Second Helpings

How Not to Succeed in Business: Will somebody please explain to me how Michael Jordan could have ever thought of giving up basketball for baseball? Can somebody tell me why Mel Gibson insisted on playing Hamlet?

The urge to be something we're not isn't confined to athletes and movie stars. It happens with restaurants, too. And the results can be just as disastrous.

Case in point: Cafe Patou.
When it opened in 1995, Cafe Patou was an absolute delight. There was nothing very fashionable about it, tucked away in low-rent Papago Plaza, at the intersection of Scottsdale and McDowell roads. It had room for maybe two dozen customers. It was BYOB-friendly. The chef came out to greet and talk to customers. The prices were right. And the beautifully crafted French-Italian dishes were smashing.

I raved about the homemade bread. I raved about the gnocchi alla Romana. I raved about the flatbreads topped with escargots, lobster cakes, shrimp and salmon lasagna and the exquisite Belgian-chocolate desserts. In short, Cafe Patou was practically my Platonic ideal of a restaurant come to life.

What happened? In the first place, success. It didn't take the foodie community long to pack the storefront.

In the second place, the quest for greater profit. Both clouded the proprietors' judgment.

They decided to take Cafe Patou uptown and upscale. They planted their new digs in a more demographically desirable part of Scottsdale, near Scottsdale Road and Shea Boulevard. Instead of two dozen seats, the new place had 200 seats. Instead of BYOB, they put together a fancy wine list. Instead of schmoozing with the chef, diners had to make their way past hostesses with attitudes and impersonal maitre d's in sharp suits. Entree prices crept above the $20 mark.

The food was still exceptional. The four-cheese crepe, the pot-au-feu, the venison stroganoff and the pork tenderloin topped with shrimp in a lobster sauce brought enormous pleasure. But Cafe Patou had lost all its charm--and maybe its soul, too. Frankly, it wasn't as much fun eating here as it used to be in the old digs.

Other diners, I believe, also sensed the difference. A few weeks ago, Cafe Patou shut down.

Happily, the restaurant owner who took over Cafe Patou's Papago Plaza spot understands that those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

That's why Gregory Casale, chef/proprietor of Gregory's Grill, is doing things differently. Like its predecessor, the original Gregory's Grill was casual, intimate and BYOB-friendly. The food was also extraordinary. This winning combination brought predictable results--lots and lots of customers.

But Casale wisely resisted the urge to move uptown, hire snooty help, install a wine list and try to cook for 200 people. Instead, he's taken over the storefront next door. Now he can accommodate about 40 diners--more than before, but still not out of scale. The BYOB policy remains. And Gregory's Grill still has its soul.

--Howard Seftel

Suggestions? Write me at hseftel@newtimes.com or New Times, P.O. Box 2510, Phoenix,

 
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