By Fredric Koeppel, The Memphis News
Nov. 14, 2011
Grill 83, which has been closed since Oct. 30, reopens Wednesday, Nov. 16, as Eighty3, a name intended to convey a sense of modernity, casual elegance and, yes, fun.
Mohamad Hakimian, managing partner, said, “We wanted to bring a playfulness back to the dining experience by combining a colorful and lively environment with a flexible, interactive and versatile menu.”
I’ll admit that the concepts of “playfulness” and “interactive” don’t typically top my list of criteria for a satisfying dining experience, but I’m willing to give them a go, as long as “fun” doesn’t trump other aspects of eating out such as, you know, food, wine, ambience and service, or am I being just too darned stuffy?
Anyway, unless you’ve been living in a Dumpster for the past month – and sometimes it is indeed good to get away from it all – you will be fully aware of the stealth social media and print ad campaign that led to the opening a month ago of bleu restaurant & lounge, as the dining space in the Westin is now known. After a complete renovation of the interior and bar, with a new chef, Robert Nam Cirillo, on board and a wholly different eclectic menu, bleu stands poised to win the hearts and minds of hotel guests and townies alike, or at least that’s the hope.
Eighty3, likewise, is seeing huge changes in configuration, and that’s appropriate. The problem with Sole, the restaurant that preceded bleu at the Westin, was clueless service. That was never an issue at Grill 83; what made me uncomfortable was the claustrophobic nature of the deep, narrow room which was dominated at the front by the bar, leaving a crowded space further back in which it seemed that no table occupied a desirable position or was immune from the bustle of waiters hurrying by.
“We’re addressing the issues with the dining space in a couple of ways,” said Hakimian. “First, in terms of décor, everything is changing substantially. We are eliminating the Memphis themes and photographs in favor of art that is extremely hip and colorful. There’s a very artistic mural on the back wall, and behind the bar a gorgeous back-lit panel.”
In terms of physical accommodations, the most fundamental change is along the west wall, where tables have been replaced by banquettes, a device that should free up some floor area so that tables aren’t so close together.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t expand the actual size of the restaurant,” Hakimian said. “The lay-out is a given that can’t be changed within the configuration of the building.”
As many restaurants have done during the first years of the 21st century, Eighty3 will eschew strict formality.
“Extreme fine dining is not working in the world now,” said Hakimian. “We’re doing away with white tablecloths and moving to attractive but more casual tabletops.”
The impetus behind the re-imagining that transformed Grill 83 to Eighty3 is common to most restaurants and other kinds of businesses adjusting to the new realities of the American economy.
“We have been open for nine years,” Hakimian said, “and we were successful until two or three years ago when revenue began to go down. To stay competitive in the market, you have to create excitement in the customer base. It’s not enough just to change the menu two or three times a year. We saw this as a great opportunity to create something new and compelling.”
The changes to the restaurant’s culinary concept were produced with the help of Pilot Light, a national consulting firm run by chefs Rodelio Aglibot and Frank Fronda. Aglibot has been in Memphis since September, creating menus and service ideas. Born in the Philippines and reared in Hawaii and California, he brings a unique and widely varied background to restaurant cuisine. His first job, he told me, was being a busboy at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet; now he has cooked in and opened restaurants all over the country, he has a show, “Food Buddha,” on TLC, and he has been partner and corporate executive chef with New York’s BLT Restaurant Group.
“What might be called the secondary markets, outside New York, Chicago, San Francisco, LA, and such, are getting more sophisticated,” Aglibot said. “People are more accepting of different ingredients and different concepts that might lead them away from the traditional fine dining. We call it fun dining, a style that plays to the communal, the shared, the energy-based, highlighting possibilities while creating a dynamic.”
Still, the traditional customer cannot be ignored.
“No,” he said, “the menu now at Eighty3 allows people who want their appetizer, their entrée and dessert served in that order to have what they want. But we want to give people also the chance to be adventurous, to order maybe three or five small plates, to share, to have conversation, to try a lot of things.”
The dynamic in a restaurant is “philosophical and psychological. It’s about creating comfort, gaining trust, so that we can introduce even more eclectic ingredients and ideas. I think people are receptive for anything now.”
Crews work on the interior of Eighty3, formerly Grill 83 in the Madison Hotel. Culinary director Rodelio Aglibot said the restaurant's menu is evolving from fine dining to fun everyday dining.