By George Mahe
Photograph by Katherine Bish
The subject: your new restaurant. The gamble: to do it fancy or on the cheap. If you run the numbers on a new build-out, add in some hefty rent, the high failure rate and St. Louis’ famous fickleness factor, the only logical conclusion is to simply renovate somebody else’s mistake, cutting the risk in half—that’s the only way it makes any sense. Brad Beracha would disagree. He’s played in the chancy Clayton game and won (with Miso on Meramec), and he sat back down at the high-stakes table last month by opening his $1 million–plus Araka on the first floor of The Crescent. Roll the dice, Brad.
So haven’t you learned anything in this business ... like quitting while you’re ahead? I couldn’t pass up a unique opportunity. There’s an “East Clayton” emerging on Carondelet. I see it becoming a destination within Clayton, developing like no other place can.
If I may say so, Miso is unique as well. But what was your thought process in locating most of the action downstairs? The basement was not part of the original business plan, but there were only 800 square feet upstairs. And then I thought: Who am I to come to Clayton with no restaurant background and try something cool ... downstairs?
I remember thinking then that you were crazy. I thought the basement was going to be more of a challenge than a draw, and it ended up being just the opposite. The basement became Miso, and I was lucky enough to pull it off during 2001–2002, when people postponed dining out.
What does Araka mean? I came up with everything from “peas” to “death. ” Araka’s an international word, with different definitions in different cultures. That’s why I like it. In one country it’s an aperitif, in Greece it’s a pea dish ... and it has absolutely nothing to do with my last name.
Thank you, Google. Now let’s talk food. “Southern European inspired”—that covers a lot of territory. We’re focusing on the crescent of southern Italy, France, Spain and Greece—French techniques and Italian sensibility with a Spanish sense of flair.
What about Greece? Ouzo, lots of ouzo.
And the design? I suppose checked tablecloths are out? You’ll see lots of stone, warm colors, private dining on a glass-walled mezzanine and several elements that I’ve never seen before—like 10 miles of ball chain.
Care to explain? It’s similar to the chain that hangs in doorways ... Ours is suspended from 20-foot ceilings under circular lights, creating a shimmering effect. We’ll also use iodized glass for several small rooms—the glass that switches from clear to opaque, creating instant privacy—eliminating the need for shades or blinds.
Who’s in back? Marc Curran, the executive chef at Larkspur in Vail, moved here with his family. That’s huge. His mantra is simple food done great, but using ingredients most people can’t get their hands on. In the spirit of fusion—which has become confusion—we wanted to offer a cuisine that was approachable to everybody.
What bugs you in this business? Tapas—it’s everywhere, it tipped over. It went from novelty to mainstream, and now it’s expected. So I’ll do southern European without pandering to it.
Anything else on the horizon? It took me seven years to forget the pains of opening a restaurant. After 20 months of planning, I hope to get Araka open without getting too beat-up or scarred for life. I don’t ever want to get ahead of myself, like some restaurant guys, expanding at every whim and acting on every trend. I need to fully grasp Araka.
I’m still working on “East Clayton.” It’s gonna happen ... It is happening.