It's hard enough for any restaurant to make it to the twenty year mark, let alone one with as little signage and hidden-in-plain-sight feel as Santa Monica's The Buffalo Club. Yet it's exactly that quiet confidence and under the radar approach that has made the longtime Olympic Blvd. restaurant a standout with Hollywood types looking to escape for a quiet meal, media moguls eager to feel in the know, and an entire generation of locals who just want to drink in peace.
Begun in 1994 by writer/producer Anthony Yerkovich and chef Patrick Healy, The Buffalo Club has seen plenty of fads pass by along Olympic Blvd., while succumbing to few, if any. The fine dining Iroquois Room still serves caviar and a 36-hour lamb bourgignon dressed tableside, and an Old Fashioned on the patio would never be made by any 'mixologist'. For Yerkovich and Healy, there's more than just comfort tied to their tradition -- there's twenty years of success.
Tell me about your first night in business. Tony: The first night was a limited partners’ dinner. We had a dinner for about 20 in the inside room, and then opened up. That was in October 1994, and then we opened up within a week or two after. Originally, I was terrified of the prospect of throwing a party and nobody showing up. So I thought, well why don’t we hopefully, artificially, increase demand, by reducing supply? So we were only open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. We had an unlisted phone number.
The unlisted phone number just made people want us even more. Particularly in L.A. and New York, people want what they can’t have. The word no is like an elixir to them. We just blew up right from the starting gate. I’m a writer and producer, so I know a lot of people in Hollywood, and because of that and some of my limited partners, the restaurant was right from the beginning just star-studded. But at the same time, it was one of the only restaurants that I’ve been to that had that celebrity quotient, but was absolutely top-ranked in terms of cuisine. Patrick is one of the very, very few American chefs, and the only one that I know, who has had proper French training. He went over to France at a very young age.
Patrick: I was 19. Stayed five years, worked with some of the best chefs in France. All three-star, fine dining establishments. Very, very traditional, but top of the line French cuisine. I was fortunate to get the opportunity, because it just wasn’t done back then. This was back in the early 80’s. I mean, I was the only American over there.
Did you guys always know what kind of place this would be when it opened? Patrick: It’s always been chef-driven, but we’ve also had an entirely different element that Tony has really spearheaded, which is: let’s make this not only a great dining experience, but someplace people can go to have a lot of fun, have a great meal, maybe stay late and listen to some live music. He was really the first to do that.
Tony: My original concept for the Buffalo Club predated our opening by about four years. For whatever idiotic reason I decided I wanted to open up a restaurant, which was very impetuous, because I’d never had any restaurant experience before. I’m a writer first and foremost, but I’d always look around at restaurants and sort of critique the architectural elements or the lighting or the music. And of course the food and the wine list. So for me, the concept of what became the Buffalo Club was really architecture.
Growing up back East, in a small town outside of Buffalo, we were hanging out at old bars from literally the age of fourteen. The drinking age was 18, and we would get our older brothers’ IDs or whatever. And a lot of these bars were old places that had been around since the late 19th century, and i just loved that patina of old wood and that burnt umber, real lathe and plaster, old artwork feel. And I wanted to open up a place that had those quintessentially American East Coast elements.
How did you find the space? Tony: Around 1991, I was motorcycling down the street here, and I passed this place. It looked like exactly what it was, which was a down and dirty shot and a beer bar called the Olympia, that opened up at 7 o’clock in the morning. And guys would line up before the place opened just to get a whiskey and a beer back before they went off to work. It had the old neon sign that’s still hanging up out front, but it wasn’t working at the time, and hadn’t been for years.
I just liked the look of the place, I liked the style, so I stopped in for a beer and soon after I bought the bar. The guy wanted to get out of the business anyway. So I had the liquor license and the building and everything, and then started putting the elements together. Patrick came on about two years later, in late 1993. So I just sort of took the plunge and figured I’d put the pieces together as they came.
Patrick: We also were alone on this corridor of Olympic. There was really nothing here.
Tony: There was La Pantera Rosa up the street. And if you were ever looking for a good knife fight, you could always find one there on the weekends. I mean, this whole place was razor wires and pit bulls.
Have you found yourself needing to change the Buffalo Club in the twenty years that it’s been open? Patrick: We haven’t moved with each trend, we’ve stayed true to the original concept. But we’ve also evolved, as you have to in this business. Being twenty years old, you’re established. But a lot of people are only looking for the newest thing on the block, that’s all they care about. We did make a lot of changes over the years, while staying true to our original format, which is regional American cuisine.
Have you had regulars that have spanned the decades with you? Tony: We love them. They’re great customers. Everybody gets exceptional treatment here, but if we see someone’s name on a reservation list that we know has been coming here for years, we might send over a round of drinks or an appetizer, could be dessert or a bottle of wine. And that’s just our acknowledgment, our appreciation for them.
Michael Keaton has been coming here for a long time. He was just in not long ago with Zach Galifiniakis and Edward Norton, because they’ve got that movie coming out. But we get people from all different walks of life.
Tony: Also, there are so few restaurants that have stood the test of time the way that we have. We see children of people who used to come here, and so it’s become this generational thing.
What does it mean for you in Los Angeles to have made it to twenty years? Tony: I think it’s first and foremost very gratifying and reassuring, that the original concept of having a place that is classic and acknowledges some of the best elements of American cuisine, can be successful. Here we are in Los Angeles, which is the cutting edge of the new, and it’s ground zero for trends, good and bad. So it’s been wonderful to know that the original concept proved its mettle.
The Buffalo Club, by the way, if not started, at least was way ahead of the curve. We were the first, by a longshot, of the nouvelle speakeasies. We opened up in 1994, nobody knew we were here. It looked like some auto body shop from the outside, and you had to know somebody to get in. The bar is totally pre-Prohibition. We’ve had great barmen from the get go, and we’ve never called them mixologists. And they don’t take 20 minutes to make a Manhattan. You didn’t start seeing those speakeasies in Los Angeles until about ten years ago.
Patrick was ahead of the curve on the American regional cuisine done in a comfort food style.
Patrick: A lot of those Southern-leaning menu items like collard greens, cornmeal-fried okra. I mean, nobody was doing that.
So what’s next for the Buffalo Club? Where are you a decade from now? Tony: I like what we’re doing.
Patrick: I do to. We will keep refining what we do best. We’re not going to chase after trends, and people appreciate that. They know what they’re going to get, and that it’s going to be first-rate. But we’re not going to sit on our laurels either. We’ll evolve, streamline and improve.
1520 Olympic Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90404