiver. On the line were Lisa and Emmett Fox, Austin chefs and restaurateurs, who had an offer that no food critic in her right mind could refuse: “We’re opening a new restaurant,” they said. “Wanna watch?” I asked them to hold for a minute while I cleared my calendar. And that is how I got to be—I was about to say “a fly on the wall,” but that seems an unfortunate metaphor—an embedded reporter chronicling the highs and lows of the eight-month gestation of Fino Restaurant, Patio, and Bar.
For three decades I’ve been looking on as fledgling dining establishments struggle to open—often behind schedule and hopelessly muddled—so I was prepared for Murphy’s Law to operate with a vengeance. But if anybody could survive the ordeal relatively unscathed, I thought, it was the Foxes, for the compelling reason that they had already opened one successful restaurant. At their five-year-old neighborhood place, Asti Trattoria, Emmett acts as paterfamilias to his staff and customers and Lisa takes care of business. A big bear of a man, Emmett graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York; Lisa, who is shyer than you would expect for someone so pretty, studied art at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. But their experience isn’t limited to Asti. Emmett worked at chic Cafe Annie, in Houston, and was executive chef for a restaurant group in Austin that included the Granite Cafe. Lisa, whose specialty is pastry, was in demand for her lavish desserts at several tony places around town. Now that Asti was running smoothly, they couldn’t resist the lure of, well, having a second child.
By the time of our first meeting, in February, the two had already decided that their new baby would be Mediterranean. Casual but stylish, its menu would emphasize small plates meant for sharing. Wines would be important, especially interesting, affordable European ones. They even had a name picked out: Fino. The word refers to a type of dry Spanish sherry and also means “fine” in both Spanish and Italian—surely a good omen. And they had a location, which by coincidence was Emmett’s old stomping grounds, the now-defunct Granite Cafe. True, the interior needed an extreme makeover—it had last looked cool when Ronald Reagan was president—but otherwise, it was perfect: space for around a hundred, plenty of parking, and, sexiest of all, a covered patio. Another bonus: The landlord, Jim Holden, owner of the Live Oak Group real estate development company, was so tickled to have a major tenant back in the vacant space that he had agreed to pay for major improvements.
As for the rest of the money to support this addition to their family? After circulating a 32-page business proposal before Christmas, complete with a mouthwatering sample menu (lamb chops with couscous and feta, pistachio baklava with honey ice cream), the Foxes had ended up with eight investors: four of the five who had funded Asti, Lisa’s two brothers, her doctor, and her doctor’s mother. It took two months to raise $400,000, in shares of $50,000 and $25,000. Having acquired the money, they immediately started depleting it by hiring a project designer: Michael Hsu, a partner with prestigious Dick Clark Architecture. Low key, almost Zen-like, Michael, out of all the candidates they interviewed, had the most practical knowledge about restaurants. “He told us stuff like the restrooms and stove hood not being up to code,” Emmett said. And in going with Dick Clark’s firm, they got a package deal: Equally unflappable interior designer Kasey McCarty was assigned to the project. They were ready to go.
One cold winter afternoon, I sit down with the Foxes at Asti to play catch-up. The staff is preparing dinner, and I can see Emmett’s eyes following everything in the open kitchen. One of the big things I want to know is this: Did you or Michael come up with Fino’s look? “We talked in broad strokes,” says Lisa. “It was a feeling, more than details.” They envisioned the space as divided into two sections, a quieter dining side and a lively lounge side. But their specific mandates were few: Incorporate wood and the color orange into the plans, and don’t do anything too trendy. Wood and orange? I ask, baffled. They lend a warm, Mediterranean feel, Lisa says. And why nothing too modern? So the look won’t get dated. Michael’s solution has three key elements: a sleek, blond paneled bar in the middle of the room, an intricate wood screen behind the bar, and a floor-to-ceiling “wine wall” with built-in wood racks. As for orange, he’s leaving that up to Kasey. The three of us talk for a good hour, but when Emmett starts to jump up every two minutes, I figure I’ve worn out my welcome. On my way out the door, I call out one last question: “When are you opening?” “Mid-MAY,” they shout back, “if we’re lucky.”
