YOU CAN’T REALLY CALL IT A RIVER. And the place could only be called “Cool Creek” at your most euphemistic. But you could call it, in Tristan Simon’s professional lingo, “Cool Water Feature.”
Simon’s the 24-year-old Duke grad who convinced seasoned restaurateur Gene Street that there should be a Cool River Cafe, the cavernous new restaurant and billiards bar that’s packing ’em in on Highway 114. Mac Arthur Boulevard on Saturday nights looks like the road to Woodstock, and restaurateurs have started turning their sights on previously undiscovered Las Colinas.
Novice Simon had an idea that the veteran Street had never considered, a new idea-excuse me, concept-in restaurants. Cool River Cafe is a “social gathering place.” Simon explains: “The restaurant irrigates the social gathering place.” In other words, a traditional restaurant uses the bar as a holding tank for guests who are waiting to eat, but Cool River’s guests go from the dining room to the bar, where they spend the rest of their evening-and, if all goes well, the rest of their money. Dessert is offered on the after-dinner menu of cognacs and port, encouraging guests to take it in the enormous bar or cigar room, so they move from place to place, their tab following them all the time. In a social gathering place, you don’t want the bar and restaurant to operate as separate businesses under one roof. One should feed the other.
Discouragingly for the nascent partnership, Stephen Hartnett had the same idea that Simon did. Only bigger. Hartnett, a talented futures trader whose investors “had learned to give him carte blanche” in Street’s words, was also experienced in the beer and billiards business, and he had the design for his restaurant already in hand and a contract on some land. Out on Highway 114. “Our place would have been 13,000 square feel and half the money,” says Street, sitting in Cool River Cafe’s clubby, wood-paneled cigar room, where the air is recirculated every four minutes.
Hartnett’s Cool River Cafe is 22,000 square feet.
That wasn’t the only difference of opinion between Hartnett, Simon, and Street. Hartnett had his heart set on a menu of great steaks and $30 lobster tails, but “I’m a chicken-fried kind of guy,” says Street, who made his money and reputation with home-cooking places like Black-eyed Pea and Good Eats. In the end, Simon and Hartnett spent some days together, and when they resurfaced, the partnership had become a trio with a plan to build an enormous, high-end, steak-and-billiards bar where no restaurateur had dared to go before: Las Colinas.
They meant to open last November, but it wasn’t until Superbowl Sunday that Street, Simon, and the new chefs were moving furniture into the raw building, tracking mud everywhere. ’The delays were EI Nino’s fault, really,” says Street, remembering the constant rain and bad weather. “Try telling that to your investors.” Cool River opened in late January with no pre-opening ads, no landscaping. no signage. “But we were deluged from the start,” says Simon.
On the Saturday night I checked out Cool River, there were cars parked on the curb along MacArthur, the valet line stretched down the street, and there were two expediters along the way to direct traffic and warn diners that the wait (Cool River only takes reservations for parties of 20 or more) for dinner was 45 minutes. But as soon as we walked over the “water feature” and through the door, we saw that the attraction wasn’t in the dining room. It was in what Simon refers to as “the right side.” The astonishingly huge bar and billiards room was thigh-to-thigh with young professionals drinking beer (there are 60 long neck labels and 54 beers on tap, drawn from specially designed beer towers that allow the beer to be drawn at 34 degrees) and cocktails (Cool River has a list of cognacs, single malts, small-batch tequilas, and serves a premium well). The 11-table billiards room was lined with wallflowers waiting their turn to play. I recalled Simon saying, “Pool tables have no variable cost,” as he lovingly patting the green felt. ’’Once they’re paid for. there’s no overhead.”
The booths and tables were packed, and the waitresses had to hold their trays high and use their hips to maneuver through the crowd. We had been issued a pager by the hostess which flashed red when our table was ready, long before our waitress had slam-danced her way back to the table with our red wine. (Her response to the wine question was “merlot or cabernet,” a surprisingly unsophisticated response when you consider that the “left side” offers 180 labels, listed by both variety and style.)
But we gladly headed for the quieter dining room, which for all its pebble-patterned carpet, river rock wall and fireplace, and cherry-stained maple paneling, still looks too much like a La Quinta Inn lobby. One side opens on to a patio. “The idea,” explains Simon later, speaking jargon again, “was to offer a ’residential experience’ in decor.” In the same lingo, he says, “The ’all-seasons patio’ has French doors that open in nice weather” and “when the two dozen live oaks aie planted by the creek they’re still constructing outside, it will be a ’pretty pastoral’ experience.” The experience for us was less than pastoral, though not nearly as frenetic as the bar. Street, suited for business and biting his nails, was hovering in the door to the Ben Carpenter Room, the only area used for large parties. When the kitchen door swung open, I could see Monte Morris expediting at the end of the line in the kitchen.
