It will eventually be known as one of the premier steakhouses in Southern California.
But what started out as a routine 30-day waiting period for a liquor license turned into a business nightmare. It is one that sadly affected not only successful businessmen but the little guy as well. Theirs is a story about an uncooperative state bureaucracy, bad luck, and perplexing alcoholic beverage policy, but through the team’s perseverance and commitment, resulted in a happy ending.
Just down the street from their other restaurants – Michael’s on Naples Ristorante and Michael’s Pizzeria in Long Beach – the partners of Michael’s Restaurant Group negotiated a lease to open a high-end steakhouse called Chianina (KEE-a-NEE-na). The opportunity arose when the owners of Kelly’s, the previous restaurant in that location, chose not to renew their lease but still maintain the rights to their liquor license.
Michael’s Restaurant Group could not purchase a new license but had to buy an existing license and have it transferred to their new restaurant. The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) limits the availability of new licenses in attempt to control alcoholic beverage sales. Michael’s Restaurant Group applied for the transfer in December 2013 and posted the required “Public Notice of Application” while waiting out the 30-day approval process.
During that time, Chianina opened its doors without a liquor license. Patrons were welcome to come in for dinner and bring their own wine, commonly referred to as BYOB. For two weeks guests were enjoying the amazing cuisine of Executive Chef David Coleman paired with wines from their personal cellars.
Then Michael’s Restaurant Group was informed by the ABC that it is illegal to consume alcohol on the premises if the restaurant does not have a valid liquor license. Of course, the owners complied but unfortunately, that put the brakes on the new business. Guests with reservations were told they would not be able to bring their own wines into the establishment. The result: 70 – 75% of potential guests cancelled their reservations, saying they preferred to wait until they could enjoy their meal with adult beverages.
With the drastic drop in business, the Chianina budget could not sustain the salaries of the excellent staff that had been hired and trained for two months. Management held on to the crème de la crème, offering jobs in their other restaurants to help these folks get by. Chianina’s hours of operation were reduced to Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights from 6 to 9 PM only, while everyone anxiously awaited the approval of the liquor license. The other promising employees had to look for new jobs.
In what can only be described as bad luck, during the escrow for the transfer of the license, it was discovered that the seller was in a lawsuit with his former partner and the State had put a tax lien on the liquor license. Since the State will not approve the transfer of a license until all the taxes have been paid, Chianina was now in liquor limbo.
Regrettably, the ABC’s indifferent bureaucracy made it even more difficult to obtain the license in a timely manner all the while the business was struggling and Chianina’s staff was laboring to make ends meet. Michael’s Restaurant Group hired an attorney to help with this frustrating process.
Finally, after enduring much worry and stress, Michael’s Restaurant Group was able to declare “prohibition ends at last, the local nightmare is over” when the license was ultimately approved on April 2nd.
Chianina is now open Tuesday through Sunday beginning at 5 PM. The sleek bar is bustling, jaunty bartenders are pouring house-crafted cocktails, and General Manager Alejandro Duran is recommending stellar wines from a carefully chosen wine list.
Chianina is named for the oldest and largest breed of cattle which originated in Central Italy over 2200 years ago. Michael’s Restaurant Group is raising their own Chianina cattle on a ranch in Utah where it is grass-fed on open range land. No hormones, antibiotics, or steroids are allowed. The beef has an exquisite flavor and texture, the only adornment needed is a pinch of salt and pepper. The meat is extremely lean, with lower cholesterol and fat than other breeds.
Each animal yields approximately 180 lbs. of premium cuts of beef which are aged 30 days. The remaining cuts are used to make their Chianina burger, beef pot pies, and house-made corned beef. These menu item are available exclusively in the bar. The premium cuts including filet, New York, rib-eye, and the famous Italian cut bistecca alla fiorentina are served in the dining room. The restaurant is also offering Piedmontese beef, while still possessing an amazing flavor, the taste is slightly less bold. In both breeds, there is a robust umami beef flavor that is derived from the meat, not from the fat.
Along with traditional steakhouse sides such as creamed spinach and yukon potato gratin, the chef offers a seasonal twist on vegetable dishes. Recently, foraged mushrooms with thyme also included charming fiddlehead ferns, which are only available for a few weeks every spring. Dedicated to local organic produce, Michael’s Restaurant Group is the biggest customer of Farm Lot 59, a one-acre urban mini farm on California Ave. in Long Beach.
The restaurant’s ambience strikes a balance between luxury and comfort. Soothing neutral tones are enhanced by flattering lighting. Sound levels are lively yet quiet enough for conversation.
The service is extremely professional while still relaxed and friendly. The management gives credit to the employees who saw the potential of the new restaurant and made sacrifices to stay on board through the tough times.
With California’s rules, regulations and taxes, Michael’s Restaurant Group experienced an inhospitable climate for new business. Thankfully, their team had the tenacity to weather the difficulties and open a fabulous new establishment – creating design and construction jobs during the re-model, work opportunities for cooks, servers, bartenders, and providing foodies with an unparalleled dining experience. Buona Fortuna Chianina!
Note: This feature story is a version of a piece I wrote for Random Lengths News.
The restaurant interior photos are courtesy of Chianina.