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Leap of Faith: Ilan Hall's Gamble at The Gorbals

By Jenni Simcoe
Published: Thursday, August 05, 2010, at 03:17PM
Ilan Hall of The Gorbals Ed Fuentes

You’ve just won Top Chef, now what are you going to do? For Ilan Hall, the answer wasn’t heading to Disneyland, but it wasn’t opening a restaurant either.

Given the tough odds faced by any restaurateur—one in four restaurants were said to fail in their first year even before the recession— Hall found it smarter to wait. He decided to travel, taking time to experience the cuisine of Spain, Venezuela, Romania and the Philippines.

“I didn’t want to immediately jump in and start a restaurant. I wanted to travel, eating and learning along the way,” Hall explains. He spent a good chunk of his earnings from the show, but considers the expense worthwhile. The prize money was $100,000 but after taxes it ended up being around $66,000.

“I guess you could say that the $66,000 went to research and development,” he jokes. When he was finally ready to open a restaurant, the native New Yorker opted to make a change and take his chance on L.A. Rather than going at it alone, he partnered with his best friend since childhood, Natan Zion. Neither had opened a restaurant before, but Hall did know the ins and outs of the kitchen from his education at the Culinary Institute of America and from stints in restaurants owned by celebrity chefs Tom Colicchio and Mario Batali.

“We chose downtown L.A. because there’s a big sense of community. I like when you walk down the streets and you know people. That’s awesome. People want you to succeed,” says Zion. “That’s so true. I cannot walk the one block between my place and the restaurant without running into six people I know,” says Hall.

Building A Dream

When Ilan Hall first toured spaces in downtown L.A. in the latter part of 2008, he almost didn’t see the space inside the Alexandria Hotel that now houses his restaurant, The Gorbals. “I was taking a tour of downtown buildings looking at different spaces, just perusing with Justin Weiss, the Assistant Director of Economic Development for the Downtown Center Business Improvement District.” Weiss offhandedly mentioned a bar space in the historic hotel and also showed Hall the space in much disrepair that formerly housed a diner. To Hall, the space felt right for what he wanted to do.

Hall and Zion quickly went to work refurbishing the space. The pair did everything from painting the entire restaurant in one night, to sanding down the communal table by hand.

“We did everything from the absolute ground up. This was a very raw space when we came in. We know it’s not the highest in style or design and it’s rustic and rough. But I’m not an interior designer. We just wanted something that would be comfortable, homey enough, fun, and interesting,” says Hall.

After building the space and learning the ins and outs of the multitude of restaurant codes, Hall and Zion opened The Gorbals on August 14, 2009.

Growing Pains

Three days after the launch party, the restaurant was shut down by Health department inspectors because of plumbing issues. “Evidently the water heater wasn’t powerful enough. We had no idea,” Hall says. The stress bubbled over, with Hall and Zion almost coming to blows in the lobby of the Alexandria. “Luckily security intervened and pulled us apart,” Hall says as the friends look at each other and chuckle. “It was tense for both of us and it was one of those things where we should have been away from each other. I sort of pretended to charge and then Natan really charged at me,” he says.

It took two and a half months to redo the plumbing valves, pipes and fixtures in order to conform to the building codes. Finally on Halloween 2009, The Gorbals reopened. Hall is quick to point out that he’s counting the August 14 as the one-year anniversary of the restaurant, rather than Halloween. “But I suppose we could have two anniversaries, just like my parents. They got married twice,” he says.

Hall says he learns something new every day. Just last week, he had a visit from the fire department inspector who informed him that he needed to purchase yet another permit for having lit candles in the restaurant.

New Challenges

When The Gorbals opened, Hall was still well known from his win on Top Chef. He credits that exposure to the amount of attention the new restaurant received from the media. But Top Chef or not, Hall quickly learned there were challenges to introducing a new restaurant to the community. “I guess on TV I came across as an arrogant jerk,” says Hall. “But I think I’m a pretty nice guy.” In retrospect, Hall says that through the editing and the stress of the competition, he sees how people came to that assumption. But Hall is right. He is a genuinely nice guy who breaks the mold of many a celebrity chef who would never admit their own weaknesses.

Perhaps because of, or in spite of, the persona people saw on TV, they were drawn to the restaurant. Foodies expected to see the chef that was full of himself and wanted to try his food, while others just wanted the experience of going to a famous chef’s restaurant. What he didn’t expect was the misconception that people seemed to have with the concept.

