ON A SATURDAY NIGHT IN EARLY AUGUST, A DRUNKEN WOMAN STRUGGLES TO MAKE HER CASE TO THE DOORMAN.
“You don’t understand,” she slurs, stumbling into traffic on Henderson Avenue. “You ever heard of the city council? I’m at those meetings every week, you know.” Dressed in jeans and a crocheted pink sweater, with shellacked mall bangs, she calls herself “the Republican poster child,” whatever that means.
“That’s all fine and good, ma’am,” the doorman says. “But this is a private, members-only club, and ’no’ means ’no.’ It means ’no’ now. It means ’no’ tomorrow. And it means ’no’ until your name is on the list.”
Sense is like no other nightclub in Dallas. There are 500 names on the doorman’s list that have been handpicked and represent the biggest celebrities and powerbrokers in town. Each owns a coveted brass passkey that identifies him or her as a member. You can’t talk, buy, or flirt your way inyou must be invited. Friends accompanying members are welcome; maybe a member can leave your name at the door. The club only opens on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights and, as the rules state, only “after the sun is fully set.”
Inside, beyond the etched-glass door, the opening-night celebration has brought out the beautiful people. Angie Harmon blows kisses to Luke and Owen Wilson. Alex Rodriguez, Kent Rathbun, Phil Romano, Dean Fearing, Mico Rodriguez, Clarice Tinsley, and Gene Street (looking at his watch like he’s ready to go home) mingle about, drinking $17 glasses of Deloach Chardonnay. The curtains of a small, private enclave open long enough for a server to set down a platter of fist-sized shrimp. It’s a scene of conspicuous consumption right out of the ’80s.
And across the bamboo floor comes the mysterious, underdressed, tall blond man responsible for it all. He walks slowly through a sea of congratulatory backslaps and handshakes. Gorgeous women kiss his cheeks. He is Tristan Simon, the New Age-talking, good-looking owner of Sense and Cuba Libre. Seven years ago, Simon blew into town with a bundle of energy, an intoxicating vocabulary, and a series of sales pitches that would have brought Zig Ziglar to tears. Inspired by a Time magazine cover story he read in the ninth grade about legendary Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens, Simon now counts Pickens as a friend and major investor.
Pickens hasn’t been the only taker. Simon persuaded other big names in DallasRoger Staubach; former Mavericks Cherokee Parks and Jim Jackson; Bob Sambol of Bob’s Steak & Chop House; and Bill Lenox, Bob’s major money manto open their wallets. Simon has brought a philosopher’s intellect to an industry short on high IQs. Now he’s trying out his deep ideas on the diners that aren’t affected by the daily ups and downs of the stock market. At 29 years old, Simon is setting out to do nothing less than reinvent the Dallas restaurant business.
SIMON WENT TO DUKE UNIVERSITY AND SPENT his summers working on fishing boats. He majored in English and economics and graduated in 1994 with honors. After college, he moved to Washington, D.C., and realized he was horribly miscast in the white-collar, button-down business world.
“I’m just allergic to authority,” Simon says matter of factly, leaning across a desk at the offices of his 3-year-old Consilient Restaurants. “I didn’t want to pay the dues that you have to pay to do the subtenant work.” He runs his hand through the blond curls that frame his boyish face. “I had this pregnant energy to do something special, but I just didn’t know what it was.”
His took on a project at the behest of his friend Cherokee Parks, the All-American center for the Duke basketball team, who was one year behind Simon. Pro teams were clamoring to sign Parks, and he asked Simon to interview sports agents. Simon eventually steered Parks to Lon Babby, a sports law attorney based in D.C., and the two formed a relationship, with Babby doing the basketball contracts and Simon managing Parks’ other affairs.
Parks was drafted by the Mavericks in 1995, and Simon followed, looking for a way out of sports management. “I didn’t like the fact that you’re always basking in reflective glory,” he says.
