Food

Why Does One City's Most Hyped Restaurant Flop in Another Town?

For Chris Hall, the hype about the hamburger at Chicago’s Au Cheval is justified. “If you’re really a burger lover, that’s a helluva burger,” he says. “Pickles to give it some acid, a toasted bun and everything else that’s good about a hamburger. I love that it’s so gloppy. ”

Hall, the chef/owner of Atlanta’s Local Three, further calls this burger “one of the best hangover cures in America.” The morning after the 2018 James Beard Chef and Restaurant Award ceremony, he spotted Daniel Boulud and Mike Lata among many of the country’s top chefs waiting in line for it to open. “If you had dropped a bomb on that place, you’d have wiped out half the culinary talent in America.

Robert Sietsema couldn’t disagree more. The New York food critic was among the first to weigh in with an opinion when Au Cheval opened a branch in New York and unleashed its cult of burger worship on Gotham. While Hall called this burger stack with American cheese, Dijonnaise and the option of bacon and a runny fried egg a “quintessential Midwestern” concoction, Sietsema, who grew up in Chicago and says he loves everything about the city, including its predilection for over-the-top meaty creations that he thinks are “a throwback to the long-gone stockyards,” disagreed. This fully loaded $27 fast-food style heap, he found, was more of a “a theme park of what Chicago used to be like, including the hucksterism of the burger itself.” When Au Cheval first opened in New York, he said, the maligned burger “was a topic of everyone’s conversation for a week or two. Even French speakers bitched about the place.”

Other critics soon piled on, like so many flat, grey patties on a sesame-seed bun. Ryan Sutton in Eater called it a “gloppy, runny, everything-falls-out-when-you-bite-it expression of American junk food.” Adam Platt in New York magazine complained of “overcooked, oversalted beef” and called the restaurant, ahem, “some formerly trendy, hipster version of Applebee’s.”

Ouch.

Does Au Cheval New York really deserve this animus, or is it just the latest high-profile place to fall into the transplant trap? Which is this: A restaurant may be a sure thing in its home city, both attracting crowds and winning critical acclaim, but all too often it finds the welcome isn’t so warm when it takes its show on the road.

It happens time and again to the most seemingly foolproof players. Charlie Trotter shut down his Las Vegas restaurant in less than two years, even after winning a Beard award for “Best New Restaurant” and dropping his prices three times. Wolfgang Puck shuttered two restaurants in Chicago, Tom Colicchio and Emeril Lagasse bombed in Atlanta, while Todd English and Roy Yamaguchi did the same … just about everywhere.

Sometimes the failure is due to circumstances beyond an operator’s control. The terms of a lease change or a hotel decides to change the concept. But oftentimes a restaurateur who has a sure beat on his hometown doesn’t fully understand the restaurant culture in an expansion city.

Consider Lagasse’s expansion to Atlanta. The original Emeril’s—a crowded, lively bistro in New Orleans’ not-yet-gentrified Warehouse Arts district—showed everyone that a New Englander could fashion a distinctive, creative take on Creole and Cajun flavors and reenergize an established dining scene. Better yet, his brand, amplified by his Food Network show, could establish lucrative footholds in places where tourists flocked, namely Las Vegas and Orlando. Yet when he opened a $7 million branch in Atlanta, it came off as just another very expensive, very flashy restaurant in a city filled with them. In its prices, menu items, wine list and general ambition, Emeril’s Atlanta didn’t stand out from a half dozen other restaurants in the tony Buckhead shopping district. (It also had none of the finesse or sense of place of the original, a fact I learned as a critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when I visited both locations in short order for a review.)

It’s easy enough to duplicate the surface gleam of a popular restaurant, but much harder to communicate what guests fell for in the first place. Successful restaurants become sensations in a specific time and place and with a particular cohort of diners. (Indeed, all of us scratch our heads at the local places that diners both older and younger than us flock to.) These restaurants develop a recognizable personality within the civil discourse of a city.

Perhaps it is fitting then that big-shouldered Chicago and New York have the hardest time when they attempt to shuttle their marquee concepts back and forth. New York’s China Grill brought its brand glitzy, pan-Asian dining to the Second City’s Hard Rock Hotel with plans for a $40 lunch special. But as Terry Zarikian, the director of product development, quickly learned, Chicago is no business lunch town, and an out of town restaurant couldn’t change that fact. The workday starts earlier and ends earlier than in New York; few executives wait around in the evening for traffic to die down or to catch a late train home. The restaurant survived a few years with increasingly critical reviews before the hotel began looking for a new concept.

On the return flight eastward, Chicago’s Vermilion had an ever more painful reckoning when it opened At Vermilion in Midtown Manhattan. The Latin-Indian restaurant was one of Chicago’s great success stories—owned by celebrity polymath Rohini Dey and run by the star chef Maneet Chauhan, who beat out scores of men for the job and established herself as the nation’s most regarded Indian-American woman running a kitchen (she went on to create a successful restaurant group in Nashville). Yet the expansion, which unfortunately opened in New York just in time for the financial crisis in the mid-2000s, got reviews that went from lousy to lousier. Eater called it “New York City’s Greatest Shitshow Restaurant” and gleefully enumerated every offense from dead plants to pretentious menu language.

The list goes on: Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Vong had a short, uneventful run in Chicago’s downtown; Charlie Trotter couldn’t get his much touted Midtown Manhattan expansion off the ground.

Operators may suspect chauvinism—“What does Chicago have to teach New York about dining?”—but the reason for some of these failures may have more to do with the life cycle of dining trends. Menus that look so timely in their first iteration can come off as contrived when they’re reproduced elsewhere. When Au Cheval opened in Chicago in 2012, the country was still very much obsessing over elevated versions of double-stack fast food burgers. It was the year that The New York Times saw fit to run a full lead dining review of the Brooklyn expansion of Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack. Au Cheval, with its custom blend of beef cuts, made a strong case for a spot on the nation’s best burger map. Seven years later, Shake Shack has decided that elevated fast food is still fast food, and it has opened franchises everywhere from Charlotte, N.C., to Abu Dhabi. Au Cheval maintains its burger is a gourmet creation worth searching out.

So now New Yorkers have a new blood sport — clamoring for that $27 burger that everyone is talking about and then ripping it. The good news for Au Cheval: everyone seems keen on its fried bologna sandwich.