FEBRUARY 23: It’s my first meeting with the Fino crew, and we’re all crowded around the groovy conference table at Dick Clark’s office.
The idea is to meet here every Tuesday at eleven to hash out details until the plans are final; once construction starts, we’ll meet at Fino. Lisa and Emmett I know, of course, and I feel like I’ve already met Michael and Kasey. Dick Clark is sitting in today (he likes to kid around and serves as a nice leavening agent); also on hand is Carey Dodson, a designer who’s assisting Michael. Here from Asti is Brian Stubbs, who with his mop of sandy hair resembles a tall, blond Beatle. He’s slated to become Fino’s manager. And representing the building end is Beth Selbe Lasita, the owner of Pinnacle Construction. Frankly, I’ve never met a contractor like Beth, who wears ruffly skirts and mules but can talk hood chases and fire-rated wraps with the best of them. Maybe it’s just because I’m taking notes and everybody is on their best behavior, but the inevitable disagreements are being handled with impressive diplomacy. If I expected shouting and pouting, it hasn’t happened yet.
Everybody’s got their calendars and PDAs out, and big sheaves of architectural drawings are unrolled. Today’s goal is to finalize the building plans so Beth can advertise for bids; Kasey needs to get started too, selecting furniture and fabrics. But in fact, the discussion is all over the map, and soon I wish I had a “Building for Dummies” to explain all the technical terms and acronyms: HVAC, elevations, TAS, Lumacite, lap-and-gap. There’s a mountain of minutiae to be dealt with, like how tall to make the banquettes (“Just high enough so you can see waiters’ heads going back and forth, like a puppet show,” offers Dick) and how many restroom stalls the city codes require. It’s a long meeting, and after a while, Dick disappears and returns with cappuccinos for everybody. When we finish, with plans still not final, Emmett and Michael head off to a showroom to look at flooring. Beth agrees to come back in three weeks with estimates. The meetings may be just once a week, but the work never stops.
Speaking of work, one of the main hurdles in opening a restaurant is getting a liquor license. Booze doesn’t just keep the customers happy, it helps pay the bills, and the Foxes expect a third of Fino’s sales to be beer, wine, and cocktails. So it’s crucial to be nicey-nice to the lovely people at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. To handle the paperwork, the Foxes have hired a professional facilitator, Carole Terry-Gonynor. In a calm voice that leads me to believe she might have once been a horse whisperer, Carole explains that the worst part isn’t paying the license fee ($1,250 in Fino’s case). The headache is the background checks. Once again, I’m mystified. Background checks? Carole says that restaurants and bars have so routinely been used to launder money by organized crime, drug moguls, and crooked businessmen that the TABC is now required to compile records on liquor license applicants and their financial backers. Lisa’s distressed over having to ask her investors nosy questions, but Carole assures her, ever so soothingly, that Fino will have a license by mid-May at the latest. Famous last words.
MARCH 8: We’re huddled around the conference table, knee to knee, and Michael and Emmett are jabbing at a spot on the plans and looking exasperated. Emmett would dearly love to move a bulky, three-compartment sink, but the health regs say it has to be in a certain place, never mind the inconvenience. Grinning, Dick sums up everybody’s frustration: “Bureaucracy makes the job so much more fun.” Other problems are trotted out, some solved, most not. Several times, the subject of cost comes up. I’ve noticed—we’ve all noticed—that the laundry list of stuff they hope Jim the landlord will pay for is growing…and growing…and growing: the air conditioning, maybe the vent hood, the kitchen floor, the drains. After a bit, Lisa says, “I’ll call him today to let him know what’s going on.” Dick adds, “We’ll get him pumped.” They hope.
MARCH 15: Kasey walks in and dumps an armload of upholstery books, wood samples, and pieces of fabric on the conference table. You can tell before she arranges them that these combinations are way cool. The geometric patterns are retro but not stodgy. The colors—apple green, espresso, taupe, and, yes, a reddish orange—pop. Lisa breathes in sharply and says, “Yeah!” Emmett’s a little dubious. “If you’re sure about those patterns working together,” he says, winking at Lisa, “I better be.” Next, Kasey opens a catalog and turns to a picture of a wild light fixture made out of Campari bottles. Everybody loves it. The price is a lot—$445. But, what the hell, they pencil two of them into the decor budget.
