However you care to measure it, Caffé Dante, in Greenwich Village, is about as successful as a bar can be.
They’re nearly always busy, for one. Culturally it’s practically required reading, one of the small handful of necessary New York cocktail bars. To call it critically celebrated would be an understatement: In 2019 it was awarded “Best Bar in the World” by both the Spirited Awards and the Worlds 50 Best, which is the only time that’s ever happened. It is, in short, a New York institution, so when they announced their newest location would be opening some 3,000 miles west of MacDougal St, in the opulent Maybourne Hotel in Beverly Hills, expectations were high.
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Dante is just the latest in the string of legendary east coast bars building their brands by expanding to new cities. The first of the modern era was Employee’s Only which, after twelve years in NYC’s West Village, opened a second location in Singapore in 2016. The next year, Attaboy opened in Nashville. Then PDT in Hong Kong. Dead Rabbit is expanding this year to both New Orleans and Austin. Los Angeles alone has seen openings of Employee’s Only, Death & Co., Broken Shaker, NoMad, and now Dante.
Some concepts are tailor-made for expansion. No one is surprised when a Shake Shack opens nearby, that’s what Shake Shake is designed for. But to the extent that these bars have established a brand for themselves, they’ve done it on the back of hospitality, creativity, and superlative quality, which are all exceptional and highly personal attributes. How do you franchise that?
David Kaplan laughs a little at the question. “The easy and honest answer to almost anything in hospitality is that it’s phenomenally challenging,” he says. Kaplan is the founder and co-owner of Death & Co., the celebrated East Village cocktail den, which spread to Denver in 2018, Los Angeles in 2019, and Washington D.C. this past July. “I say more and more around our company that what we do is just really hard. It’s also really fun and rewarding. But this is difficult. And let’s just acknowledge that, and then let’s get to work.”
“It’s no garden walk,” says Dante’s owner Linden Pride, “We built these businesses on our backs. It’s a big labor of love.” Pride has temporarily relocated to Los Angeles, where a recent Monday night saw him on the floor shaking hands, bussing tables, and running food. His wife and kids go back to New York when the school year starts, but he says he’ll possibly be in L.A. through the end of the year. “Could be longer,” he says, “I don’t know.” Similarly, when Attaboy aimed to expand to Nashville, managing partner Brandon Bramhall permanently relocated from New York to Tennessee, and Employee’s Only has embedded a leader in both cities to which they expanded. When you’re trying to instill a culture of excellence, you can’t just email a training manual.
Beverly Hills is actually Dante’s third location. For their second one, cultural continuity was relatively simple, as it opened a brief 12-minute walk from the door of the first. Obviously, this is a more difficult problem in Beverly Hills, and Pride’s answer was to literally bring the New York staff with him. He brought out one representative of each position, like a cultural Noah’s Ark: a bartender, a bar prep, a server, a chef, and a maitre’d. “The idea is that we have a key person in each department that can embody or translate the culture of service, or lead by example,” he says.
For their part, Death and Co. does quality control a slightly different way. As consultants they’ve helped to open over 50 bars across the country, experiences which they’ve used to sharpen their extensive systems. “We’re a company that is relatively process obsessed,” says Kaplan. When opening a Death & Co., the staff gets exhaustive, multi-week, multi-phase training: Paperwork, hands-on quizzes, drills, mock service, classics, cocktail creation, and so on. The cocktails are crucial, obviously: The opening menu is made by the national team, to give the local employees the experience working with that style of drinks. Then, when it’s time for a seasonal update, it will be up to the local staff to provide the ideas, with the national team providing an assisting and advisory role in the creative process. The particular blend of top-down leadership and bottom-up encouragement is unique to each of these brands, and each needs to find their own way. “It’s a fantastically complicated business,” Kaplan says. “It’s so dependent on the people within it.”
It can be difficult to maintain brand identity across so many different variables, which is why the owners of these places tend to describe it ineffably: Kaplan talks about trying to create a “timelessness,” and looks for spaces “hiding in plain sight.” Superficially the rooms can be quite different, but culture and style of hospitality hopefully unites them. “One of our core principles is that it looks like a party when you walk in,” says Richard Knapp, managing partner of Mother’s Ruin. Mother’s Ruin expanded from New York to Nashville in 2019 and Chicago in 2022, and all three bars feel like what would happen if you put a mannered cocktail bar and a raucous neighborhood spot into a particle accelerator and smashed them together at the speed of light. “It can look like a madhouse when you walk in,” he says, “but underneath that, the staff and the structure are rock solid. We’re doing the work that allows the party to happen.”
Of Dante, Pride says, “A lot of people have said to us that the feeling in the room [of Beverly Hills] is similar to the feeling in the room in New York, and to me, that’s the ultimate compliment.” He says that Dante has always been about trying to create a transportative moment for the guests, whether they’re stepping off the sidewalk chaos of Greenwich Village or off an elevator onto the breezy ninth floor rooftop of a luxury hotel. “If we can create an environment where people love coming to work, and they’re proud of the product, and that filters into the culture and the guests feel that, then that’s everything,” he says, “that’s what Dante is about.”
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