Posted On: 07/01/2008
Sidney Street Cafe truly has withstood the test of time – it’s been open for 23 years. To keep a restaurant not only open but thriving after so many years takes an almost intuitive understanding of how to please the customer. Kevin Nashan, in partnership with his wife, Mina, approaches each day at the restaurant as a challenge. “This is really hard work in terms of every single day, every plate has to be perfect,” said Nashan. “The dynamic, people’s moods … you know there’s going to be mistakes. But it’s how you approach that mistake and correct it. [Customers need to know] that you appreciate that they’re coming through your door and that you’re doing everything you possibly can to make them happy.”
When you purchased the restaurant five years ago, how did you approach taking over?
Growing up in the restaurant business – my family had a very successful restaurant in Santa Fe – [Sidney Street] had a lot of the same characteristics, and that’s why we bought the place. And it goes without saying, the family here is unbelievable. We didn’t think too much, that was the key. The hardest part was to not go in and change everything. I’d just worked at Daniel [in New York], Commander’s Palace [in New Orleans], Martin Berasategui [in Spain] … it was a mature time for me to say, “Hey, listen, if I’m going to do this, it’s cooking what [customers] want to eat, not for myself.”
But how do you keep yourself in check?
At the end of the day, it has to be business first and foremost. So we were like, “OK, here’s a great model. We can evolve this place.” I knew that if I got in here and immersed myself and just dug in every crevice and corner for the first two years and then started tweaking … My parents raised me to think that you don’t take something away that people really like. What you want to do is keep it fresh without customers feeling the change. It’s a trust issue. Now the menu is three-quarters ours. We’ve gotten reassurance from the customer base. At first, we’d say we were changing and it wouldn’t fly. People were like, “No. Why are you taking this off?” And now, we’ll just take something off and replace it. But if somebody asks for the Poulet Montrachet, I’ll make it.
How do you get to the point where diners trust you?
I think here was a unique situation. Here, the wait staff stayed. Everyone stayed. The wait staff is my bridge to the people, and I knew that going into the game. I knew I had to get their respect. If they see me humpin’ here, 14, 15 hours a day, and [if I] immerse them, get them involved – saying, “Here, taste this,” ... The wait staff is the key to the whole puzzle.
So how did you start out?
At first, we spent all our money on the kitchen and the bathrooms. It’s like a car: You have to fix the engine. We set it up so that in five years, when we got to [make the food we want], we didn’t have to stumble. If you’re having a good month or a good year, instead of buying a new car, you put money back in the business. The restaurant grows.
And where do you see yourself in another five years?
I don’t think that far in advance, but it’s like hitting singles. I’d rather hit a bunch of singles than a home run because a bunch of singles wins the game at the end of the day.
What is the direction you’re taking with the food?
Casual elegance. You can be contemporary without being contemporary, if that makes sense. You downplay things. You can have really cool ingredients and purées and you can sous vide and all that stuff, but you don’t have to tell customers you’re doing all that. I think it can scare people if you tell them you’re doing a foam sauce. The reason you do a foam is to keep it lighter, so it’s subtle and delicate. I like to just put it out there.
Are you thinking about the economy right now?
You’d be foolish not to think about the economy. But you can’t see doom and gloom. Life is a roller coaster. You’re going to have a lot of bad times and you’re going to have a lot of good times. You should expect times like this to come along and be saving your pennies. There are so many good restaurants in St. Louis that are doing well, and [that’s] because they’re consistent. They’re not great one day and off the next. The secret to success? Hard work. Period. Put the effort in there.
How do you feel about the scene as a whole?
I think it’s amazing. I went to college here in the ’90s and there was nothing. There was a handful of good restaurants. Then I went to culinary school in New York, and I remember coming back here and [finding] Harvest and the Smokehouse and Tony’s … and now there’s so many great restaurants. So many talented people.
Do you see it as positive that there’s more competition?
Absolutely, 100 percent. It puts the bar – instead of people being complacent – at a higher level. It makes everyone be more creative. It allows us to educate the customer more, our employees, ourselves more. Like Gerard [Craft being named one of Food & Wine magazine’s best new chefs]. Anytime you get positive notoriety, that’s an evolution. That says that St. Louis is ready. People are coming to this town. The owners of restaurants from other cities are coming in … they’ll drop their business card and it’s really cool. It’s amazing what St. Louis has done, especially in the five years we’ve been at Sidney Street.
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