Simon got the idea for his next project from a hip pool hall in D.C. It was geared toward the same sort of urban professionals that he was seeing in his new neighborhood. Although he’d never worked a day in the restaurant business, he figured he could make that same pool-hall concept work in Las Colinas. He found an empty plot of land, but he realized he couldn’t do it alone. “I knew I would have to align myself with somebody that was already in the business,” he says. “So I called Gene Street.”
The iconic restaurateur didn’t take Simon’s first call. Or the next 21. But the 23rd call was the charm. “He said he wanted to talk about a restaurant idea at 6:30 the next morning,” Street says. “Hell, he was only 22. He was so persistent, I didn’t want to get stuck with him here. So I promised I’d meet him for 15 minutes at his office.”
The 15 minutes turned into five hours. “I drove away from the meeting feeling like I’d been talking to a machine gun,” Street says. The two agreed that the land (where Tenaya now stands) was the perfect spot. Simon readied his business plan.
Then Street picked up a copy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in November 1996 and read that Steve Hartnett, president of the Hartnett Group and a prominent money manager, real estate developer, and successful futures trader, had beaten them to the concept. Hartnett, who launched the enormously successful Fox and Hound restaurants, had purchased property in Las Colinas and planned to expand his English pub concept to include steaks. He even had a name: Cool River.
Two weeks from breaking ground, Hartnett heard that Gene Street and “some kid” were sniffing around Las Colinas, looking to do the same thing. “It made me nervous because I knew Gene would drop at least $7 million,” Hartnett says. “So I picked up the phone and called him.”
The trio met at Good Eats in Grapevine. This time it was Hartnett who got machine-gunned. Simon had slyly obtained Hartnett’s plans for Cool River and had done his homework. Simon says the meeting was “confrontational and acrimonious. We ended up accusing each other of subterfuge.”
But Simon didn’t back down. The next morning, he called Hartnett and asked him to meet for a drink. The two met on a Friday night at Humperdink’s, and, after several hours of negotiating, Simon followed Hartnett back to his house in Colleyville, where they talked about the history of their respective deals all night. Simon didn’t go home until Monday morning.
“We talked for 48 hours straight,” Hartnett says. “Tristan is a sponge. I knew he was green, but I could tell he was going places. He’s got a lot of logical beliefs about the business, and he talks like a philosopher. I’m a little that way, and that’s why we got along so well.”
Eventually the two ironed out a triangular partnership that included Street. “People thought I was crazy,” Hartnett says, “but I put him in charge of Cool River.” At 23, Simon was spearheading the development of a ground-up, 22,000-square-foot, $6.3 million restaurantthen the most expensive restaurant and bar ever opened in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “Hartnett is a brilliant guy with a titanium will,” Simon says. “He was a father figure and an incredible mentor. It is almost insane the opportunity he created for me.”
Simon’s fierce devotion to the 250 employees kept them excited about working there. He lent money to cash-strapped waiters, paid for outings to other restaurants, bought drinks after long shifts, and created the kind of atmosphere necessary to get people behind you in the generally money-losing restaurant business. His intense dedication to learning from Street and Hartnett resulted in Cool River’s grossing close to $10 million in its first year.
But that same intensity, combined with his allergy to authority, eventually led to a confrontation with Hartnett. “It became a conflict-rich dynamic that was sharpened by this palpable intellectual and emotional chemistry that we had,” Simon says. In September 1998, eight months after the opening of Cool River, the partners paid Simon something south of $1 million, and he left.
Or he was fired, depending on who’s telling the story. Several sources say Simon didn’t take instruction well, and with so many chiefs (and lawyers) and so much money at stake, Simon’s huge ego and relentless ambition helped create a less-than-amicable parting of the ways. “Yes, we had some issues,” Simon says. “But I realized that the only way that the Cool River expansion was going to happen was if I was willing to be an instrument of Steve’s will. And, as much as I admire him, I’m just not capable of being that.”
