June 14, 2024

Brad Marolf

Business & Finance Wonders

Santa Monica’s Coolest Restaurant Doesn’t Need Marketing or Investors

It makes all the sense in the world, right? Two 30-something guys with no investors, no location, no kitchen equipment, and no social media presence decide to open a restaurant — a tough business even in the best of times, which this is not.

But here they are, serving a grill-centered menu that usually includes wild mushrooms with garlic and parsley, salmon with mustard and dill, and a whole branzino with za’atar and chimichurri. Add some little tartines to start, beer and wine, and a simple dessert or two, and you have what until now has been a well-kept secret among neighborhood regulars: The 98-seat Le Great Outdoor springs to life at night on a large patio at Bergamot Station, an arts compound off the Santa Monica Freeway that is otherwise pretty deserted by dinnertime.

On June 15, co-owners Rudy Beuve and Pedro Mori will expand service to 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, taking over where the original daytime tenant, Bergamot Café, left off.

Customers order at the front table, order drinks at another station, and wait for their food to arrive, family-style, on quarter-sheet pans, with a pair of tongs to serve it. The menu relies on the strategy that won the Chicago Cubs the World Series in 2016: “Do simple better,” with whatever’s fresh rather than whatever’s fancy. Despite a roller-coaster first few months — Le Great Outdoor opened in January, in time for lots of rain — the restaurant has already built a following.

Two men sit on the bench with a background of greenery for Le Great Outdoor restaurant.

Pedro Mori (left) and Rudy Beuve (right) of Le Great Outdoor restaurant in Santa Monica.

On a recent Saturday night, the crowd included a gray-haired foursome (two of them obvious regulars who walked their friends through the menu one suggestion at a time), six young women with a big vocal dog, and everything in between. “Different cultures, a mix of ages, that’s the world we want to live in,” said Beuve, who most recently was one of the chefs at Gjusta, in Venice, and began working in restaurants in his native France when he was 16. The only common denominator to the crowd is that the owners recognize most of their return guests.

“Since we opened, the only way we market is word-of-mouth,” said Mori, a former bar manager at the Rose, who left college in São Paulo for a six-month English language program in the U.S. and never went back. “The restaurant’s like a tree that grows: One person brings another person, and there’s always a line that connects to one of us. There’s no promotion, no big name. You need to know someone who’s been here before to know about it. Old friends bring new friends.”

It’s not the standard way to build a restaurant these days, but that was the point. Beuve and Mori avoided social media because they wanted a loyal base more than they wanted to be a destination on the must-dine circuit. They prefer their outlier location, nowhere near a restaurant row, because they want diners who intend to eat at Le Great Outdoor — not people who wander down a street full of restaurants until they see one they think they’ll like. When they finally launched an Instagram account in late May, it was primarily to let friends back home see what they were doing.

There was a financial incentive as well. The city of Santa Monica owns Bergamot Station, which means below-market rent in return for meeting the city’s requirements, which include being open during daytime hours to serve gallery employees and visitors. The partners plan to offer the existing Bergamot Café menu during the day, to start, but as soon as they find their feet they’ll switch to their own menu, morning till night.

Appetizers and table laid out for Le Great Outdoor with flowers.

Lobster grilled with olive oil, and other small plates at Le Great Outdoor.

But be prepared to be flexible. Reasonable prices require smart ordering, and the partners would rather run out than have expensive ingredients go to waste. Vegetable dishes top out at $15, and that whole branzino is reasonably priced at $38, but when it’s gone, it’s gone.

The old adage, that the customer’s always right, has given way to a new notion — that we’re all in this together, collaborating on a sustainable restaurant model. “We show people it’s acceptable to run out of items,” said Beuve. “We don’t overbuy and then have to trash anything, and our customers understand that. You came for bell peppers? You might end up with mushrooms, and maybe you try something you don’t expect and learn something new.”

Beuve says people are more forgiving than they used to be, unlikely to throw a fit over missing the bell peppers — so it’s a good time to revamp the business model to reduce the risk of failure. “People forgot all the rules about restaurants during the pandemic,” said Beuve. “If the only option is to sit on the street, you learn to eat at the curb. One night at our first location, it started to rain and people ate standing up under the awning. People are more open-minded.”

The partners like to talk about what Beuve calls the “theater” of the dining experience, which includes not only the food but the vibe, the soundtrack, and what they hope is the staff’s contagious enthusiasm, all designed to ensure that pandemic-weary customers can relax and have fun.

Le Great Outdoor has been heading toward this moment since September 2021, when the partners began what Beuve calls a “roommate” relationship as a dinner pop-up at the nearby Kiff Kafe, which was only open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Customers weren’t the only ones who changed during the pandemic: Beuve and Mori took a chance because they were too impatient to sit around.

“It was a simple question,” said Beuve. “How can we open a restaurant with no money? To buy an oven, stove, and pans, that’s too much, so we’ll buy a grill and a table, and now we can cook. But we can’t find tables and chairs because we have no more money, so we looked for a place that didn’t use the space after 3.”

One frequent customer was Jeff Stuppler, who’d run Bergamot Café off and on since 1994, and was ready to step back. He asked Beuve and Mori if they’d like to graduate from pop-up to tenant, start with dinner, assume the lease, and eventually transition to a full day.

Being a bit rash had worked for them once, and the idea of being more than a roommate was too appealing to pass up, so they said yes, and opened for dinner as a pop-up in January of this year. They had a great first month, followed by a rain-soaked stretch when the weather did them in night after night, yet somehow failed to discourage them. The paperwork with the city has dragged on, but no matter: Beuve and Mori will start lunch on June 15, with or without a signed lease transfer, and once the bureaucracy catches up, it’ll be official.

Diners sit around the almost fully outdoor restaurant Le Great Outdoor in Santa Monica.

Diners sit around the almost fully outdoor restaurant Le Great Outdoor in Santa Monica.

Wild grilled salmon, olive oil, chimmichurri and smoked paprika; grilled yellow corn with cotija in the background at Le Great Outdoor.

Wild grilled salmon, olive oil, chimmichurri and smoked paprika; grilled yellow corn with cotija in the background.

Stuppler plans to hang around for a while to answer questions and help them develop a catering arm, but he’ll be an adviser, not a roommate. After months of taking what looks like big chances, in retrospect, the partners are about to own their first real restaurant — no pop-up, no collaborators, just them.

They expect the full-day operation to be a “tough climb,” but they see Stuppler’s staff as an insurance policy, and hope to hire as many of them as want to stay, to provide an essential continuity.

And that should do it, except, perhaps, for addressing the rumors of a wet El Niño winter up ahead. The pop-up days are over. The partners have all-day responsibilities to consider.

“I guess we should have a Plan B if it rains a lot,” said Mori, though he’s reluctant to consider the obvious fix and start shopping for an awning. “Maybe we can create a solution that thinks outside the box again, that doesn’t change the visual and the atmosphere and the vibes.”

Le Great Outdoor is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. (starting June 15) at 2525 Michigan Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90404. Reservations are available on OpenTable.