When prolific restaurateur Bill Chait left Los Angeles in 2016 to pursue new projects, it was unclear whether he’d ever return to the city that made him big. Now, with the pending arrival of Tesse and Tartine Manufactory here in LA, Bill Chait is back. Can the man LA Magazine once named “the most powerful person in LA food” make it back to the top of the game?
The economy is now in better shape than it was a decade ago, but new challenges like increased competition, higher wages and operating costs, and a more discerning dining clientele make opening a restaurant a different puzzle to tackle.
Chait has a long history on the local scene to bolster his approach. He ran the mid-market Louise’s Trattoria from the early 80s to the aughts, expanding it to a regional chain. With a slightly hoarse, but authoritative voice, the thin, nearly six-foot-tall Chait speaks like an NPR pundit. He reflects on his early success, feeling almost embarrassed to have owned a respectable but relatively straightforward set of Italian-American restaurants. But he had other ambitions, despite earning plenty of money from the chain.
In between running Louise’s, he had stints running chef-driven restaurants in the 1980s in Beverly Hills with Boston chef Lydia Shire and at Angel City Grill, where Nancy Silverton consulted on the desserts. Chait credits a relationship with the late Italian chef Mauro Vincenti, who was making waves at the time with his ambitious, and expensive, restaurant Rex in Downtown. Vincenti inspired Chait to trade-in chain operations for running a business with a creative chef at the helm. He then later introduced Chait to John Sedlar, with whom he eventually partnered to open the ground-breaking restaurant that would come to be known as Rivera.
A new kind of modern Latin restaurant, Rivera brought a new level of fine dining to Downtown LA. It was just steps from Staples Center in the exact address that Broken Spanish now occupies. At the time, the Lakers were in the middle of their 2009-2010 championship runs, bringing even more energy, excitement, and potential diners to the part of Downtown. Rivera rose to the occasion, heralding talented John Sedlar’s return to LA after the chef had closed Bikini and Abiquiu in the 1990s.
Together, he and Chait put forth a concept that wasn’t afraid to fuse Mexican and Southwest flavors in a fashionable and forward-thinking space. Instead of a traditional one-room dining area, diners first walked into the middle of an energetic bar area and lounge, which bisected two separate experiences: a refined sit-down section, and more casual chef’s counters that faced the semi-open kitchen.
Rivera even helped launch the city’s cocktail revolution from the yet-undiscovered bartender Julian Cox, who went on to partner with Chait on multiple projects around town. Cox’s work at Rivera took on a culinary approach to cocktails — employing seasonal ingredients with flavors and techniques from the kitchen — which eventually became a kind of template for numerous other bars around Los Angeles.
Seven years later, Chait had built a veritable empire of restaurants: from Republique to Bestia, Otium to The Rose, Sotto to Redbird, and Picca to Petty Cash Taqueria. He patched the restaurants together with an umbrella organization to assist with marketing and administration called Sprout. With this extensive body of work, he had essentially elevated LA’s culinary prowess from a first-rate American dining city to one that could attract even international attention. Some likened him to Danny Meyer, the prolific and successful New York restaurateur who founded Eleven Madison Park, Union Square Cafe, and Shake Shack.
So why did Chait suddenly abandon his restaurant group and the city where he built many professional bonds, along with a highly-respected culinary empire? It was a shocking departure: one chefs and journalists still whisper about, especially since seven of his restaurants debuted during his last year in tenure.
He explains the departure to Eater: “The truth is, I was trying to bring together a bunch of disparate partnerships, to create some semblance of structure for economies of scale. It was, and still is, a collection of partnerships run by chefs. In the end, it was a struggle to keep these things in a harmonious, centrally operated way.” He goes on, “It didn’t make sense [for me to stay involved], so rather than ram a square peg into a round hole, it was better to start over. The two other partners [at Sprout] were receptive to a buyout. It was the natural thing to happen.”
