Welcome to The Gatekeepers, in which Eater Austin roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen who stand between you and some of your favorite hard-to-get tables. This week: Billy Caruso of Easy Tiger and 24 Diner.
[Photo: Raymond Thompson/EATX]
When Andrew Curren's Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden finally opened in January, it was after months and months of anticipation from a city of eaters anxious to see what the Top Chef veteran and 24 Diner executive chef would come up with. And now the restaurant group is working on a another new project--Arro.
The group's Beverage and Events Director Billy Caruso is one of Curren's key partners in their restaurant endeavors, and he's been along for the ride the whole way. In this edition of Gatekeepers, Caruso talks to Eater Austin about demanding celebrities (we're looking at you, Kanye), managing two very different restaurants and what guests can expect at country French-inspired Arro.
Where are you from? What's your background in the food industry?
I’m an Austinite. I’ve been in Austin since I was in the 4th grade. I went to middle school and high school in Lake Travis. From there I went straight on to New York, went to the Culinary Institute of America and graduated with a BA in hotel and restaurant management and occupational studies. Kind of toward the middle of my bachelor program at the CIA I started to switch gears a little bit. From behind the scenes kitchen to the front of house thing. A lot of that had to do with food and beverages and wine. I got really, really big into wine. Towards the end of my bachelor program I started delving into that a lot. Then I became a certified sommelier after I graduated from the CIA. I was Italy for a little bit, for about four or five months, just kind of traveling around. Tasting the world, if you will. From there I came back to Austin and went more front of the house.
I was working at III Forks for a little bit, jumping into the wine knowledge thing and my sommelier experience, my knowledge that I had. I got a little more comfortable with interesting bottles of wine. From there I was the sommelier and am at Paggi House, then I got in a really nasty motorcycle accident and was out of commission for two years. I was studying and bedridden. From there Bob, the original owner of Paggi House, approached me with the concept, kind of a cool upscale diner. From there, I started working on the mock menu and beverage menu. I had known Andrew [Curren] from school from the Culinary Institute of America. Called him up and I knew he was coming back to town, and that was that. We opened 24 Diner.
24 Diner and Easy Tiger are related, right? And now you've got a third place opening up north.
It’s the same restaurant group. Me and Andrew are partners in the group, but there are five of us that are really involved in day-to-day operations. The restaurant group opened with the construction of 24 Diner. From there we opened Easy Tiger and we split our time between those right now before we open the new French restaurant.
What's it like running 24 Diner versus Easy Tiger?
They’re completely different animals. 24 Diner is a beast. It’s more like a well-oiled machine at this point. 24 Diner is very food-centric. It’s very hospitality driven. Not that Easy Tiger isn’t hospitality driven. But it’s very food-oriented. Walking around making sure guests are completely and absolutely amazed at all of the food, and we go above and beyond all expectations for our food 24 Diner. So it’s really making sure that they have everything they need. And that they’re as happy as possible. And the beverage list is very geeky at 24 Diner. It’s very bottle-oriented, very boutique-y beers. Small batch stuff. But the percentage of beverage sales over there is like, 20 percent, maybe, on a good week. As opposed to Easy Tiger, which is basically a bar. There’s a bakery upstairs. So the challenges are with a lot more alcohol. It’s a lot more, let’s say, you’re tending to children if you will. At 24 Diner it’s a lot more detail orientation, greeting the guests, walking through the day-to-day operations is more restaurant based. As opposed to Easy Tiger which is still a lot of schmoozing and floating around the floor, and making sure the guests are extremely happy but it’s also dealing with a lot more alcohol.
When are you busiest?
Honestly, there’s no way to tell a time that we’re not busy at the Diner, which is a really good problem to have. The late night hours are very similar. We get really, really busy at Easy Tiger and the Diner during the late hours. The Diner gets a really, really big lunch rush. [At Easy Tiger] we’re just starting that lunch rush right now and trying to build that clientele and making sure people know where we are and what we do at Easy Tiger with our lunch. I think the biggest difference, really, is going to be like, after second dinnertime. From 9 to 11:30, we’re really busy at Easy Tiger and 24 Diner has a lull at that point.
And you don't take reservations at 24 Diner. What about Easy Tiger?
Exactly, unless it’s a really large party.
You're definitely destination dining for festival crowds. How do you manage celebrities and still keep locals happy?
That’s funny you asked that. Probably about two SXSW’s ago, it was like two in the morning, and all of a sudden, simultaneously, five Range Rovers pull up, and this guy gets out and he’s like Kanye West wants chicken and waffles. And we’re like, awesome. We’re super excited to have him. As you can see we have a full restaurant. And he said well he wants chicken and waffles now. And you know, my whole thing with celebrities is yes, I love celebrities and I love getting our name out there. But our client base is in Austin. We’re here for the people that come to our restaurants every day. When some celebrity comes in and starts demanding things from us, above and beyond, just because they have a record that sells platinum doesn’t really make a lot of sense to us. We accommodate as much as possible with people like that. Like, Bill Murray came in during SXSW. Super awesome, sat at the bar, had lunch. We didn’t have to do anything special for him because he was happy with what we normally do. We just did something with Jimmy Cliff during SXSW, he wanted a really awesome fish dish and Andrew was really happy to accommodate him and do something fun and awesome because he was so nice and generous and just a real human being. When people go above and beyond and demand this and that because of who they are, that’s not kind of how we fly.
Will Easy Tiger be packed during SXSW next year, too? Will the Cooking Channel come back?
We’re definitely going to do that. That was not SXSW-sanctioned. That was something we did this big deal with Food Network. They’re awesome. We’ve really created an awesome relationship with them and it’s definitely probably going to happen next year as well. With SXSW, the music part, unfortunately, we will not be a SXSW music venue next year. We’re going to do more like what we do with 24 Diner. I feel like we accomplish more when we can arrange everything and coordinate everything do what we like to do with our style and our hospitality and not worry about somebody else coming in and taking over our space.
What will Arro be like?
It’s funny you asked, I would say it’s a completely different animal. 24 is very casual. Easy Tiger is very casual. You know, Arro will be casual but it’s going to have a little more of a fine dining feel to it. A little more, you know, service-driven I guess is the word for it. It’s going to have a lot more detail orientation with all the service and all the mechanics that go throughout the process. A very extensive French wine list. Lots of kind of schmoozy cocktails. The food is going to be very rustic and raw and very country French, but that doesn’t stop Andrew from going above and beyond all expectations when it comes to flavor profiles and execution.
What's it like getting to manage some of the city's most popular and respected restaurants, and working with Andrew Curren, whose celebrity seems to grow ever larger?
I think it’s awesome. I think we have worked really, really hard to be where we are. Andrew’s worked at some really great restaurants. I’ve been really pounding at this. I’ve known what I wanted to do for a long time and I’m very happy with all of our success and I couldn’t be more happy with everyone’s help and with Austin embracing these restaurants. I’m extremely happy with how everything’s been going. We’ve had amazing success and a lot of it has to do with our staff. Our staff has been through the trenches with us through the openings and the changes we’ve made. They’ve hung in there with us. Our young managers have stuck with us and gone above and beyond expectations and helped us out and made sure that we’re doing everything we’re supposed to with the expectations that we’ve set.
[Photo: courtesy Billy Caruso]