“People would come in and compare us to something like Bouchon. But that’s not what we are. Yelp reviewers said we were ‘amateurish’. I thought, well yeah, we are amateurs. This is our first restaurant. People gave us a hard time for not being a polished place,” says Hall. “But it’s a lot harder than it looks to open a restaurant. In the beginning I was thinking, ‘come on guys, give us a break. We’re trying to make food that’s tasty and enjoyable.’”

When asked to describe the restaurant concept, Hall jokingly says that his food is inspired by bar mitzvas. A quick peek at the bacon wrapped matzo balls on the menu quickly puts that notion to rest—marrying a traditional kosher ingredient with one that’s not. Though the menu changes daily due to Hall’s inspiration or because of the availability of seasonal ingredients, the matzo balls, potato latkes, marrow bones and crispy broccoli appear on a regular basis. “We’ve been called ‘eclectic global immigrant cuisine’ by food critics,” says Hall. “My father is from Glasgow and my mother is from Israel, so the reality is we are serving the food inspired by what we grew up with.”

The name of the restaurant is also confusing to some. Many well known chefs choose to use their name in the restaurant, à la Emeril’s, while others take poetic license with foreign words and phrases, such as Thomas Keller’s Per Se, Bouchon and Ad Hoc, while yet others choose a name that hints at ingredients or cuisine such as Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill or Wolfgang Puck’s Cut Steakhouse. But for Hall, The Gorbals means something special to him. The moniker comes from a neighborhood in Glasgow where immigrants shared their different cultures through food. Hall sees downtown LA as a similar place where cultures mesh to provide an ‘amalgam of many different ethnicities and tastes.’ Hall and Zion opened the restaurant on a shoestring budget, only borrowing money from family and friends. Because of the limited start-up budget, Hall says that improvements have been made over time from cash flow along with gained experience. “Our food’s improved, our lighting, décor, everything. All of the superficial things and substantive things have improved over time.”

Staffing was also an issue that has improved. After some turnover, Hall says he now has a great staff that is very dedicated to the success of the restaurant and that takes pride in being part of the community.

After all of the time and energy the duo spent in opening the restaurant, the future looks bright for The Gorbals. Hall’s business partner, Natan Zion, took a leave of absence in the spring to travel to Israel, take restaurant business classes, and visit family in New York. He’s due back in September. “He went all in to the restaurant when he came here. He sort of cut off everything extraneous,” says Hall. While he says it will be nice to have Zion back for the front of house management, he says his best friend’s absence has been “more difficult emotionally because he’s my best friend in the whole world and my business partner. It’s going to be amazing to have him back.”

The Big Payoff

When The Gorbals opened, the economy was still in the midst of the worst part of the recession. That didn’t cause Hall much pause. “For some reason I wasn’t scared. I don’t know if that was stupid,” he says. Ultimately he thinks the state of the economy actually helped. “It was good because it helped us prepare for bad times. We opened at the worst, so we can only go up from there.”

One thing that Hall credits to the restaurant’s success is the price point that ranges from $5 to $15 for small plates. “That’s why I don’t understand what people say on Yelp. I read it every once in a while, that we are overpriced or that our portions are small. We’re a small plate restaurant. Our prices for the product that we’re giving aren’t expensive,” he says.

Hall and Zion look forward to their continued success in downtown. “Our biggest success is seeing people enjoying themselves,” says Hall. While he is in business to make a living, the money isn’t the number one payoff or measure of success. “At the end of the day it's very gratifying to have people come into a space you created and seeing people having a great time.”

The restaurant’s busiest night is during the monthly Art Walk. The duo continue to pull from their talented pool of friends to bring in bagpipers, mimes, and clowns on stilts for a sideshow that draws people in. Thursday nights throughout the month are also popular because of live music that starts around 11pm. “We love the art walk because it’s a celebration of this great neighborhood. We think of it as a monthly party when we get to share our space with a lot of people,” says Hall.

What’s Next?

Hall and Zion hope that as the economy recovers they’ll see even more small businesses drawn to downtown L.A. “My advice for other small business owners is to do something that people need,” says Zion. Hall says that they are invested in the historic core for the foreseeable future. He hopes to open another restaurant concept downtown in the next couple of years.

Right now Hall is focused on his next exciting endeavor with another partner—his girlfriend. The couple is expecting their first child soon. “I feel like there’s a lot of prospect downtown and people are going to take notice and continue moving into lofts down here. I think it’s a wonderful place—downtown and I’m all for raising a child in the city. I genuinely love it here.”

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