Reading between the lines, it seems the partners disagreed on how to operate the group into the future. There was a rift. But Chait seems at peace. He’s moved on.
After the departure, he went to San Francisco to team with Tartine Bakery’s esteemed bakers Chad Robertson and Liz Prueitt, building their most ambitious project yet. Tartine Manufactory became a powerhouse all-day restaurant which would go on to earn a Best New Restaurant finalist nomination from the James Beard Foundation.
Then another shocking development: In mid-2017 Chait announced that a branch of Tartine Manufactory would make its way to the Row project in Downtown’s industrial district. He’s even brought on Phoenix’s Chris Bianco, one of the country’s most celebrated pizzaiolos, for a pizza spot that would live within Manufactory’s walls. The screaming subtext in the announcement was that Bill Chait was coming back to the city that made him a big time player in one of the country’s most dynamic restaurant scenes.
Shortly after, Chait made it clear he was digging in. He announced his next venture, Tesse, which was to bring a modern European-style restaurant to Sunset Strip. It recently opened right next to Fred Segal in a futuristic-looking new multi-use development perched on the foot of the Hollywood Hills. Meanwhile, Tartine Manufactory broke ground nearly a year and a half ago in Downtown, but is still in construction.
At Tesse, Chait partnered with Raphael Francois — who’s worked at numerous Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe and most recently in D.C. and New York City — and also celebrated pastry chef Sally Camacho Mueller, who honed her skills at WP24 and the Hotel Bel-Air. Together, they bring an approachable yet noteworthy dining destination to a part of West Hollywood that many have called a restaurant dead zone.
When asked about the obstacles in this particular stretch of Sunset Strip, Chait is quick to respond. He thinks some of the recipes that contributed to Bestia’s success — an unknown location, a striking space, and a talented kitchen team — will play in Tesse’s favor. Chait thinks the area is ripe for transformation. He cites it’s easy access from LA’s wealthy Hollywood Hills and West Hollywood neighborhoods. It’s also sitting just a stone’s throw from celebrity hotspots Craig’s, E.P. & L.P., and Catch, all of which do very strong business. Meanwhile h.wood restaurant group has two restaurants going into the already-built Jeremy Hotel.
It’s hard not be skeptical, however, when well-funded and well-thought restaurants like The Church Key and Osteria Drago struggle and eventually close just a few blocks away. Gordon Ramsay’s hotel restaurant at The London never really caught on with locals. And even a casual sandwich shop from Michael Voltaggio didn’t last a year (though it’s hard-to-see storefront may be to blame). Then there are plenty of restaurants like Eveleigh, Roku, and Boa Steakhouse: They do brisk business, but none really command the respect and envy of the restaurant community.
One thing is for sure: If anyone’s going to tackle one of LA’s most underserved but overrated neighborhoods, it’ll be Chait. And about that Bestia magic? He hopes to capture more of it by bringing on its opening manager Jordan Ogron.
Ogron, a frenetic, excitable wine guru, will also debut a wine shop next door to Tesse called Boutellier, a sort of combo private dining room and wine tasting lounge that’ll offer some prime bottles in a highly-designed space.
In the same way that the Arts District turned into LA’s hottest dining borough when Bestia and its progenitor Church & State opened, he thinks Tesse could signal to Angelenos that this part of West Hollywood is actually a fantastic place to open a restaurant.
And Chait’s not done with just Manufactory and Tesse. He announced earlier this year that he would be partnering* with São Paulo’s talented chef Rodrigo Oliveira, who owns two Latin America Fifty Best Restaurants, on a new Brazilian restaurant in Hollywood. They’ve got backing from Carl Schuster, a longtime CEO for Wolfgang Puck’s bustling events business, and Richard Heyman, a Southern California real estate mogul and the developer behind the Dream Hotel.
Clearly a savvy business person who’s looking for a major comeback, Chait has all the right cards to play.
Edited by Carolyn Alburger
*[Note: Eater LA contributor Bill Esparza is also a partner with Chait and Oliveira]