Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The flaky branzino, a delicate Mediterranean sea bass, was cooked to crispy perfection, the house-made squid ink pasta and gnocchi delicious. Now those diner’s favorites are gone, servers have moved on, and the restaurant where the gourmet dishes appeared on the nightly menu is closed for good.
Acclaimed San Antonio Chef Andrew Weissman announced in April he was shuttering Il Sogno Osteria after nine years in the culinary destination that is the Pearl. It's his second restaurant after Sandbar to close in a development he helped pioneer.
Il Sogno's closure raises questions about homegrown, upscale restaurants' shelf lives and how they stack up against corporate competitors and more casual concepts.
“Restaurants have seasons, and while it has been a long and successful run, I feel like the season of Il Sogno has come to end,” Weissman said in a media release. The four-time James Beard finalist famously opened, and closed in 2009, Le Rêve, at the time considered one of the best 10 restaurants in the country.
“People always associate closures with having a lack of business which hasn’t been the case in any of my restaurants,” Weissman told the Rivard Report Saturday. “Le Rêve is a good example – it was there for over 11 years, but it required me to be there literally 14 hours a day, seven days a week, even though we were closed Mondays.
"I knew that with kids – my wife was pregnant with our first – I just don’t want this kind of lifestyle. Even back then, people were like he must never have been able to sustain the business. Which isn’t true. When we closed, we had a three-month wait.”
Il Sogno could have continued “forever,” he added. The restaurant was always busy, even on weekdays. It’s no longer about the money, though, “Like the restaurant scene at large, I as a person and professional restauranteur, have to evolve, too," he said. "So the question I always ask myself is, ‘Is this the type of restaurant I would open if I were to open it today?' It’s not.”
Weissman continues to run, in other parts of the city, the more casual Big’z Burger Joint, The Luxury, Sip, and Moshe’s Golden Falafel. Weissman's second Moshe's location on East Houston Street downtown closed in July 2017 after only 10 months of operation.
Weissman's fine-dining concept – Signature at the La Cantera Resort and Spa – opened in fall 2016. He said it, too, is busy every night of the week, with reservations often booked 10 days out, and mostly with locals, not resort guests. When it comes to upscale dining, Weissman feels people are willing to pay a higher price as long as they are getting a quality product.
“I don’t think San Antonio is different from anywhere else,” he said. “… It doesn’t look like the end is in sight for dining options in San Antonio. It will continue to grow and expand.”
Whether it's location or cuisine concept, local chefs and restaurant business experts say myriad factors determine whether a restaurant will be sustainable and profitable.
Chef Jason Dady, known for a number of both successful and retired concepts in San Antonio, recently announced he will close the 10-year-old Tre Trattoria on Broadway next month and relocate a refreshed version of the Tuscan-Italian restaurant to the San Antonio Museum of Art.
He also has plans to turn the Barcelona-style Bin Tapas Bar on East Grayson Street, home to a growing number of eateries and bars, into Alamo Barbecue Co., a spin-off of his sister concepts Two Bros. BBQ Market and B&D Ice House.
“Why fight what the market wants?” Dady said.
The first iteration of the tapas bar, Bin 555, was in the Alley on Bitters on the city's Northside. That location eventually became the quirky pan-Asian Umai Mi and is currently the trattoria's sister restaurant, Tre Enoteca.
In 2011, when Dady closed his first concept The Lodge, housed in a 1930s estate house in Castle Hills, he remarked that "fine dining is dead, and I don’t want to see it go under.”
He now says that wasn’t completely accurate. “I don’t know that fine dining is the problem,” Dady said. “But San Antonio has got to do a better job of eating out on [weekdays]. That would solve 99 percent of the problem.”
For that reason, restaurant reviewer Julia Rosenfeld, who arranges tastings for tourists through her business, Food Chick Tours, always books her foodie tours on those slower days. She said her customers are “blown away” by the San Antonio food scene. “We have incredible chefs here, we really do,” she said.
But if restaurants seem more casual, at least in atmosphere and attire, Rosenfeld said that doesn’t mean the food’s not quality – fine dining has just been redefined. She cited the Pearl's Peruvian-Asian eatery Botika at the Pearl – preceded in location by modern American concept Arcade – as an example. And no restaurant necessarily wants to be the “special occasion-only” place.
Casual concepts that bring diners to the table more often might help. But according to most industry experts, all restaurants are struggling with rising operational costs in an industry where margins are tight and customer expectations high.
Nationwide in 2017, the number of commercial restaurants fell 2 percent from the previous year. A census by market research firm NPD Group found that the number of independent restaurants dropped by 3 percent, while the unit count for chains remained flat. The majority of restaurants that closed were sit-down establishments.
