Top Chef alum Eli Kirshtein opened The Luminary, his French-American brasserie, a little more than a year ago, becoming the first tenant in business at Krog Street Market. In the 12-plus months since, the development has seen three more full-service restaurants open, along with several smaller food stalls. All put together, it's an environment that most restaurants in Atlanta don't experience. Here, Kirshtein discusses The Luminary's first year, what it's like to be a part of Krog Street Market, what he hopes for the future, and more.
What are your general thoughts on the first year at The Luminary, and the first year of owning a restaurant?
It's been cool because we've had so many layers of transition. We were the first thing open in the market, and we were in a construction site for five months. We had that first kind of entity of being an independent, free-standing restaurant in a less-than-ideal location. Then the market opened in December, and now the honeymoon phase has faded away and we're in the traditional slow time of the year, so we're able to be more established in our identity in who we are and what we do, as opposed to still trying to figure out how to unlock the back door.
How are things different from when The Luminary was a restaurant on its own, compared to now that it's part of a big development?
We were, almost without a question, just a destination restaurant. With the market, there are so many people who are just walking around going "what's that?" and they go in and get a drink. Or they just come in with a plan to eat dinner, but they don't know exactly where they're going to go, and then they come and eat here. That's a pretty common theme across the market. So it's interesting. When we first opened, we felt like everybody who was in the market knew our story, knew what we were doing, knew who we were. Now we get a lot of people who it's their first time in Krog Street Market — "I don't know anything about this place. What is this? What is that?" — which is cool.
It's still a continually evolving thing. With Greg Best and Paul [Calvert] still under construction — they're about to open, other things are about to open. So there are going to be all these new draws, and the whole energy of the market's going to continue to change for a while. We've got probably another year before it's going to be totally open. So we're still preparing ourselves to be aware of those changes.
Was choosing Krog Street Market, as opposed to a free-standing location, a good decision?
Yeah, you know there are always going to be challenges being in the market, but there are also challenges being free-standing. In general we love all of our neighbors, we like like to collaborate with them, we work well with them. We get a lot of our chocolate from [neighboring chocolate shop Xocolatl]. It's been good because it's almost like an artist commune of people being able to work together — hey, somebody needs a cup of sugar, they show up at our door; hey, I need and onion, I show up at their door. It works out really well like that. Being somebody in the neighborhood, I still cherish what it's done for the neighborhood. Obviously there have been plenty of headaches about parking and traffic and all that stuff, but the reality is that it's been a great change. It's been a good, positive thing for the neighborhood.
Since this is the first restaurant you've opened, what unexpected challenges have come up in the last year?
Everybody prepares you for everything, plus my closest confidants and mentors have always given me a lot of advice. It's the things that everybody tells you about, but you don't really realize. First is obviously staffing. Everybody talks about how there's a dearth of staff in Atlanta, and it's true. It's hard to keep good people. A lot of people are willing to move restaurants for a quarter, and there's not a lot of great staff out there. I don't think that's because we don't have great people. I think there are so many restaurants that it's hard to staff them all.
The second big thing is that we were never prepared to be as busy as we were when we first opened. We were like, "Hey, we're going to be busy," but come December, when you open the doors and they are flooding in until you're locking the doors at the end of the night — it was a lot. But we've grown into it, we've learned a lot from that. Now that we've come into that slightly slower season, we're able to refine systems a lot more to get to this winter.
Has anything been easier than you expected?
We don't take anything for granted. Every day we find every customer very precious. We don't disregard or shit on or look down on anyone who comes in the door. We fight very hard to make sure everybody, every staff member is pumped up and excited about everyone in the dining room. And we don't ever see problem customers. We see some people who require a little more attention, but always try to see their perspective. Sometimes people are wanting to be difficult and argumentative, and our job is to not sit there and bitch about that. Our job is to try to make these people happy and leave going, "You know what, everything that I had a problem with, they fixed." We're really focused every day on saying if something's easy, we can do it better. We don't ever look at anything as easy.
You had a couple of positive early reviews from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta Magazine, and then a negative review from Creative Loafing. How do respond and come back from the negative review?
There are always a couple of realities that we see about these things, and you've got to take the highs and the lows. There are plenty of people who wrote great reviews of this, great reviews of that, and then there are people who write negative things. And you kind of have to get rid of the very high, get rid of the very low, and find out what's in the middle. I got some very, very wise information from a couple of friends, which is: First, you know when they're right. Don't be arrogant enough to say, "I don't agree with anything you said. Everything we do is awesome." The second thing is, look for patterns. If everybody says one dish sucks, it probably sucks. If everybody says one dish is awesome, except for one person, it's probably just fine.
We took a lot from what [Creative Loafing critic Jennifer Zyman] wrote, and we took the things we thought she was right about, and tried to do our best to change them. We take all reviews as advice, rather than criticism. "Keep doing this, you should work on this." I don't let those things phase me, because the reality is that you have to keep going. You're not going to get a review, and that's the same thing as an eviction notice. You can't treat it like that.
Being a former contestant on a high-profile show like Top Chef does that help or hurt you in any what when you're opening your first restaurant?
It's a blessing and a curse. The first thing is, some people come in just because I was on the show. And that's cool, that's awesome. Then we have other people who want to come in here, and they think they're Padma [Lakshmi] or they think they're Tom Colicchio. I read some Yelp review, and at the end of it was "pack your knives and go, Eli." I was just like "come on, shut up. You look foolish." It's those sorts of things. In terms of preparing you to run a restaurant, no, it doesn't. It doesn't benefit you at all. It should be called Top Cook, not Top Chef. We focus lots on positivity, so when we get someone who's out for blood like "I didn't like you on the show," we just treat them really nice and smile. You just don't let those things bother you.
What do you see for the next year and beyond at The Luminary? How do you want the restaurant to evolve?
I always say restaurants are like kids. As much as you want the thing to be the running back for Georgia, it ends up playing wide receiver at Auburn.* There's nothing you can do about it. The best laid intentions, it's going to transform and become what it is. The customer and the market's going to help define what it's going to be. We just want the restaurant to continue to evolve and become itself. We're never looking to reinvent ourselves, we're always looking to just refresh ourselves. Over the next year, we want to become more stable, more ingrained in the neighborhood than we already are. We want to be that old reliable one. We always want to be that place that, as crazy as it is at the market you'll always be able to come in here and have a nice time.
* - For non-sports fans, The University of Georgia and Auburn University are longtime football rivals. Kirshtein is a fan of Georgia, and the author of this post pulls for Auburn.