Jim Poris - November 2002
Food Arts presents the September 2002 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to New York City restauranteur Stephen Hanson, master of the high-volume switch and lord of the high-tech controls he manipulates to do everything from mood setting to financial tracking for his empire of restaurants.
As president of the $100 million a year grosser B. R. Guest Restaurants, a corporate moniker that reflects his arms-wide-open approach to hospitality, Hanson dubs himself "the king of the two-star restaurant." Although he broke through to a higher level this spring when Fiamma, his smallish 125 seat osteria was lauded by a three-star review in the New York Times, Hanson reverts to form this month when he inaugurates the latest concept in his pipeline, a 300 seat Mexican restaurant called Dos Caminos. "I have a knack for large boxers," says Hanson, who started his big year with the 400 seat seafood palace Blue Fin in the W Times Square hotel.
"I'm not an entertainer, but my places are about the entertainment that can be drawn from the surroundings, the other guests, and the restaurant's energy," Hanson states. "That's why value—the combination of the quality of food, ambience, and service—is the most important part of the equation. I want my guests to walk out saying, 'I had such a great time, and just look at this check!'"
Hanson sat in on the birth of the current high-flying restaurant scene as a manager at Alan Stillman's original singles-centric T.G.I. Friday's on the Upper East Side in the early 1970s while he attended business school. Wanting to make a scene, he returned to his native Westchester County in 1974 to open the wildly popular 12,000-square-foot nightclub Peachtrees ("you can see why I'm not shy about big spaces"). After a hiatus as a commodities broker and as an executive in his family's sports-wear company, Hanson made a grand reentrance to the New York City restaurant world in 1986 with the late Coconut Grill and the next year with the bustling Med cafe Isabella's. Now that he was East Side-West Side, Hanson was soon all around the town—attracting the svelte and the cool to Park Avalon (1994) in the Flatiron/Gramercy area; packing seafood and jazz aficionados into the 400 seat Blue Water Grill (1996) in a renovated bank on Union Square; letting Upper West Siders and Upper East Siders in on the sea world fun at Ocean Grill (1997) and Atlantic Grill (1998); and then twice rolling out the over-the-top, 400 seat Asian funhouse Ruby Foo's Dim Sum & Sushi Palace, first on the Upper West Side (1999) and then in Times Square (2000). And now that NEw York has been Hansonized, he's setting his sights on a 700 seat Ruby Foo's for Las Vegas and a coals-to-Newcastle Fiamma for Milan.
"You do this business to take care of people, to make them happy and feel good," Hanson says. "I enjoy people. I love people. Lots of people."