2/15/2013 11:43:00 AM

Michael McCarty on His New Menu, Staying Afloat in the Recession and Power Lunches

Restaurateur to the stars Michael McCarty has been in the business 34 years, first with his original Santa Monica outpost of Michael's and, later, opening the NYC location in 1989. Over the years, his eateries have become power-lunch mainstays, boasting celebrity clientele on both coasts. Recently, after serving up his California-inspired cuisine the same way for decades, he decided to change up the menu at both locations, modernizing it, adding small-plates options and making it more accessible to a younger audience. We chatted to the always entertaining McCarty about the new menu, the power lunch scene and more. Check it out below.

Zagat: Tell me about the new menu at Michaels NY - what inspired you to change it for the first time ever?

MM: We began a big study in 2010. I went to all the great food cities in America - Chicago, Boston, San Francisco - and really got a handle on where the world was going and came back and put together that menu. So I came back and said, "The [small plates] trend really is here to stay - it’s a paradigm shift."
The new menu was very well thought out, and the way people are embracing it is incredible. We did the same thing in LA back in October and it did exactly what I wanted it to do - it brings in my existing customers on a more regular basis and also, through word of mouth, a whole other set of new customers that wouldn't have come here otherwise.

Zagat: Did the recent recession influence the menu changes you made this year?

MM: In LA in 1992, we had a terrible recession, accompanied by a lot of natural disasters. We had fires, earthquakes and mudslides. It was the first recession to ever hit California. I had just opened in New York, and I happened to open up in one of the worst recessions that ever hit New York. We adapted, bobbing and weaving and adjusting. We had such a stellar clientele on both coasts that it just kind of trained us. We adapted to be much more accessible rather than the traditional three-course deal.

In 2008, I told my staff here in NY, "Guys, gals, we’re in it." At the same time, we had what we didn’t have back in ‘92 - this time I realized that when we made it through, the same clientele was in existence. We realized with the advent of the mixology program and the bar bites that the most important thing was the changing of the generation. People don't want six bites of the same thing, they want six bites of six different things. 

Zagat: What other changes have you had to make over the years to keep the restaurants relevant?

MM: Well, in LA we completely redid it. We are no longer an LA restaurant - we are a Santa Monica restaurant. And so therefore we adapted - we got rid of tablecloths, we got rid of bread, flowers on the table. It's all still very elegant because of the garden, but we renovated the upstairs, we put in another bar. I’ve always been very involved in the art world, my wife’s a painter. As for NYC, we’re a Midtown restaurant: we left the tablecloths and flowers, but we changed up the menu, so it’s sort of like the hybrid that it should be. I tell this to my managers: it’s like being a sailor. You have to know how to sail in a gale, and you can sail in a dead calm and everything in between. 

Zagat: What percentage of your guests are regulars compared to 10-15 years ago?

MM:  I would say that the vast majority are regulars, and that again, they’re Midtown-based people, many staying in the St. Regis, the Warwick, the Waldorf. We have a lot of customers that we call this the trifecta - if you come and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in the same day you’re a gold star. Right now we are just in the opening salvo. And it’s really cool because in LA we’re in the third month, where everything has worked, and has done exactly what I hoped it would do. It brought in all these new people - it’s made our existing customers able to come in a few times a week. You don't want people to come once a year - you want people to come twice a week.

Zagat: How was the power lunch scene changed in the last 25 years?

MM: It’s just gotten better - that’s the reason that we opened up for breakfast, because again we realized we're in Midtown Manhattan and that everybody from this generation went Downtown for dinner and now they were here in the morning working. With the disappearance of the three-martini lunch, they get up early and they work all day. We do 150 breakfasts a day here. Lunch is exactly the same, people call us a media canteen and when we do dinner parties, we seat people next to other people strategically. The seating is is extremely important here, and it goes through 4-5 drafts before we open and then one more before we open.

Zagat: Would you ever open another restaurant?

MM: No. I made that decision, a long time ago. I really love my lifestyle in NY and LA. I love going around and talking to people, and keeping my two homes, and throwing a party every day. I don’t make the money that my peers do. I don’t really give a sh*t about going to Abu Dhabi. It’s a lifestyle choice that I made.


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