If you believe the principle partners, all that brouhaha is just hot water under the bridge. Now Hartnett and Street talk about Simon with reverence. “He’s full of himself with good reason,” Street says. “He’s designed to be a sole proprietor,” Hartnett says.
After cashing out of Cool River, Simon took time off to contemplate his next project, but it didn’t take long to get back into business. In 1999, with the money he made from Cool River, Simon formed Consilient Restaurants, a name inspired by Harvard evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson’s book Consilience. Simon says, “The word means ’connectedness’ or ’interrelatedness’a neat description for the cohesive body of theory that binds our company’s unique restaurant and bar concepts together.”
With Consilient Restaurants, he set out to meet his own destinyan ambitious venture not overlooked by those who had quickly become his peers. Dallas can be a small town, and big ideas can sound threatening. Seasoned restaurateurs saw that they needed Simon more than he needed them. Their professional smiles and sugarcoated quotes are rooted in fear.
VETERAN RESTAURANT REAL ESTATE BROKER Tom Stephenson had been trying for years to lease a property on Henderson Avenue, just east of Central Expressway. The neighborhood was slowly emerging from decay, but the sorry triangular plot of land wasn’t drawing much interest. Stephenson had shown the property to some heavy hittersStreet, Stephan Pyles and Michael Cox (then of Carlson Worldwide), and Brinker International. “Nobody could see that once the bridge over Central Expressway linked Knox to Henderson, the area would be ripe for night business,” Stephenson says.
Then he was introduced to Tristan Simon. “I spread the map out on the hood of my car, and Tristan immediately got it,” Stephenson says. “It took a lot of vision and guts to pull this off. It was a big risk.”
But before Stephenson could roll up the map, Simon was already asking for rent-abatement perks and percentage rents. As they walked across the gravel drive, Stephenson shook his head, taken aback by this “kid half my age” rattling off concessions he wanted like he’d been doing these deals his whole life. As Simon closed his car door, Stephenson leaned in and asked, “Where in the hell did you come from?”
Cuba Libre, an elaborately constructed triangular building with fast-casual Caribbean food, was a huge undertaking. Ultimately, its complex architectural design required nine variances to city ordinances. And Simon personally financed half the total $1.5 million project himself. For the remainder, he went back to his Cool River investors and picked up T. Boone Pickens, Cherokee Parks, Jim Jackson, and Roger Staubach (who was recently bought out). Along the way, he got John Bickle, Steve Nash, and Dr. Ronald Underwood. He convinced them that he’d found a location that would allow him to cre
ate not just one successful restaurant and bar, but his own market.
After 16 months of work, Cuba Libre opened in early 2000 to mixed reviews. Simon quickly saw that the menu was too limited and downscale to satisfy the lofty expectations that were created by the hip-looking building. Four weeks into operation, Simon says, “I realized I was going to fail.” He shelled out another $150,000 to make wholesale renovations: open up the space, alter the seating arrangements, switch the music from popular to contemporary electronic, change the service aesthetic, and hire Mark Haines, a bona fide chef. By mid-summer, the now “upscale” Caribbean scene turned around sharply and, thanks to a healthy bar business, turned a profit in its second quarter.
Then Simon fell into, in his words, “the defining marriage of my career.”
Simon often ate at the now-defunct We/Oui, observing an energetic chef expediting the food to the servers. He learned that Nick Badovinus had served as sous chef at the Mansion and as executive chef at Nick & Sam’s, which, like We/Oui, was a Phil Romano brainchild. Romano, an industry heavyweight by any measure, knew he had a real talent in Badovinus, and when he closed We/Oui, Romano promised publicly that he would build Badovinus his own showcase restaurant. But Simon’s charisma and his mantra of making restaurants “a way of life, not an avocation” lured Badovinus from beneath Romano’s corporate safety blanket and into Simon’s brave new world.
