It’s been six years since Neal and Amy Fraser decided to open their restaurant Redbird in the former rectory of the St. Vibiana, a historic cathedral in downtown Los Angeles. (The name is an homage to the cardinals who once lived there.) After prolonged development, involving extensive construction and preservation, they opened the doors in December with a dining room and menu every bit as rich and diverse as the neighborhood they serve.
To open a restaurant in a religious landmark is a massive undertaking; to do so with your spouse and business partner adds another layer of ambition. Building on what they learned from past ventures, including BLD and the now-shuttered Grace, the Frasers have created a restaurant that expertly represents the creativity, energy and revitalization occurring in downtown Los Angeles today.
We sat down with Amy and Neal to learn the story behind the project — discovering the space, experimenting with the menu, and how they make the ultimate partners through a strong, shared vision.
You’ve been in business together for how long?
Amy: 18 years.
Neal: Which in married life is, like, 70 years.
How does it work? I feel like I would…
Amy: Kill your spouse? Yeah. Sometimes it gets to that point, but most of the time it works out really well. Neal and I are pretty much the same person at our core, but it’s all the other layers that are different. We complement each other, and we respect each other’s strengths.
Neal: I think Amy’s always respected my strengths and I’ve learned over the years how to respect her strengths more. That’s probably been our biggest learning curve, is allowing her to do what she does so much better than I would, without getting involved.
Amy: We certainly also have our domains. Neal’s is the kitchen and the food, and he has the last word over all of that. Of course, I will offer my opinion if he asks, to be supportive. And then everything else is mine: front of the house and service and design. And of course he’ll offer his opinion, but I always have the last word.
But you share the same vision?
Neal: For the most part, yeah.
Amy: I allow the food vision to be his, and the room vision and the service vision is really mine. And Neal is more involved with the cocktails than I am. I trust your palate more than mine.
Can you tell us about the vision for both the space and the food?
Amy: I think every single project is site-specific. There was a lot here already to work with, and we wanted to make sure we honored what was existing without dominating it with too much design. We wanted it to feel like it had always been here, very authentic.
How did you find this space?
Amy: It’s funny. 2006 is when [Vibiana] was opened as an event venue, and I didn’t hear about it until 2008. We did this terribly boring catered event here for IBM. And I walked into the cathedral to do a walk-through the first time and I was blown away. Like, oh my God, I can’t believe this is in our city.
So you had Vibiana first?
Amy: We were their preferred caterer for a few years. So I was given a tour of this building, the rectory building, at the time, and the woman showing me said, “We’re looking for a restaurant to go in here.” I stopped and I got chills, and I thought, we have to do this.
That’s when we started pursuing it. That was 2008. It’s been a long time coming. Our partners ended up buying into half the property, so we took over operations of the entire facility at the end of 2012. So we’ve been here since then, about two and a half years. And then we finally got to start up the restaurant about a year and a half ago.
That is a long time. Did downtown L.A. have something to do with it? It seems like it’s really revitalizing.
Amy: We’ve always loved downtown L.A. This whole revitalization that’s been going on is super cool. But even five years ago, when we first were here — it’s changed so much since then. There’s such great energy. It’s really diverse.
We really felt like downtown was craving a little more sophistication than what was here. I think that’s why Bottega Louie does so well. It feels cosmopolitan, and I think Angelenos really want that because it’s sort of lacking in our city. In New York or San Francisco, everything feels cosmopolitan.
Has that vision thread through the whole focus, even with the staff and the level of service?
Amy: Absolutely. Our idea of hospitality is really simple. We have several different concepts, so it’s several different styles of service — but at the end of the day we’re in the business of making people feel good.
I say to my servers, before you do anything, ask yourself: how will this impact the guest? If it’s in a bad way then you certainly don’t do it; if it’s in a good way then you certainly do do it, and if you don’t know then you need to check with your manager and discuss it. We really don’t ever want to be pretentious or stuffy. We don’t want to be fine dining.
There’s a really comfortable energy here.
