Hardcore foodies are a relentless bunch, Instagramming their way through the world’s hottest eateries, and that’s why nobody should expect just to walk in and nab a table when Beauty & Essex opens in Los Angeles later this year, adding to its outposts in New York and Las Vegas. The reservation books, as they are at its sister restaurants, are expected to be packed.
The first Beauty & Essex opened six years ago on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and is rhapsodised over to this day. The original manifestation is the embodiment of upscale quirk: the entrance is a working pawnshop, and champagne is served while you wait for the loo in the basement bathroom. So vigorous was enthusiasm for Beauty & Essex when it first opened (an enthusiasm that has continued with subsequent openings) that executive chef Chris Santos knows that he must stay one step ahead of the game. “The larger a restaurant becomes,” he says while overseeing one of his Las Vegas kitchens, “the more you have to come up with a reason for people to come in.”
In May last year, Santos opened a Beauty & Essex at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas hotel. It was five years in the making, and it shows: the place is as lustrous and extravagant as a jewellery box, with indulgent offerings like a Pearl Lounge decorated with 10,000 strands of faux pearls. The walls of the Locket Room are bedecked with vintage lockets. “It’s a very glam decor,” says Santos. “Lots of jewellery references, which are in a way a play on the original pawnshop [in New York]. It’s something that’s very potent; part of the Las Vegas culture. There’s a lot of energy here.”
For someone who has been in the restaurant business since his early teens (Santos washed pots at an eatery near his home in Bristol, Rhode Island, when he was 13), the 45-year-old is perhaps best known for the Beauty & Essex brand, which is part of the respected Tao Group. Santos cultivated his culinary tastes by travelling around Europe on graduation from college, at a French-inspired restaurant in Boston, and then at the celebrated Time Cafe in New York, where he eventually became executive chef. In 2005, he struck out on his own by opening The Stanton Social, also in the Big Apple (it was one of the first contemporary eateries at the time to offer a multicultural small plates concept). Santos is also a frequent guest on the Food Network show Chopped.
Like many celebrated chefs, Santos is committed to Las Vegas, an ardent fan of that city’s vibrant food scene, and mindful that he is catering to a global market at his restaurant there. The Vegas scene is not so much about exploring different food cultures as about flocking to the newest, the latest and the hottest. “Our business in Las Vegas is very much tourist-driven,” he says. “In New York, our core audience is New Yorkers. That’s not the case in Vegas, where our guests are from all over the world. They don’t come here to relax or to sit on the beach. They come to gamble, dine, drink. There’s so much competition it’s mind-boggling – the amount of quality restaurants from well-known brands that are here. But people are choosing us for the variety of our menu; maybe also from the notoriety of my being on TV.”
The startling decor of Santos’s restaurants is one thing. Ultimately, however, the menu is the big thing. The Raw Bar offers tomato tartare with sunny-side-up quail egg and Parmesan crostini, or you could share a platter of chilli-salted shishito peppers with fresh mint and lime. Desserts include a frozen apple cider shot with Concord grape foam.
Santos says he is motivated by the calibre of other chef-helmed restaurants in the city, including those at the same hotel (where José Andrés and David Chang have hung up shingles). “There’s really such quality that motivates you and drives you to be better,” he says. “People have so much choice and opportunity, and they don’t have to go out of their way to find [great cuisine]. It leads to an interesting and kind of competitive thing that keeps you on your toes.”
For the upcoming Los Angeles restaurant, Santos says the concept will be “70 percent Las Vegas in menu and decor”. He adds, “We strive to bring something unique to each host city, to continue being exciting. We are opening in large cities where people may tend to travel to, and we have to build something that’s familiar and exciting.”
What won’t change is the extravagance of the menu – in quantity, not necessarily in prices, although Beauty & Essex is hardly a budget eatery. Santos likes to offer six categories within his menus, each one encompassing up to 10 items. Still, everything feels compact and never chaotic. “Everything seems to work,” he says. “Our concept is of the shared table, which encourages a social way to experience the food. The categories are so diverse, and so are the guests. We have little crudos, and a 40-day dry-aged rib eye. And a bunch of guys in after a basketball game and a group of young women for a birthday.”
The chef says that while restaurants can build their reputations and business models on their menus, just as valuable is that elusive thing called ambience.
“Having the right atmosphere is something I’ve striven to do,” Santos says. “Menus can always evolve, and they change as the market determines, but a building that you build from scratch will always be that way. You have to work with a great designer, and it’s an exhaustive process, and you have to think about everything, down to the fabric of the banquette, the wall coverings, the areas that are not even accessible to guests. The building itself has to stand the test of time.
“It’s one thing to fill a 40-seat restaurant, quite another to fill one with 400 seats. Guests have to feel like they made the right choice by being here, and they want to come back. The food is one thing, but the look, feel and vibe … that’s a very close second.”