Photo by Catherine Downes.

Interviews

Leslie Brenner On Billy Can Can and Her New Role at Rebees

The former Dallas Morning News restaurant critic talks shop.

It’s mid-afternoon on a Thursday. It’s hot outside. Really, really hot. There isn’t a single cloud in the sky. Unimpeded rays of sunlight pour through the towering windows at Billy Can Can. The Victory Park restaurant has been open for just over a month at this point, and, like many shimmery and new Dallas hotspots, it’s about to be slammed. I grab a stool at the wooden bar, designed to resemble a 19th century saloon, and watch the staff scurry around as they prepare for the night ahead.

I’m here to interview Leslie Brenner. The former restaurant critic for The Dallas Morning News is heading the food and beverage programming as well as marketing for restaurateur Tristan Simon (who single-handedly revived Henderson Avenue) and his consulting companies Rebees and Open-Rebees. Billy Can Can is his restaurant. And Billy, the restaurant’s mascot, is a fictitious character made up by the team who is, according to them, a “proprietor of the world’s most exquisite saloon. Artful sensationalist, brooding bon vivant. Host, master of ceremonies, guru, social conductor.” Cool.

Brenner arrives and we cozy into a booth near a window under a taxidermy hawk. She hands me a coaster. It’s beautifully embossed and resembles a playing card. The words “Billy Can Can” sit on top of a smoking heart. Under the heart reads: “Ante Mortem Bibendum” and “Saloon Extraordinaire, Dallas, Texas.” It’s hefty and soft and looks expensive.

Who created the coasters? 

We have a branding company that we work with called Thunderwing, and they’re just incredible. So we worked with them from the time that this was just an idea, and they would present [to us]. They’d do these incredible presentations. They would do typography, logos, just sort of mood boards, all kinds of stuff. Then we refined and refined and refined. I think we went through four full-blown branding presentations until we got to everything that we wound up with. From these, to our matchbooks, to the bandanas that the servers wear.

How did Billy Can Can come to be?

Billy Can Can was Tristan’s creation. He wanted to have this character. He started with the name and barest outlines. And then over, probably, a yearlong or so development of the idea, he just kind of grew into a character. He became a personality, to the point where we talked about him so much, and refined it so much, that I think there’s really part of all of us that actually feels like he’s a real person.

When Billy tweets or posts on his Instagram account, it is a funny exercise for him, because he is so very old. Billy was born in the late 19th century, and yet he has an Instagram account. So it’s really fun to see how he expresses himself. And he’s really a literary character. Just as when you write a novel, your characters take on a life of their own, and they sort of take over. Maybe you created them, but they start telling you who they are, and what they want to do, and who they want to be. And it’s been the same with Billy Can Can.

So, who is tweeting on his behalf? Is it a team of people?

It’s me.

So, you are his voice? Or you’re channeling him?

I’m channeling Billy. And he expresses himself in a slightly different way on his Instagram account and in a tweet, where he’s forced to be a little more terse. But it’s really fun getting to know him in that way.

Do you feel like Billy, as a character, is going to continue to develop and grow? Or is he pretty much set in his ways?

I don’t think he’s set in his ways. It’s taken him a 110 years or something to become who he is. So I think he’s always growing, and learning, and becoming a different person.

Enough about Billy. What was it like transitioning from food criticism to restaurant consulting?

In many ways it has felt very natural, because for me, criticism, or the the part that I always most enjoyed about it, was the constructive part. And the more it went, the less I enjoyed being the guy who had to say, ‘Hey, this is what you’re not doing right.’ It took a long time, but it became, increasingly, who I didn’t want to be anymore.

And I think it really served a purpose, and it was always coming from a place of wanting to have a dialogue with the city, and wanting to set a high bar and just have something that chefs and restaurateurs felt that they could bounce off of. But it was always meant to be a dialog. And to have an opportunity to have my opinions completely in the service of helping create something, and have it be as good as it could possibly be, just felt like exactly where I wanted to go.

So, for that reason, it felt very, just easy and natural. And it’s funny, I really loved being a journalist, but I don’t miss that role at all. Being able to help things happen, just feels really, really great at this point in my career.

So tell me a little bit about Rebees and some of the projects that you guys are currently working on.

So, Rebees is Tristan Simon’s place creation company. We’re a real estate development and consultancy firm that has a strong focus and interest in projects that have a strong food and beverage focus. We have several projects around the country. One of them is a big one right here in Dallas, which is helping Trademark Properties, which is the real estate company that’s doing the leasing in Victory Park, or helping them with the food and beverage part of that. So we’ve been sort of leading the restaurant curation in Victory Park.