MARCH 18: You know when you get news so terrible that you can’t even react, you just stare? Beth’s bid is on the table, and they’re all looking at the figures in utter disbelief. The total is a staggering $130,000 over budget. Most of it isn’t even for the glamour stuff; it’s for plumbing, air conditioning, and electrical work. For once, Dick’s office is a glum place. Over the next hour the group fine-tooth-combs the budget, paring off a few thousand dollars here and there but nothing major. The more they talk, the more it seems as if the only hope is for the cavalry—i.e., Jim—to come riding in and save the day. “Can some of the stove hood be split off to his column?” Lisa wonders. “What about the patio things, like heaters and gas lines?” somebody else says. It’s a lot to expect, and they know it. Finally there is nothing else to do but wait till Beth can revise the specifications and get new bids, rejigger the columns, and hope that Jim is in a generous mood.
MARCH 20: In the meantime, it’s time for something fun: the menu. We’re out at the Foxes’ airy “Texan-Tuscan” house tonight for one of several recipe-testing sessions. Emmett and Lisa are cooking, and so is Tristan White, the Asti day chef who’s moving over to head up Fino’s kitchen. Quiet, with a sly little smile and a stupendous tattoo of a samurai and a fish on one arm, Tristan graduated from culinary school in his native Australia. Also here are Brian, Fino’s manager, and Boris Krouse, the courtly, wry wine steward from Asti, who will play the same role at Fino. To say that Boris is interested in wine is like saying that cats are mildly aroused by catnip.
Tristan is doing French onion soup. Emmett is roasting a Moroccan-spiced shoulder of lamb and making a version of some potatoes with garlic aioli that he and Lisa once had in Barcelona. “They were fantastic,” he tells me. Also planned are a seafood paella and a Spanish crema catalana, a flanlike dessert. I get underfoot and annoy them with questions, like, Where do you get ideas for a brand-new menu? Turns out that the process is eminently simple: They read cookbooks, dozens of them. “We all look at them whenever we have a spare minute,” says Emmett. And they travel. They’ve gone to a couple of Mediterranean-style restaurants in Houston (Ibiza and Rioja) and nearly a score of all types in San Francisco. Their visit to the California city also gave them the idea of doing one of the first community tables in Austin, which will be a great focal point for the dining room.
But tonight, they’re seeing if the dishes that sound so good actually taste good. An hour passes, and gradually the house fills with fantastic smells. Another hour crawls by, and just when several of us are preparing to storm the kitchen with pitchforks, the food is ready. We eat, and then they spend half an hour in a roundtable discussion systematically picking apart each and every dish. And I thought restaurant critics were mean.
MARCH 21: Ah, another change of scenery. Emmett, Lisa, and Brian are at the local office of the international design firm Pentagram, sitting around its groovy conference table, while graphic designer Lowell Williams tosses out trial menu covers like cards from a deck. With his round black glasses, à la the late architect Philip Johnson, Lowell cuts quite the eccentric figure. The first of his three samples has stripes, a bit like the Italian flag; the second shows a picture of a cork with “FINO” printed on it. The third takes each letter of “Fino” and enlarges it to fill an entire page, so that some menu covers have a single large F, others a large I, and so on. It’s a hip, clean look. Lisa approves. As for signs, Lowell wants to stencil “FINO Restaurant Patio Bar” directly on the wall of the building, like a stock-market ticker. “We can make it great big, like a frieze,” he says. “It will also cost thousands of dollars less.” Lisa says, “Thousands less? I love it.”