Amy: You should be able to come in dressed in shorts if you want or dressed to the nines if you want. At the end of the day you’re here to be with the people you’re sitting across from and to enjoy food and have a dining experience.
This is what we did at Grace, too. This feels a little more casual; Grace ended up being a little more formal than we anticipated.
What made it so?
Amy: I don’t know if it was the design, or…
Neal: The rug we had in the middle of the room? I don’t know. The tablecloths?
Amy: It’s funny.
Neal: It was a very different time. The general aesthetic of what seemed fancy then and what seems fancy now is completely different. There’s Michelin three-star restaurants that don’t have tablecloths. The whole world has kind of opened up to how service works and how you’ve gone from super elaborate to not-so-elaborate and still be as well-respected in the same breath. You don’t have to be amazingly complex to be endeared by your clientele.
Is that how you really approach the food?
Neal: Generally how I cook is somewhere between molecular gastronomy and Cro-Magnon food. Caveman meets a Martian. I want to cover all of that as a gamut of how I cook and the techniques we use to cook. Some stuff is amazingly technical, and some stuff is a piece of meat grilled on a grill and put on a plate. Some mushrooms on top, with some balsamic. All of those are appreciated. It doesn’t have to be a turducken — goat stuffed inside of a camel stuffed inside of a quail for people to say, wow, that was amazing.
Amy: You also cook with a certain amount of irreverence. You like to break the rules.
Neal: Yeah. There’s a lot of restaurants right now that are like, we’re serving Viennese food from only the first 14 streets west of the canal. And this is the only kind of food we’re doing. It’s got to be sourced from Venice, Italian artisan, we’re only using this flour…
Amy: Neal’s all over the place.
Neal: I like to cook globally. I like to have it have my own style, but I also want it to be organic to Los Angeles. We live in one of the most culturally eclectic cities in the world. Why shouldn’t the food that we serve here reflect that? We’re a block and a half away from City Hall — I really wanted to represent that.
This is the blank canvas that I get to paint on, and I get to paint whatever I want. I didn’t exactly know how well that would be received, for us to have pastas and a sashimi dish and a baked 32-ounce porterhouse next to something that’s more elaborate. How would that all work? How can you do a dish of house-made kimchi with black rice and squab, and right next to it sit avocado salad, and have that also work?
How does it work?
Neal: It works really well. We are an expensive restaurant if you come in and order an appetizer, an entree and a dessert. But most people don’t order like that. They order four appetizers and one entree and three desserts.
Amy: We’ve designed the menu so you can eat any way you like. If you prefer to share plates you can do that; if you prefer the traditional style of appetizer-entree-dessert you can do that as well. And you can do it side by side.
Neal: If you’re on a budget you can order a salad for $15 and a pasta for $20. It’s funny, sometimes I notice that: when your clientele doesn’t have the economic resources everybody else does, but they come in and they have Redbird represent what they want, price point-wise. We don’t want to be a special-occasion restaurant.
Amy: We want to be all things to all people.
Neal: If you want to come and sit at the bar and have a cocktail and shishito peppers and spend $20, then that’s great. We have 24 seats at the bar to accommodate those people. The majority of our guests are reservations, but a lot of people walk in and sit at the bar or lounge and use it as more of a neighborhood place.
You mentioned the lounge space. Was that really intentional, to have it be more communal in addition to the seated space?
Amy: Initially we had just planned that out to be…
Neal: All a lounge — no seating inside. But we didn’t have enough seats.
Amy: We needed more, so we went back and added more in. It just economically didn’t make a lot of sense to have so few seats out here.
How does that work, in terms of the number of seats you need?
Amy: Well, you run projections, so you know what your expenses are going to be and what your food costs are going to run. So you do the math. You know what your check average is going to be based on what Neal’s food cost is and what people ordered, and you calculate how many seats you have and you see how that all breaks down.
And you were like, actually we need more tables or more turns?
Amy: I did the math recently per one table, and it’s like a $100,000-a-year table.
