The Rise and Fall of Dallas Restaurateur Mico Rodriguez
How the man behind Mi Cocina built a restaurant empire and destroyed himself in the process.
As Rodriguez’s empire expanded, his tastes grew more extravagant. In January 1998, the M Crowd opened The Mercury at Preston and Forest with celebrated chef and new partner Chris Ward. Named after the circa-1937 New York City theater company founded by Orson Welles and John Houseman, The Mercury was an innovative, upscale-casual New American restaurant that won a devout following. Ward, who was a frequent customer at Mia’s and the first Mi Cocina, knew Rodriguez from his days as a banquet waiter at the Mansion. Rodriguez always pushed the envelope, says Ward. “In some ways, Mico was never satisfied with things,” he says.
Later that spring, after partnering with Mainstream Fish House founder Kelly Haden, the M Crowd transformed a florist location in Turtle Creek Village into a Mainstream Fish House. Then they opened another Mainstream location in Fort Worth’s Sundance Square. That same year, M Crowd launched Taco Diner in Preston Center, a modern and minimalist Mexico City taqueria with a communal wash basin. Rodriguez described his taqueria as an “ethnic boutique restaurant” serving open-face tacos divided on the menu into “taco groups.” Galvan-Rodriguez claims the concept was hers, and she oversaw the evolution of the menu.
But while the M Crowd racked up these successes, it suffered growing pains as well. Mainstream Fish House faltered. “The concept didn’t travel well,” says Galvan-Rodriquez. In Sundance Square, the restaurant shifted from seafood to Southern cooking and was rebranded Ellington’s Southern Table before morphing into Ellington’s Chop House.
These stumbles didn’t diminish Rodriguez’s ambitions. In Turtle Creek Village, he was scripting M Crowd’s most ambitious, divergent project yet. In the summer of 1999, the florist-gone-Mainstream Fish House was rebranded Citizen, a “European-Asian sushi bar” with bento box lunches and plates driven by French cooking techniques. Rodriguez called Citizen an “homage to Nobu,” the New York restaurant that eventually landed in the Hotel Crescent Court. Citizen, like its sibling Mercury, was in part inspired by Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane. “M Crowd has always beaten to the sound of a different drummer,” Rodriguez said.
Meanwhile, Food & Wine and Travel + Leisure heaped national praise on The Mercury, and Rodriguez parlayed that success into yet another grand venture. In the summer of 2001, he lifted the veil on a $3.5 million ultra-modern bi-level restaurant in the Shops at Willow Bend. The M Crowd’s flagship Mercury featured an expanded menu, designer furnishings that included barstools swathed in zippered white leather slipcovers, and a quiet dining space called the Library modeled after Taillevent, the legendary restaurant in Paris. The original Mercury was down-scaled and rebranded as Mercury Grill.
The new Mercury fell under the Restaurant Life division, which M Crowd formed largely to exploit the culinary gifts of chef Chris Ward. To this fold they added the French brasserie Paris Vendome in the West Village, directly across from M Crowd’s Taco Diner. Opening in March 2002, Paris Vendome was loosely modeled after Balthazar in New York City. It featured white cowhide banquettes, high ceilings, columns skinned in mirror tiles, oversized mirrors, a thick burger made of ground tenderloin woven with shreds of braised short rib dripping with foie gras, and a U-shaped bar that was arguably the most powerful nightlife draw in Dallas. Even Robert De Niro stopped by. Rodriguez had come a long way from his humble roots filling water glasses at El Chico.
“Mico was restless, always,” says restaurateur Monica Greene. “He has always wanted to make it big. He was in the public eye for more reasons than just selling enchiladas.”
By 2002, Rodriguez was on top of the world—or so it seemed. His core stable included a Mi Cocina Bianca Elena (named after his then 5-year-old daughter), two Taco Diners, and roughly a dozen Mi Cocinas after M Crowd gobbled up Stephan Pyles’ Taqueria Canonita concepts in Plano and Las Colinas from Carlson Restaurants Worldwide (parent of T.G.I. Friday’s). He transformed them into Mi Cocina’s Canonita. M Crowd restaurants were generating an estimated $48 million, ranking the company 30th in Restaurant and Institutions’ listing of the top 75 multiconcept operators in the country. In national publications, Rodriguez was compared to restaurant legends Rich Melman (founder of Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises) and Danny Meyer (founder of New York’s Union Square Hospitality Group). His M Crowd profit disbursements ran into the millions. “Sudden success makes you feel like this is too good to be true,” Rodriguez said then. “Will this end tomorrow?”
In October, the Mercury in the Shops at Willow Bend, the flagship restaurant in the M Crowd group, closed. “We just weren’t able to sustain a following, especially since we opened up September 7, 2001,” Rodriguez told me in October 2003. “It really was doomed, I think, from the get-go.”
Citizen followed in April 2005. “It was my lack of being able to give it focus,” Rodriguez admitted to me in a 2005 interview. “We have not been as successful as we had envisioned as a multiple-concept developer.”
The demise of Paris Vendome, the Dallas Morning News’ 2002 restaurant of the year, was more agonizing. “Oh, my God. That was incredible,” says former Paris manager and maitre d’ Michel Boutemy de Guislain, now a manager at City Cafe. He says the restaurant was generating $90,000 to $100,000 every week, mostly through its hyperactive bar. But little more than two years after its high-profile opening, Paris was bleeding cash. Rodriguez blamed the failure on the menu, saying it was “too French, too sophisticated.” De Guislain blames something else. “The bar killed the business,” he says today. “That bar was so loud, so violently loud. It was an explosion.” When Dallas’ fickle bar crowds eventually moved on, Paris was doomed. It was gone by November 2005, supplanted by a Mi Cocina that remains successful.
