You've just read an abridged list of restaurants that died expensive and miserable deaths in the heart of downtown West Palm Beach in the past three or four years. They were all within three city blocks on or just off Clematis Street. There are others, but they were so short-lived that I'm hard-pressed to remember their names. There was the Italian place playing Goodfellas clips on a wall of video monitors. The Turkish restaurant. The Latin café with the great Saturday-night dance parties. The Thai-Japanese joint.
With half the roads blown to smithereens while work continues on endless street-scaping, the unanswered question is not "Where shall we go for dinner tonight?" but "Is there anywhere left, and how the hell do we get there?"
Somebody ought to go ahead and rename the street "Tombstone." Just a brief trolley ride away, the upstart mega-entertainment complex CityPlace, with its easy parking and walkable sidewalks, is siphoning off downtown's few remaining customers like gas through a garden hose.
Open a restaurant in downtown West Palm? You'd have to be crazy. And maybe Roy Assad is. Or the Syrian-born West Palm Beach businessman, motivational speaker, and executive coach is a genius. The first time I laid eyes on Assad, he'd stopped by my table as I was finishing a meal of hummus, zucchini koosa, and lamb kebab one night at his year-old restaurant, Leila, on Dixie Highway. The 49-year-old Assad, a handsome, stocky man who moves with compressed energy, was wearing a beautifully tailored dove-gray suit and tie. I'd never have guessed he was finishing an 18-hour workday. Our food had been excellent, the service fine. When Assad stopped at our table to ask if we needed anything, it was clear that what we said actually mattered to him. Assad was special, and we knew it right away.
Assad has opened two terrific restaurants in the heart of the war zone recently -- first the Middle-Eastern Leila in May of last year, at 120 S. Dixie Hwy., and then the French-style bistro L'Opera, at 224 Clematis, this spring -- they're like downtown delegations from East and West.
L'Opera, in the space where Big City Tavern used to be, is an elegantly casual classic French bistro. The menu ranges from burgers and frites to seafood cooked in pastry, from goat cheese tarts to steak tartare. A French chanteuse and a pianist entertain four nights a week. Assad's partner at L'Opera, Cosmo Dischino, owner of a chic local hair salon, is responsible for bringing in a chef from Marseilles, Laurent Loupiac. Assad says he had his first bite of Loupiac's culinary legerdemain at a party Loupiac was catering at Dischino's. "This guy is fantastic," he remarked offhandedly. "He needs his own restaurant."
Lord help him, he got one. Loupiac will eventually become a managing partner in L'Opera. The space and Loupiac's menu are equal parts dramatic and comforting -- it's a huge room with pressed tin ceilings, visceral reds and maroons, and a wall of glass doors that, on balmy nights, erode the distinction between inside and out, here and there.
Leila, a couple of blocks away on Dixie, is one big, lively party. Plates of fava-bean salad, grape leaves, and spiced sausages in wine get passed around. Assad's daughter Audrey comes in sometimes to sing pop tunes while a cousin from California mans the kitchen. A belly dancer is suggestively, sunnily sexy. And an after-dinner smoke from the gigantic hookahs is de rigueur.
Assad speaks in measured phrases, as if every word mattered. His gaze is unwavering. So is his determination to succeed where many a savvy businessperson has floundered. You're not particularly surprised to hear that he arrived in the U.S. at age 18 -- propelled by a mother who wanted him to have a better life -- and taught himself English by watching TV. Nor that he became a top insurance salesman in Manhattan, that he's an astute amateur psychologist, that he's raised three kids in a long-term marriage with his wife, Evelyn, and that he works 16 hour days, seven days a week. It all fits.
As a motivational speaker -- his executive coaching company, the Human Capital Group, is one of four West Palm businesses he runs concurrently from his fourth-floor office in the Comeau building -- he likes to talk about people's "emotional intelligence," to disentangle their fears of risk, to strategize using pithy pop-psyche formulations like "success by design." Couple that with years of sales savvy as a managing partner for RBA Insurance Strategies and as a rep for State Farm and you've got a recipe for... a successful restaurateur?
"Running a restaurant is no different from any other business," Assad assures me. "You just need to understand human psychology. People want to feel respected and to feel needed."
Um, OK, but don't you also need to know a little something about how to, say, reduce a sauce or charbroil a skewer of kebabs? Get a good price from your meat vendor? Remove wine stains from a tablecloth? Compete with a gargantuan entertainment complex a mere six blocks away?
Not at all. Simply apply one of Assad's 49 principles of business: "Work with your unique ability, and delegate the rest."
Assad concedes the competition from CityPlace is tough. The food, he says, is the dead easy part. Assad consulted with his old buddy Keith McNally, the hippest restaurateur in Manhattan, who opened that original and excellent bistro Odeon in the late '80s and who now owns Balthazar, Pastis, and the impossibly trendy Schiller's Liquor Bar. He wrote the book on French bistro cookery -- literally (The Balthazar Cookbook) -- if anybody knows how to spin a mound of pommes frites into gold, it's McNally. With advisers like this, who needs experience?
Drawing on a set of principles that range from results-oriented realism to pop-psych business babble, Assad is pushing hard to get West Palm's downtown moving. He can't do much about the roads, but as chairman of the Downtown Development Authority's Advisory Committee, he's drawn up a ten-point plan to make Clematis Street and CityPlace one culinary destination, rather than what now seem like two separate planets, each with its own language, mores, and dietary habits.
"We're doing it slowly, store by store," he says. "My dream and my vision is to see these two areas completely merged." He has also founded the Downtown Independent Restaurant Group, a consortium of half a dozen restaurants working together to draw new customers. Their first project is to send out a map of downtown -- marking out, among other things, those impossible-to-find parking places -- to residents in a 20-mile radius of the city center. After that, they'll work on opening a downtown marketing office.
Assad spent $700,000 to open Leila. He and Dischino have put about $800,000 into renovations at L'Opera, and Assad says about $200,000 more are needed. They've staked a bundle, and so far, the results aren't clear. "We're still losing money on L'Opera," Assad admits. "It's a big place. But we'll be breaking even by February or March." The more established Leila -- which was jammed both nights we ate there, in April and May -- is, he says, already earning a profit.
Late at night, as the kitchen is closing and the last customers are drifting out of Leila in a lemon- and garlic-scented haze, you'll likely see Assad in relaxation mode on the outdoor patio, smoking a narghile -- a traditional hookah -- loaded with apple-flavored tobacco. He says the pipe is his only vice. "Look, am I overwhelmed? Would I like to work less?" he asks rhetorically. "Of course. But I also know that this can be done. People want an experience. I can imagine a time when we'll be seeing limo after limo pulling up at the restaurants downtown."
He pauses, reflecting. "Do I always want to be the pioneer? Maybe not," he says. "But I believe that leadership does matter."