I noticed construction next door to Billy Can Can, what’s going on with that?

What’s going on next door is another Rebees project. It’s a creative co-working concept that will be opening toward the end of year. So we’ve leased this whole block on Victory Park Lane, between Museum Way and High Market Street. And about a third of it is taken up with Billy Can Can, and the rest of the block, about two thirds, will be this creative co-working concept with an event space. And on the corner will be a public-facing day café, serving breakfast and lunch. And so that will be both for the public, and also for members of the co-working concept.

Are you guys going to be officing out of that coworking space?

Yes, Rebees will be officing there. But it gets a little bit complicated, because Rebees actually has sort of become two companies. We have a joint venture with a real estate company called Open Realty Advisors. And so that joint venture is called Open Rebees. And some of our projects, the more real estate focused projects, are under that Open Rebees flag. That’s that Mark Masinter’s company. And Mark is the one who has been driving the Henderson Avenue revival and renewal.

Open Realty has done the retail and restaurant leasing for Legacy West. For Open Rebees we have an office at Maple Cedar Plaza, right across the street from the Crescent Court. But once we open the creative coworking concept, Rebees will be there.

[Interview is interrupted by a wine rep. She pours two small glasses of rosé for us to try.]

What do we have here?

I guess something we’re considering.

[We each take a sip.]

I like it. That’s my expert review. I mean, it’s wine on a what, Thursday afternoon. What’s not to like?

Yeah, that’s one of the perks.

So are you overseeing all of the wines at Billy Can Can?

Taryn [Anderson], and Abe [Bedell] our general manager, and Matt [Ford] and I, put together the wine list. I guess I sort of took the lead. When it started, it was me and Matt and Taryn. And Matt has a level one sommelier certification, so he definitely knows a lot about wine and has a fantastic palate. It started with the three of us, and then we hadn’t hired Abe yet. And then, of course Matt, once we got our kitchen, he disappeared pretty much, wasn’t able to engage. It was more Taryn and I, and then Abe came on, and then Taryn got crazy busy. So it’s just that kind of thing. But it was really, really fun to put it all together, and do the tastings, and meet all the wine people.

What are some other dishes that you would recommend to guests when they come in for the first time and want to get an overall feel for what you guys have to offer?

People are constantly asking me what I would recommend. And while it’s really easy, it’s really hard to narrow it down, because it sounds totally cheesy, but I really love everything on our menu. But I think our appetizers are super strong. I love the venison tartare, I love the smoked fish dip, which we just switched out. They were served with a saloon-made cracker, and now they’re served with a saloon-made large potato chip that’s spiced with Old Bay and Tajín, the combination is fantastic. I love our heirloom tomato salad right now. That won’t be the case in a few months. What else. I love our crispy oyster sliders with the saloon-made sweet potato roll, with some tangy slaw on it.

That sounds awesome.

Yeah, those are delicious. The deviled eggs have been a huge, huge, huge hit. And I love those, too. Sort of nice mustardy, devil-y level. And then among the main courses, the pork chop I love … A lot of the garnishes on our meat plates, like a plum salad with sweet Texas onions, and these gorgeous herbs. A lot of the herbs and some of the vegetables actually come from Chef Matt’s garden.

How often do the dishes rotate or change in and out?

Next week, we’ll start rolling out features, and we’ll have a little bit of a menu reset. Oh, I forgot to say that I really love the skate schnitzel, which is really unusual dish.

Steak schnitzel?

No, skate.

Ah, skate.

I think it’s really hard to say it, skate schnitzel. It’s like a tongue twisters. It’s done schnitzel style, and then with this beautiful herb salad with little lemon supremes, and on top of a smoked egg purée.

What are some of your upcoming projects?

I’ll probably be making several trips to Lexington, Kentucky, where we have a project. It’s called The Summit at Fritz Farm, and there’s a food hall there called The Barn, and Taryn was the leader on that project. And also, we’re just starting a project in southern California, a food emporium there. Fortunately I like traveling, and I really like getting to know a new place. And in order to do these kind of projects, you have to get to know the culture intimately.

Rebees is about culture building. And it’s what we’re trying to do here in Victory Park with our neighbors, and bringing in restaurateurs that we’re really excited about, that we really feel represent Dallas at its best. The culture building part is where we feel we can really make a difference.

Thank you, Leslie!

Thank you, Catherine!

[We both finish our wine.]

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