M Crowd partner Ray Washburne says the massively successful Paris faltered largely because Rodriguez grew bored with the brasserie and moved on, just as its bar connoisseurs had. “He’s all about the passion and spirit,” says Taco Borga, founder of La Duni and among Rodriguez’s closest friends. “He was on top of the world. That’s when the biggest storms come.”
In 2001, Rodriguez lifted the veil on the $3.5 million ultra-modern Mercury in the Shops at Willow Bend, the flagship M Crowd venue. In 2002, Rodriguez opened Paris Vendome, loosely modeled after Balthazar in New York City. Vendome’s U-shaped bar was arguably the most powerful nightlife draw in Dallas. Even Robert De Niro stopped by. Rodriguez had come a long way from his humble roots filling water glasses at El Chico.
People who have worked with Mico Rodriguez describe him as an intense visionary, an overpowering personality with enormous passion and appetites. But that intensity often boiled over. “He’s such an unpredictable person,” Borga says. “When you are very passionate, you have very strong emotions. And strong emotions go with extremes.”
Rodriguez knew how to forge loyalty from those working under him. He meticulously tracked the names and ages of his employees’ children, often asking about family details. He hosted large employee holiday parties in hotel ballrooms, posing as Santa Claus, calling children by name to dispense gifts. “They had a really great culture,” says Lucian LaBarba, president of American Foodservice, who sells to M Crowd restaurants. “A lot of the people that work for him, they’d go to war for him.”
“When a place opened and everything was in order, he would go back into the kitchen and tip every guy, handing them each $100 bills,” de Guislain says. “If you worked for him the way he wanted, you were in good shape.”
But if you didn’t work the way he wanted, he could be intimidating, even abusive. Rodriguez checked his restaurants continuously, scouring every detail. If anything fell short of his expectations, he’d yell and knock pots of food onto the floor. He had little patience for anything less than constant and concerted effort. “Our business is good enough that plenty of people wanted to come work for us,” says Dick Washburne. “His famous saying was, ‘If you can’t find something else to do, go find some dirt and eliminate it.’ ”
ALL MY EXES: Mico Rodriguez’s ex-wife, Carolina Galvan-Rodriguez (with daughter Bianca Elena), says she was “the heart of the company.”photography by Elizabeth Lavin
His appetites were legendary. After his first stint in rehab, Rodriguez seemed to replace one vice for another, growing to well over 400 pounds. “He is obsessive-compulsive about everything,” Broadwell says. “Food, art, architecture, photography, clothes, jewelry.” And women, as court records show. In 1994, Rodriguez was slapped with a $4.375 million sexual harassment and wrongful termination suit. Victoria Howard, a captain at Mi Cocina, alleged that Rodriguez, among other things, grabbed her hand and placed it on a busboy’s crotch as he told her the busboy was “hung like a horse.” Howard also made reference to Rodriguez’s frequent bouts of rage, known among Mi Cocina employees as “Mico fits.” The suit was eventually settled for undisclosed terms.
Between 1995 and 2007, Carolina Galvan-Rodriguez filed for divorce four times, citing Rodriguez’s long-term pattern of adultery. “It was the only way I could really get his attention,” she says. “And when he realized he was going to lose me, he would always come back and try to make things right. He had messed up. Everybody messes up. Mico has had several women over the years, and I’ve forgiven him and moved on. I even joke about it sometimes.”
In September 2007, the two filed for divorce one final time through the collaborative law process, in which a settlement is reached outside the courts. “This last time, he didn’t want to patch it up,” Galvan-Rodriguez says. “He had moved on. Before, he was real good at convincing and patching things up and making things better.”
Rodriguez admitted that he used food as a coping mechanism, and when he realized in 2003 that he couldn’t control his eating, he opted for gastric bypass surgery, which reduces the functional volume of the stomach and alters one’s responses to food. But the decision had unintended consequences. Without food to console himself, Rodriguez resumed drinking, ending 15 years of sobriety. “As time went along, his drinking took over more and more, and he became less and less of a presence,” Dick Washburne says.
Rodriguez repeatedly checked himself into rehab programs, only to relapse soon after release. In fact, his ex-wife says Rodriguez has been in and out of rehab programs at least four times during the past two years. In the summer of 2008, Washburne says he flew Rodriguez to the Hazelden addiction treatment center in Center City, Minnesota. Just a few weeks prior, Rodriguez had been released from Promises Treatment Center in Malibu, California, the rehab center of choice for celebrities such as Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. This was Rodriguez’s second visit to Promises within a year. “He walked out on Hazelden after about 10 days,” Washburne says. Washburne believes Rodriguez failed because he refused to combine rehab with an ongoing treatment program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. “The real big problem with Mico is that his ego is too big to deign to become an AA person,” he says. “Mico’s ego is too big to allow him to spend the time in the room with these other people. He thinks he’s better than they are.”
Yet those closest to him believed his brush with death during last year’s holiday season had cured him. He was back to his old self. He was sketching plans for a future in New York.
The plans hit a setback in February when his M Crowd partners filed suit against him and his wife, alleging that they had skipped payments on a personal loan—in excess of $1 million, according to Galvan-Rodriguez—the company made to help them pay back taxes. In addition, the suit charged that Rodriguez had converted money from the company into his personal coffers.
His ex-wife sees a sinister motive behind the timing of the suit. “It’s no secret that Mico was an alcoholic and had some problems in the beginning, and was 14, 15 years sober, and then fell off the wagon and kind of had a spin,” says Galvan-Rodriguez. “So when he was down and out, that’s when they started to attack him.”