Increasing labor costs are partly to blame, according to Kevin Alexander, who writes about the restaurant and bar industry. In a December 2016 story for Thrillist, Alexander said a restaurant bubble is about to burst and restaurant-goers should understand why.
“Rising labor costs, rent increases, a pandemic of similar restaurants, demanding customers unwilling to come to terms with higher prices – it's the Perfect Restaurant Industry Storm,” he wrote. And, “For the average city diner, the bubble bursting will have very real consequences.”
Predicting that many sit-down restaurants will become special occasion-only, he also suggests others could turn into “hip iterations of fast-casual restaurants, with smaller menus, counter service, and a skeleton crew of front- and back-of-the-house staff.”
But Hinnerk von Bargen, professor of culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in San Antonio, believes upscale dining isn’t going away, even in this city. Such restaurants, he said, set the gold standard. Today, however, the atmosphere and dress code are more relaxed, and the focus is on the food.
“San Antonio is historically relatively casual, and we’re not known for fine dining. What we are famous for is Mexican food,” said von Bargen, who came to San Antonio in 1999 via the CIA’s Hyde Park campus and a lengthy chef's career he was born into through his family’s cafe in Germany. He also helps his wife, owner of Ming’s Thing restaurant, a casual noodle bar housed in a repurposed train car in Olmos Park.
“We have Mixtli, which is very contemporary Mexican fine dining," von Bargen said of the award-winning restaurant in the train car next to Ming's. "… But again, the atmosphere is casual. It’s also a relatively novel thing – about 20 years ago, you wouldn’t hear Mexican and fine dining in the same sentence.”
The evolution of the culinary scene in San Antonio is “breathtaking,” he said, and it still has that small-town feel where many of the chefs know and support one another.
Yet Brian West, a former owner of barbecue restaurant Smoke, CIA professor, and operational chef on the Food Network show Restaurant Impossible, said he sees restaurants close left and right. “I think it’s just a really tough business,” he said. “Fine dining is highly competitive, and guests are looking for the coolest, next-best thing.”
San Antonio’s strongest restaurant business segment is in the middle range, West said. “Because we do have Tex-Mex, and I love Tex-Mex. But I think you can get a highly satisfying meal and feel like you had a good experience for a middle-range price,” he said. “And that might be part of the problem.”
The other issue West comes across in his restaurant consulting business is operators who struggle with managing the business side of a restaurant and smartly prioritizing their time, or who don’t invest enough in marketing. He applauded Mazi Enti, the owner of Scuzzi Italian Grill on the city's far Northside, and Silo and La Fogata restaurants’ Patrick Richardson, as some of the sharpest restaurant owners in the city, and said that’s what gives them staying power.
Chef Johnny Hernandez is another of San Antonio’s prolific restaurant owners, with La Gloria at the Pearl and two other locations, The Fruteria, Burgerteca, other restaurants in other cities, plus a catering business. He is currently developing one restaurant at Brooks and another at La Villita, and writing a book. Next week, he will represent San Antonio, along with Chef Elizabeth Johnson of PharmTable, at a food festival in Spain’s Canary Islands.
Whether his hometown of San Antonio can support elevated dining is a complex question to answer, Hernandez said. Some restaurants persist because they are run by a committed family for generations, some because their concept is “evergreen,” like a traditional steakhouse.
But, as trends come and go, smart restaurant operators can and should shift to meet the demand. For instance, he said, millennials are demanding lower prices and better quality. But that comes at a cost.
“One thing is for sure, if our city wants locally owned restaurants, and they want quality, innovation, new experiences, and expect to be wowed, the latest trends, there’s a cost to doing all those things,” Hernandez said. “San Antonio is a very humble city. We are a taco culture, and if we ever aspire to continue to move in that positive direction, our customer needs to grow with us and understand … there’s a cost to all those things.”
He believes the prices on most restaurants' menus have not kept pace with costs. “Mom-and-pop” restaurants within a neighborhood might be able to operate that way, but not those that want to exist in high-traffic places like the Pearl, La Cantera, or the Rim.
“The rent is high there, and that may be justified or not, but who can afford that?” Hernandez said. National chains with their centralized administration and management may be able to absorb high rents, “but if you want innovation, vibrant, eclectic, interesting, organic, and local, then these developers need to understand the differences. A lot of them do … but sometimes operators are the ones who need to do better job of really being very astute in how we manage finances of our business. And that’s a whole other career mindset.”
Students at the CIA are learning those management lessons along with their knife skills, von Bargen said, and come this fall, they will be putting them into practice with a new restaurant where Weissman's Sandbar was once located at the Pearl. The formerly student-run Nao Restaurant will have a new owner.