MARCH 22: The tension is as thick as the foam on one of Dick’s cappuccinos. Jim is here to look at the budget. Everyone is sitting at the conference table with tight little smiles on their faces. When Jim asks, “Have you all seen the costs?” Brian jokes, “Yeah, Emmett didn’t have any gray in his hair a week ago.” Michael begins the meeting by explaining the overall design; then Kasey describes the decor. They’re all watching Jim like cats at a mouse hole. He smiles and says, “Neat.” Then Beth takes a breath and says, “I always get the fun part,” and hands around a spreadsheet. The total in the landlord’s column has got to be tens of thousands of dollars more than he expected. Beth finishes her spiel, and at first it seems like things are all right. Jim smiles again and says, “I love the design, and I am really excited about it all.” Then his smile fades. “However,” he goes on, “these numbers far exceed the scope of the agreement and discussions I’ve had with Emmett and Lisa. We are way, way, way, way, way, way apart, and under no scenario am I prepared to put in that amount without contemplating it first.” Dead silence. Then he turns to Emmett and Lisa and says, “The three of us need to sit down and discuss this—alone.” Emmett asks, “Now?” Jim says, “Yes.” They get up and leave. Dick turns to me with a grin: “I think your backstage pass just got revoked.” No kidding.
I don’t get a call from Lisa till late afternoon. Has Jim pulled out? Is this the end? Finally the phone rings. Whew! Good news: He’s still on board and they have another meeting planned. Lisa sounds chastened but philosophical. “You know, we hadn’t wanted to bother him with too much detail along the way,” she says, “but in hindsight, maybe we should have—except we didn’t know ourselves until last Friday.” Bottom line, she and Emmett have crunched some numbers and they think the job is going to cost more like $500,000 than $400,000. And that means two things: slashing the budget and raising more money. “But we’ll figure it out,” she says softly. “We can still have a fantastic restaurant.”
APRIL 11: Major progress. Lisa calls to say that, after several agonizing meetings, they’ve shaved $55,000 off the project. They axed some of the patio shutters and the outdoor heat lamps and, sadly, eliminated the Campari light fixtures. To save more, Michael and Carey have redesigned the wine wall and the entrance. “The design is now as tight as it can be,” Lisa tells me. The other good—actually, fantastic—news is that Jim has agreed to kick in a considerable additional amount for permanent improvements. On top of that, they’ve raised more money—two new investors at $25,000 each—and they’ve gotten a $100,000 line of credit at their bank to use if they need to. In short, they’ve saved the restaurant, but now there’s another $50,000—maybe $150,000—to pay back. The actual date for construction to be done has now been set: JUNE 22. Fino is under the gun to succeed—fast.
APRIL 16: Road trip! Emmett and Tristan and I are in Houston at Joe Presswood’s auction center so they can buy gently used equipment for Fino’s kitchen. The plan all along has been to purchase some pieces new (refrigerators, for instance) and the rest old. Prowling around the huge, fluorescent-lit metal warehouse looking at stuff, we marvel at the endless rows of stoves, refrigerators, bar sinks, proofing ovens, stockpots big enough to cook a hippo, and one strange contraption that looks like R2-D2. The auction takes two days, but by the end, Emmett has a truckload of equipment to take home. More will be bought later.
MAY 10: Construction is under way, and our weekly meetings have moved to the Fino site. A month ago, it looked like something out of Blade Runner, with debris everywhere and a fine gray dust hanging in the air. Now walls are starting to take shape. When I arrive today, though, tape measures are out, a bad sign. Emmett is standing in the open corridor that will run between the kitchen, dining room, and bar, and he’s pretty wound up. “The space is too tight,” he’s saying. “It won’t work if a waiter has a tray of food and somebody else is picking up drinks.” It turns out that the original, eighteen-year-old blueprints—on which the entire remodel is based—are seven inches short in one dimension. In his usual quiet mode, Michael turns to Mark Bridle, the job supervisor, and asks, “Can you move a wall?” Mark smiles weakly.
MAY 17: Lisa’s fit to be tied. She expected to have a liquor license by now, but instead the TABC has kicked their application back for more investor information. “I just want to yell!” she says. The conversation turns to soft-drink suppliers. Brian’s having a hard time with Coke. “They’re prima donnas,” he says. Somebody else says, “Oh, they’re just jerks.” Kasey says, “Yeah, soda jerks,” and everybody cracks up. Lisa announces she’s going shopping for bargain bathroom fixtures.