Neal: It all adds up. People think we’re like…
Amy: Rolling in the dough. It’s not true.
You have to really control your costs. That’s the name of the game. And if you don’t, you don’t make money. When you do make money, you don’t end up making a lot of money. So you appreciate when you do.
Neal: You’ve got to look at the garbage can, you’ve got to look at the linen bin.
Amy: We are owner-operators, so we are here to do that. And of course, we do that more stringently than anyone else because we have the most work involved in this, and it affects us the most. We have the most risk as well.
It’s trickier when you’re not on property all the time. Having three other things that are not here — BLD and Fritzi Dog and ICDC — it’s sometimes painful for me not to be there, and then when I’m there and not here it’s painful for me not to be here. So it’s tricky.
Do you then figure how to let go or empower others?
Amy: It’s really about having great managers in place that you know and trust, and that take ownership. But still it’s never the same as you doing it yourself. I don’t know how people have multiple babies and don’t worry about them. I guess you just have to surrender at some point.
How do you inspire your staff, front and back of house?
Neal: I stand next to people and try to show them how to do it. Hopefully they do it the same way that I do it.
Amy: We do a lot of leading by example, which is really how we think it works best. You set the tone from the top.
Neal: How do you train people? You train them every day.
Amy: It’s incessant. You always have to be watching, you always have to be looking. And you always have to be respectful and gentle with your corrections. Some people need a little harder twist. Different people take criticism differently. It’s important to understand the difference in people. It’s really a psycho-sociological experiment all of the time.
Is that unique in the restaurant industry — having a kinder approach?
Amy: There are much harsher environments in which to work. There’s a lot of drama, typically, in restaurants, and we just don’t allow that. Everyone spends a lot of time at work — it should be some place that’s healthy and happy and where you have the opportunity to grow. We take a big responsibility in that.
And then you probably maintain staff as a result.
Amy: Yeah, at Grace we had almost the same staff. For seven-and-a-half years, the majority of the servers were the same. Some left, and they all came back.
Were there any key learnings from starting up this space together?
Amy: Oh yeah. We learn things every day. Making sure we had the proper amount of time to train — we actually ended up having more time than we thought with this, because our construction was delayed. But that’s key to us, getting everything set up properly.
Neal: Less is more. As a young chef I wanted to put 75 things on every plate, and I’ve intentionally held back a lot. Every dish had to be sweet and salty and sour and crunchy… there are a couple of dishes on our menu that literally are meat on a plate.
I’ve let the menu ebb and flow, and if something doesn’t feel right, taking it off, and if the kitchen can’t execute a dish very well, taking it off. Trying to be smart. Trying to be more mature. I’ve been a chef of restaurants for 28 years, so trying to learn from my previous experience and trusting people more. Delegating more. Empower people.
Do you get a lot of feedback from your guests?
Amy: We do. The hosts get the most. I spend a lot of time at the door, spying. Most people don’t know who I am, so I can do it. Everything’s been really well received for the most part. The word of mouth has been really fantastic.
How much do you listen to the critics?
Amy: You have to be really honest with yourself, and you have to take it in and look at it and see if it holds true, if it applies. And if you do, you need to address it. There’s a lot of amateur critics who could just be haters, and you have to really protect yourself from that sort of thing. It’s pretty obvious when someone knows what they’re talking about and when someone doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
Neal: I listen to it all. I wouldn’t say I react to it all, but after being verbally abused for 20-something years, cooking, the first couple of times you get critiqued… It’s humiliating. It’s terrible.
Amy: You’ve never had a terrible review.
Neal: Not terrible. But people critique you.
Amy: It’s hard. Criticism is definitely difficult because we spend so much of our time trying to make things perfect for people, and make people feel good. So for people to imply that we’re intentionally trying to make them feel bad is really absurd. Because we’re killing ourselves, you know? To make it right, to make it great, to make it exceptional. For people to have a great time.
Photo Credit: 4th and 6th images by Erin Kunkel; all other images courtesy of Cort Cunningham.