The question was, why start completely over? Why not just remodel with tony shades of paint? Faustina was hardly a fail—the restaurant and its staff had won numerous awards. But when the principals of newly-named Main Course Management restaurant group turned their attention to this little downtown bistro, they opted to tear it down (all except, mysteriously, the bar) and start over. Before the restaurant was open, I sat down to find out the reason for such a radical approach.
Joel LaSalle and Mikel Trapp
“We learned a lot from opening Current and we want to build on that success,” says co-owner Joel LaSalle. He and his partner Mikel Trapp joined their separate restaurant companies to open Current Seafood & Oyster two years ago and the place has exceeded expectations and projections.
LaSalle and Trapp think they know why and are using that knowledge to approach their future projects in their new company, Main Course Management. There will be many projects to come, but the first thing they tackled was a remake of Faustina, their little cafe that almost could.
Faustina was a mild mainstay on the downtown dining scene for years. A modern bistro with a regular clientele who loved the patio, the people and the mid-priced modern American food, it was rarely disappointing. But it seldom made news. Applying the lessons they’d learned from Current, LaSalle and Trapp started over at Faustina, beginning by renaming it Stanza.
“Current is a whole experience,” says LaSalle. “The minute people step in the door, they look up at that vaulted ceiling and the whole room and they say, ‘Wow.’” For most guests, a dinner at Current is the evening’s entertainment—they come in, have a drink and some oysters, chat and leisurely eat their way through dinner and dessert.
Extra attractions like the shooters paired to the oysters and the dramatic presentations make each course its own floor show. “We’re trying to change the landscape of the Salt Lake City dining scene,” says LaSalle.
Key to Stanza’s concept is flexibility—the space holds 140 seats downstairs and 100 seats upstairs, meaning two separate dining rooms with two different atmospheres. There’s a patio, upstairs and down, and a bar area. The
goal is to balance a large area with intimate spaces, a dining room with plenty of buzz but amenable to conversation as well. “Diners today don’t like to be locked into a format,” says Chef Logen Crew. They might want drinks and some small plates, or they might want a whole dinner, soup to nuts. They might be looking for a tete a tete or they might be celebrating with the whole family. A restaurant needs to be usable in several ways at once.
Authenticity is the most powerful buzzword in today’s restaurants. But it is applied on a sliding scale. “First we looked at the culinary landscape in Salt Lake and saw a void where the most popular cuisine in U.S. should be—Italian food,” says La Salle.
So how do you square the public’s taste for Italian cuisine with its current zeal for authenticity? “It’s all in the sourcing,” says Executive Chef Crew, who is working with Stanza chef Phelix Gardner (formerly with Pago.) All dry and fresh pasta is made in-house; A Priori and Nicholas & Co. help to procure imported goods and to source best possible local ingredients. Authenticity, in this case, doesn’t extend to regionality. “We cherry-picked the menu items from regions all over Italy,” Crew says.
Likewise, the beverage menu, designed by Jimmy Santangelo, focuses on the feel of Italian food, which he calls “the world’s comfort food.” Basically, he says, the wine list at Stanza is designed to be approachable, affordable, and easy to explore with little to no risk. There are approximately 48 wines on the list, most are served by the glass, and most are Italian.
In the restaurant business, there’s a never-ending tension between the quality of a chef-run restaurant and the economic feasibility of a chain. Chef-run restaurants generally rank higher in terms of inventiveness and quality because they’re fueled by passion. But margins can be razor-thin, making the business precarious. Chains, or even restaurant groups, lose some soul because they are usually run more like assembly lines and have less personal attention invested in them.
Main Course, LaSalle and Trapp’s restaurant group, is trying to find the balance via an unusual business model: “We hire on chefs with the intent for them to own a piece,” says LaSalle. “We want our restaurants to be totally chef-driven, so we’re looking for chef-partners, putting our money where your mouth is.”
Stanza, 454 E. 300 South, SLC, 801-746-4441