Street and Simon were determined to avoid the problems and the “branding” of an executive star-type chef and, looking for an alternative, upscale model, decided to emulate Houston’s. In fact, they did more than emulate-“We decided to hire as many people as we could from Houston’s,” says Street. “Everyone loves Houston’s. It’s the best-run, most consistent restaurant in town. We decided to hire the best manager Houston’s ever had.” It turned out that was Monte Morris, who had left Houston’s for Del Frisco’s and then moved to Denver. Which he didn’t want to leave, thank you very much. Street and Simon kept talking, and finally, after an 11 -hour interview with Simon, Morris agreed to run Cool River. The rest of the staff, says Morris, was “cherry picked.” They shopped Patrizio for personnel and Chef Bob Stephenson came on board; they found four more managers at Houston’s, while the catering director is from Ninfa’s.
Morris and Stephenson developed the menu at a test kitchen, Miller and Associates. “We just set up camp, and cooked I don’t know how many thousands of dollars of steaks,” grins Morris. “Too many,” says Street. In the end, the menu was a committee compromise: Hartnett wanted steaks, Street wanted a Southwest flair, Simon wanted value, and Morris stuck up for quality product. The food cost is high, but with the “social gathering” concept- that is, a jam-packed bar-Cool River can run a Houston’s-like margin on the restaurant side, making only a nickel or so on the dollar with a 58 percent food cost. That’s the upside of the synergy.
The downside is that, for all the planning and money, the service at Cool River was erratic and the food simply wasn’t very good or even very attractive. Plates are stark and ungamished and generally present a hunk of meat and a pile of vegetables. We skipped the appetizers, called “Ponderings” on this menu, and opted for salads as cold and sweet as ice cream. I ordered strip steak because I had met the radium-heat broiler (it reaches 1,800 degrees) the day before, but instead of medium rare, it arrived distinctly medium, almost well-cooked. The accompanying spinach Mercedes, which Street says is the best-selling side dish on the menu, strangely called for the greens to be covered in melted cheese. Prime rib was a fine, quivering rose pink, but the com cakes had the heft of deep-fried pucks, and the juicy, smoked pork chop was flavorless despite the stuffing of pimientos. The sesame boule, a round, seed-sprinkled loaf, was served on a board with a bread knife and whipped butter. Very ’70s. Not very good.
Lunch was worse-the smoked pork sandwich was reminiscent of school lunchroom food. The hamburger and fries were the best thing we ate at Cool River, except the apple dessert, served with maple ice cream and to hell with the Southwest concept.
When 1 toured the restaurant, Simon explained that there’s a right side/left side mentality to the top team: Hartnett is the right side guy-that’s the bar and billiards. Street is a left side, back-door guy-that’s the restaurant. Simon manages the money and bridges the two. Simon is all ’90s dapper, as cool, combed, and collected in his conservative tie as Street is carelessly casual in his El Chico polo shin. “We were worried,” Street says. (“We” meaning “me.”) “’We could not stay calm. We spent dollars and dollars and dollars and dollars. I can’t take it anymore. I’ve got too many kids. I worry all the time.” Actually. Simon corrects calmly, it took 110 days from the founda-tion’s completion to finish.
Simon has to know this stuff because he’s already considering the next Cool River. In planning, Simon is trying to back out what he calls the “Las Colinas factor.”
Such as? “Bad dirt,” says Street. “It’s alkaline clay that shifts a lot,” explains Simon. Cool River’s 22.000 square feet are built on 90 piers, each sunk 24 feel deep. Also, every design detail had to have special approval from the three-man Las Colinas planning committee whose totally subjective assessment is law. Simon figures in 15 percent for the Las Colinas factor.
That’s OK, because Simon says this is a “one-per-market concept.”
“Every Cool River will cost about $6 million a pop, but with one store you can do the volume of six or seven Chili’s,” he says. “On the other hand, one failure brings down the whole chain. A couple of Chili’s can close and it doesn’t hurt that much.” So he’s shopping other cities to find the next Las Colinas. Because it looked like our table was the only one unhappy with its dinner. Simon says Las Colinas provides a corporate clientele-there are lots of young, two-income households. They live here and work here. And. until now. there’s been no place to eat, or to gather socially, apparently. They’re happy to have Cool River.