When Acabar first hit the scene last summer, the talk was all about the space itself. Littered with Moroccan touches, plenty of tile and an open atrium as its centerpiece, the casual restaurant/lounge space quickly found a home with a Hollywood Hills crowd interested in drinking as much as dining. Not that the kitchen should be overlooked. Consulting chef Octavio Becerra helped craft the opening menu, and cocktails come by way of Julian Cox and Josh Goldman's Soigné Group.
But it's always been chef Kevin Luzande in the kitchen, turning out Asian-Mediterranean fare with a California twist. One year in, and Luzande seems comfortable with the grind of a daily restaurant that requires service and shine in order to stay relevant on finicky Sunset Boulevard. He recent sat down to talk with Eater about what it takes to make it past the one year mark, the clubby side of his business and why hiring cooks right out of culinary school might make sense after all.
What was your first night of service like? It was pretty tough. Usually, a new restaurant won't hit the kitchen hard with covers, they'll only do like 100 max. Then you'll actually end up doing 150 because so many people want to come check it out. So we were jam packed. We did three friends and family nights, and that helped us ramp up, and we would do some mock service even before that, just two turns out in the dining room. But we really only had like two weeks of training.
Was that hard to manage with a new staff? We like to hire right out of culinary school, so we can mold the cook. Getting a cook that's worked for four or five years, they already have their style. It can be like talking to a brick wall — they won't absorb anything. They'll think they're chef de cuisine or executive chef already. It's different now, because of the way L.A. is. There's a lot more restaurants opening up, so there's such a need. Cooks become chefs very fast.
Who do you think your average customer is? It's a mix. And it changes up. We'll get people from Pasadena, folks who follow chef Octavio [Becerra], who's our consulting chef. So from there, all the way to Santa Monica, down to Torrance, people from the Valley. On weekends, we'll get everyone from 21 year olds to gray-hairs. Anyone who likes to party. We'll even do buyouts. We've done weddings here, we did a bat mitzvah like two weeks ago. There was a funeral once — well, no body, just people giving speeches and that sort of thing.
Do people consider Acabar a destination? A date night spot, a party spot?They come here for an experience. You can come early and have that regular dining experience, or the happy hour. Or you can be part of the later crowd. We serve food until 11:30, midnight, for that crowd that likes to just sit here with a group of friends to eat and drink. The music is upbeat, it's energetic, there's beautiful people here all the time.
And what does a night of service look like for you? I try to touch tables as much as I can nowadays. We're settled in, I have experienced cooks now, so I can interact with guests. On an average Saturday night, I spend 25% to 30% of my time out on the floor. There's a lot of VIP's that come through. In the kitchen, we use the term 'tribe', because they're part of the family. But if anyone comes in and it's their anniversary, they want a romantic table, we try to do what we can to make it extra special. I'll come out to the table as soon as they sit down; if it's an anniversary, maybe offer them a glass of sparkling wine or something. And I'll offer to create the menu for them, if they want.
It's all about that level of service. It needs to be. Look at this place. We're white tablecloth. That means the service needs to be the best it can be. And it's a romantic spot, it's a date night spot. We need to make sure everything is perfect for them. I do more than just run out the food — I'll fill up water glasses, if your cocktail is almost gone I'm asking what you're drinking. I'm not too proud to do anything.
Is there ever a learning curve with your menu? Sure. It's not like we're just doing straight Mediterranean food, or Asian food or California cuisine. It's hard to define our menu. But after eating it, people get it. I mean, from the outside, it's whatever. Then there's these huge gold doors, and you get in and see this huge, beautiful bar. You walk in, the fire's lit, there's music and people all around, the hostesses are very nice. With the decor and everything, you sort of forget who you are and what you're even doing here. Then you sit down, look at the menu, and you might not know half the things on it. That's a good thing and a bad thing. We're here on Sunset, and it can be hard. Not everyone eats outside of the box, so we really have to create a few comfortable dishes, while keeping ourselves and the other customers excited.
Once that opening heat dies down, you get the initial bump, you maybe get the review you want. After that, what does it take to be successful? It's being smart with promos. You've got to make sure you've got good PR and social media. There are so many good restaurants now. The way I dine out is, I'll go to one place one time, and order almost the whole menu, then usually not go back again. There's just so many place to go to, I feel like I can't backtrack. So here, there always has to be buzz.
So what's next for Acabar? It's always going to be evolving, it's never going to stay the same. Not only are we a restaurant, we're a bar and lounge, too. So we're always going to have different live entertainment, a great bar scene. We want to keep it hip and fun, and to do that we're always going to be changing, updating, evolving.
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