MAY 23: Fino’s liquor license may have been sucked into the TABC twilight zone, but the restaurant eventually will need a wine list, and that calls for—wine tastings. Boris has been doing them systematically for weeks. His goal is to create a list of eighty wines evenly divided between white and red, ranging from $20 to $75. Around three o’clock he strolls into Fino with five wineglasses laced between his fingers, followed by Tristan with two Asti pizzas. We are meeting with Dana Harkrider, a rep from Ambiente wine distributors, to taste Spanish and Italian wines. While she sets up, Boris gets out some notepaper. In thirty minutes we’ve sampled five wines, some nice, others so-so. The last is a D’Anguera Finca L’Argata 2002, a Syrah-Cabernet blend from Spain. Boris inhales deeply. Glancing over his shoulder, I can see him writing “Violets plus plums…a beautiful nose.” He takes a sip and scribbles some more: “Brooding yet lush.” Have we been dropped into a scene from Sideways? Boris grins. “Like Marlene Dietrich’s eyes,” he jokes. He wants this wine bad, and Dana knows it. They wheel and deal, but tragically, Marlene Dietrich does not make it onto the wine list.
JUNE 7: Uh-oh. Somewhere along the way, numerous small construction delays have added up; the finish date is now JUNE 27. Meanwhile, it’s breezy up here on Fino’s patio, waiting for job applicants to show up. Ads have been running for the 36 positions that are available—13 in the kitchen, plus 23 servers, hosts, and bartenders. The mostly twentysomething interviewees are a mixed bag—some clean-cut, others who look as if they just rolled out of bed. Emmett says, “It’s amazing to me that eighty percent of them didn’t bring pens or pencils!” Boris and Brian are hiring the waiters, asking questions such as “Do you read cookbooks or cooking magazines?” and “Have you been criticized for anything?” After listening for a while, I can predict whom they will hire—those with experience and a smile and who don’t seem terminally neurotic. But I’m surprised at whom Emmett and Tristan approve of. Initially, I’d assumed they would favor innovative cooks with strong ideas. Turns out that’s the kiss of death. Yes, they insist on excellent skills, but they’re rejecting anyone who wants to do things his way. Their attitude: Fino is our vision, dude; if you want to be creative, go raise half a million dollars and open your own damn restaurant.
JUNE 21: Amazing. The walls were painted two weeks ago, and furniture in Kasey’s edgy colors has started to arrive. It really does look like a restaurant; even the long, tall community table is in place. Emmett, however, is steamed over something else. “C’mere,” he says to me. A plumber has installed water pipes precisely where the custom-built walk-in cooler is supposed to go. Worse, the walk-in is missing in action: The man who was supposed to have ordered it has stopped returning Emmett’s calls. This is major: If the walk-in doesn’t come, construction can’t be finished, the final health inspection won’t happen, and the restaurant can’t open. If the restaurant isn’t open, there’s no money to pay salaries, rent, and overhead except for the line of credit at the bank.
JUNE 27: The bad news is that construction was supposed to wrap today—and doesn’t. The good news is that the errant cooler has been ordered and will arrive JULY 1, supposedly. But, hey, the deep-orange carpet and the blond-wood bar are in and looking good. Outside, two guys in a cherry picker are painting the words “FINO Restaurant Patio Bar” on the wall. Downstairs, Brian is running a three-day orientation session for the new hires, going over the sixteen-page employee’s manual that he has written. (Under the section on appearance are the following Austin-centric rules: “No facial piercing,” “No gum chewing,” “No dark glasses.”) Part of the orientation is a fifty-item wine quiz, courtesy of Boris. (Sample questions: “From what grape varietal is Sancerre made?” “Name five German viticultural regions.” “Define ‘dosage.’”) Merde! Who but a sommelier could pass this monster?
JUNE 28: Lisa is freaking out. The liquor license still hasn’t been approved. If they don’t have it by opening night, they can kiss a third of their sales good-bye until it arrives. Downstairs, Brian is trying to bolster the morale of the new staff after just about everybody failed Boris’s exam. Emmett and Lisa’s dog, Lottie, ambles around the meeting room nuzzling everyone—cold comfort if you didn’t know a noble grape from a bunghole.
