Industry Insiders: Danny Abrams, Average Diner

We’ve all got recession fever, but no other business is feeling the heat quite like the service industry. While most restaurateurs are agonizing at empty tables and fleeting sales, Danny Abrams — co-owner of Smith’s and head honcho at The Mermaid Inn — has been enjoying the perks of a flourishing eatery with a new executive chef (Doug Psaltis, formerly of Country, The French Laundry, and Mix) and a creative menu with comfort-foodie fare. Abrams tells us how he started out in the business, the ways in which the landscape of New York restaurants is changing, and why being a nice guy and an “average diner” have put him at the top of his game.

Smith’s is now in its second year; you recently installed Doug Psaltis as executive chef. What’s that been like? I’ve never had this kind of radical change. Bringing in somebody who has pedigree and has experience is something new for me. I just like working with a professional chef. Sometimes, you know, finding a good chef, or finding a good partner, is like finding a girlfriend — you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs. Sometimes you go through a few people, and you meet a bunch of people, and they all speak well, they speak a good game, but when it comes down to producing a great product and running a professional kitchen … it’s rare.

Doug’s only been there for a few short weeks. How’s it going? It’s a process. We’ve definitely seen progress on our end. Our regulars have enjoyed the changes that we’ve made. Bringing Doug certainly has gotten some interest for Smith’s. We’ve made a lot of progress and some great strides in a short amount of time, and I just expect it to get better and better.

What are some of your favorite things off the new menu? I love the beef tartare. A lot of the times you get beef tartare and it’s a little bit mushy, and I think the way Doug cuts it, it’s a little bit chewy and chunky, which I like. I love the chicken and grits.

You’ve done really well with serving comfort food classics in New York. Starting out as a restaurateur, was this the kind of food you wanted to serve? Well, I will say that I try and build restaurants, and I try to work with food that I like to eat, and I’m a pretty average diner. So if I like it, other people will like it. I don’t really like to reinvent the wheel.

And how did you get started wanting to be a restaurateur and working in the service industry? I was a bartender for years, and I opened my first bar in 1991, and that did well. Then, I opened a dance club, and that did well. Then, we opened a place called Prohibition on the Upper West Side; I opened a restaurant called Citrus, and luckily, that did well. So, I went from bars and clubs and kind of jazz lounge environments to wanting to be in the restaurant business. The first real restaurant that I opened was the Red Cat, on 10th Avenue. I got a taste for being able to provide an environment that people enjoyed and a product that people enjoyed.

When you started out with that first bartending gig, did you know you wanted to be in the service industry? No, I just wanted to make some money and have enough to go out and have fun.

It seems like a lot of people who end up in a career in the service industry, besides chefs and restaurateurs, don’t always start out with that goal in mind. What about this line of work’s so appealing to so many people? That’s a great observation because a lot of people that wound up in the restaurant business didn’t really plan on it. They didn’t go to college for it, they didn’t think when they were a kid, “I can’t wait to grow up and be a restaurateur,” or, you know, run a hotel or something like that. There’s something about the romantic aspect of it, where you’re kind of the host of the party every night, and there’s something really interesting about providing an environment where, at the end of a long, stressful day in one of the most difficult cities on the planet, people can come and let their hair down and enjoy what you’re providing.

You’ve worked in the service industry since 1986. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen, especially in the New York restaurant landscape? The biggest change is peoples’ expectations, which have been heightened, and there’s so much more competition for your dollar. In the past, if you provided one or two of those elements, they could still kind of have a good experience.

And now? Right now, everything has to gel: The service has to be great, the environment has to be great, the product has to be great.

Is this kind of economically and fiscally conservative dining continuing as a trend? We’re going to get through this. I think that it’s cyclical, and I think that the first quarter of ’09 is going to be the most difficult quarter for the recession. It’ll shake out some of the operators that got in for the wrong reasons, or thought they could get by without providing the service that people were expecting.

What’s exciting that’s going on in food right now, to you, in New York? The big trend I see is the fruition of very small, chef-driven restaurants. The days of opening a $5 million, 200-seat extravaganza have certainly fallen by the wayside. If you see the success of restaurants like Perilla and Market Table, and places like that — Franny’s, in Brooklyn — there’s been a lot of owner-operated, chef-operated restaurants, as opposed to restaurateur-operated restaurants, and that’s really cool.

Examples? You get a chef like Joey Campanaro from The Little Owl, who is at that restaurant all the time trying to make it better, and coming up with great food and great ideas, and Mikey Price from Market Table, who’s putting in 16 hours a day, really watching over his business, and that’s great; that’s getting back to the spirit of opening a restaurant.

When you’re not at your restaurants, where do you like to grab a bite? You know, I’m lucky — between my girlfriend and I, we have four restaurants, and we often go to the restaurants that we own. I do like Market Table, Mikey does a great job. I like Little Owl, I love Perilla.

And again, I had such an amazing meal at Smith’s, I can’t even tell you. Everything was on point, just proficient on all levels. I’m really glad you enjoyed it, you know, that makes me feel great, and it just reaffirms that working with Doug has been the right choice. That’s great, I appreciate that, really. Be sure to tell all your friends.