Badovinus and Simon bonded instantly. Simon calls the 31-year-old Badovinus “the next Wolfgang Puck” and talks about his intense showmanship. Badovinus turned the Cuba Libre kitchen around (yes there are designer pizzas, à la Spago), increasing sales by 65 percent in his first 15 months behind the line. Simon projects that this year Cuba Libre will top $4 million in revenue. More specifically: “$800 per square foot in recessionary times.”
TWO MONTHS AFTER THE OPENING OF SENSE, I am sitting in the nightclub with investor Bill Lenox, Tristan Simon, and Simon’s stunning girlfriend (formerly Raquel on All My Children). Our table is raised 18 inches above the floor, which swarms with a post-midnight crowd. Poised before us is a huge, irregular chunk of marble piled with fresh oysters, caviar, and shrimp the size of lobsters cascading from tiered glass tubes of tequila-spiked cocktail sauce.
I ask about the rumors that have sprung up since the place opened: are men really paying cash so that significant others can’t find telling credit-card receipts? And what about the secret “sin bin” party room that opens after the front door is locked at 2 a.m.? Simon looks perplexed. Lenox rolls his eyes and laughs. “If there’s a secret room,” he says, “I hope we’re making money on it.”
Lenox’s “we” is the recently formed alliance between Simon’s Consilient Restaurants (85 percent) and Bob’s Steak & Chop House (15 percent), which forms the business backbone of Sense. As a regular customer at Bob’s, Simon studied its bar scene and found a niche waiting to be filled. Both the restaurant and bar at the Lemmon Avenue and Plano locations are filled with Modanos and Perots. Simon wondered where those people went after dinner. Where could they go to avoid a bunch of kids in overcrowded rooms, with loud music and a can-somebody-find-me-a-waitress service mentality?
“I realized there was nowhere for the north-of-40 crowd to go that meets the standards of somebody who has gotten to a point when that kind of nightlife is unacceptable,” Simon says. “The only way to guarantee high standards was to go private.”
Bob Sambol immediately liked the sensibility of Sense. “Tristan is everything I’m not,” Sambol jokes. “He’s young and smart, and I knew that he could pull it off.” Simon contributed 300 names; Sambol added 200. The resulting list of 500 became the exclusive club. As Simon says, in the bar business, the customer is the product. Everything else is just a backdrop. This is his business model: he has taken concepting restaurants one step beyond menu and décor. He is actually using the customers as the concept.
Consilient gutted the antique shop in Sense’s space and dropped just under $1 million on the finish-out: limestone wainscoting, mahogany trim, upholstered walls. Simon describes it as an “urban upscale casual vibe,” and his theme includes more expansion along Henderson. Three doors down, Hibiscus, scheduled to open in late spring 2003, will be Consilient’s first fine-dining venture. According to Simon, it will be “conspicuously free of overly thematic ideas with a simple grill and a straightforward, protein-centric menu delivered in a rustic, residential Napa-style ranch-like environment.”
I don’t make this up.
Around the corner in the former Casbah space, Simon is set to open Candle Room this month. It will be an upscale, private lounge, almost identical to Sense (private Thursday through Sunday only), but the target market will be the 25- to 35-year-old urban professional set. Candle Room is intended to be simpatico with Cuba Librecustomers will be “invited” after they dine.
It’s strange, though, having survived the ’80s, watching it all over again. I’ve seen wunderkinds and smooth talkers and social power trippers who look like geniuses after a little success in a high-risk business. I remember when Gene Street was a Tristan Simon. The movers and shakers have always been on a merry-go-roundonly now they’re calling it “a multidirectional, sensory-rich, circular-centric experience.”
Simon will be a fun ride. He’ll conquer Henderson and bring his dazzling Simon-speak to other neighborhoods. I wouldn’t be surprised one day to find a Cuba Libre in New York or LA. Inevitably, though, history will swing around and Simon, like Street, will be middle-aged and possibly pot-bellied. And ready to go home before midnight.
Photography by Danny Piassick