JULY 1: I can hardly believe we’ve come so far: Tristan is actually ordering food and supplies—chickpeas, pistachio nuts, feta cheese, sea salt, truffle oil, figs, arborio rice, four kinds of paprika, white anchovies, pea shoots, and fresh mozzarella, not to mention trash bags, scrubbies, and cleaning rags. Of course, nothing can be delivered until the walk-in arrives. It’s like being trapped in Waiting for Godot.
JULY 5: Hallelujah! The walk-in came three days ago and is now installed. Fino will go live next Monday night, six days from now. In the meantime, there are dozens of nitpicky things to correct. For one thing, the seats on the lounge chairs have to be exchanged because they’re way too small. Somebody jokes, “I’d need a chair for each cheek.” There’s one more city inspection left, scheduled for Thursday. Tristan is bouncing up and down on his toes. “Once it’s done,” he says, “it’s ready steady spaghetti.”
JULY 8: Break out the champagne. “The TABC approved us!” Lisa announces, all smiles. More good news: The final city inspection happened yesterday morning. But there’s still so much to do that opening night has now been postponed from Monday to Tuesday. Meanwhile, the aroma of baking pita bread wafts from the kitchen. In the dining room Michael, Kasey, Emmett, and Lisa are doing the final walk-through with the contractor’s reps. Halfway through, somebody notices that—how can this be?—Tristan’s name is written on the community table. Oh, no! The day before, he signed a carbon-paper form on the table, and the ink has penetrated its shiny surface. They try scrubbing it with water, saliva, window cleaner, lacquer thinner, bleach, paint remover, and a scary-sounding solvent named High-Flash Naphtha-150. Nothing works. At least Tristan’s handwriting is small.
JULY 9: The young cooks who got the coveted jobs a month ago are learning all the new recipes, finding their way around the kitchen, and looking shell-shocked. Tristan is running the show now, and Emmett is trying to keep his mouth shut, although it’s pretty hard when you’re used to being the daddy. At three o’clock, the service staff is coming in for a mass tasting, and the kitchen staff is rushing to prepare every single dish on the menu. It’s a madhouse, but there’s really no choice. Food and liquor have been bought, and the meter is running. If they don’t get this place open, they’re screwed.
JULY 11: Fino’s “soft opening,” a complimentary feed for the investors and some 75 other invited guests, happens tonight. With candles flickering on the tables and a huge vase of flowers on the hostess stand, the restaurant looks stunning. The servers are wearing their new black T-shirts with “FINO” across the front, and you can see them nervously smiling and straining to remember what Brian has taught them: Put the menus down at a 45-degree angle across the place settings; don’t drip ice water on the guests when you fill their glasses. My three friends and I are having a fine time and enjoying the food (which, by the way, is excellent), except for the fact that, well, to tell you the truth, it’s starting to feel a little warm in here. Is the air conditioner on? By eight-thirty the temperature must be 95 degrees, and we’re all sweating like John Goodman. At about nine-thirty the AC finally cranks up again—just before a tremendous CRASH resounds from the kitchen. A huge shelf of plates has pulled loose from the wall and smashed into a million pieces. Murphy’s Law is kicking in right on schedule.
JULY 12: The big night: The restaurant welcomes its first patrons. Thank God the air conditioning has been fixed. When I arrive, Brian opens the door with a flourish and says, “Welcome to Fino!” In the kitchen, Tristan is cleaning salmon filets. Lisa is in the dining room hugging friends, looking dazed and happy. Emmett is alternately chatting with customers and expediting orders at the pass-through, yelling, “Trout—let’s go!” Outside, the neighborhood folks who have been watching the construction for week after week are wandering in to check it all out. Boris says, “I’ll bet by the end of the evening we have twenty-five paying customers.” I’ll bet he’s right. For some reason, I stick around far longer than I need to, talking to Lisa, drinking sherry, finally closing my reporter’s notebook altogether. The truth is, I’m having a little attack of postpartum depression. I don’t want it to be over. When I finally walk out the door at nine o’clock, two more parties are coming in, and I hear Emmett shouting, “Hey, Tristan! It’s a two-top and a six-top.” Fino is open for business.