Gavin Fine sees restaurants as a form of theater, where the actors (the staff) know their lines (the menu) and walk out onstage each night to perform for a new audience.
With Rendezvous Bistro he takes pride that his staff has always been able to please a diverse group of diners, from prom-goers to silver anniversary couples, softball team players to business colleagues, middle-class families to well-heeled second-home owners.
That’s a memory he’ll take with him after Friday, when the curtain comes down on Rendezvous Bistro after a 20-year run.
“It was just like this welcoming place to everyone and anyone that wanted to call it theirs,” Fine said. “It was just as much the 2-year-old kid that would come in and have crayons and mac and cheese as it was the sort of person that wanted to order the most fancy bottle of wine and eat the most expensive stuff. It was the same exact service that you had to get and the attention to detail to them from our staff.”
Fine, Roger Freedman and Marc Hirschfield opened the Bistro in July 2001 with a goal of offering diners a place to eat that, according to a Jackson Hole News article at the time, offered a food and price experience that fell between the Betty Rock Coffeehouse and the Snake River Grill. The restaurant was a crowd pleaser, and even the 9/11 attacks a few months after the its debut couldn’t stop the place from turning into, in Fine’s words, a “community dining room.”
The Bistro turned out to be the cornerstone of the Fine Dining Restaurant Group, which has grown into a culinary powerhouse with a half-dozen other restaurants, craft sausage and ice cream businesses, a catering operation and more. After Rendezvous Bistro goes dark, its heir, simply called The Bistro, will debut later this spring in The Cloudveil, the new hotel on Center Street.
In honor of Rendezvous Bistro’s departure, Fine, who’s still a partner with Freedman in Fine Dining Restaurant Group, answered questions via Zoom. A long interview has been shrink-wrapped for space and edited for clarity.
Q. So when did you know you had a hit on your hands with Rendezvous Bistro?
A. I still don’t. You’re only as good as your last meal. So in our business there’s no hit; there’s a hit for one night. Trying to be a hit every single night and day is the issue, or challenge or opportunity.
Q. I found this old (July 2001) article in the Casper Star-Tribune in which you were talking about this gap you saw in the Jackson market for a mid-priced meal. Could you elaborate on that?
A. I moved here in 1995-6. At that point there were some restaurants that were trying to be in the upper echelon — I’m just going to talk monetary-wise. There was definitely the sort of place where people were trying to get some serious dollars for meals. And then there was this sandwich shop, coffee shop, sort of grab-and-go world.
In the middle, which was what I was used to [Fine grew up in Chicago] there was not much. If you go to a city you’re used to seeing some of that where you’re paying $30 or $35 for an entree, which is still expensive, and then you’re paying $5 and $7 for a sandwich, which is awesome.
In the middle, where you would still get service that was up there but in that sort of casual vibe, I felt like there was a place for that. And that sort of fits the bistro, brasserie sort of feel. … Everything on the menu under 20 bucks, that was the goal. Oysters were something different, and some daily specials, but that was it. And then a hundred wines under 30 bucks was always the deal.
And then the service had to be there. It didn’t have to be stuffy. … But you still had to be the most knowledgeable person at the table, and you had to be on the customer’s side.
So it was really geared toward not making everything so pretentious. And making it attainable, whether it’s food or drink. And that was really the goal that I thought Jackson needed at the time.
It became one of those places where it was this sort of community dining room.
Q. In the current restaurant scene, what’s your place? There are so many more restaurants, it seems now, or certainly a greater variety?
A. What is needed that I think is an additive to Jackson Hole has always been sort of what I’ve looked at, and not what is a fad or a trend. ... and if we feel like we can execute it well and there’s passion behind it.
And how do we work with locals, for sure. Tourists are gravy. Tourists will come and go at different times — who knows, COVID happens or recessions happen or such and such — but the locals are always there, and that’s who we are targeting in every one of our businesses that we do, because they are also our best marketing tool by far.
The Jackson [restaurant] scene got great. It really elevated the experience of coming to visit here and also living here, that there is so much really great food. And that experience, I think you’ll start to realize that it was experiential and it was hospitality driven. And I hope that we were able to move the dial on that a little bit. Where your food just tastes better if your server is knowledgable and people are nice and you get a warm greeting, hello and goodbye, whether it’s on the phone or in person.
Q. Looking back, what makes you most proud?
A. When I get letters or emails or calls from former employees who have moved on or moved somewhere [about] the sort of impact I’ve had in their life as a human.
Like I said at the beginning of this call, we’re only as good as our last meal, and I’m never satisfied. I’m proud, yes, but I’m proud today. We try to celebrate some successes, but we just have to be driven all the time to the next thing. It’s not always fun, sometimes, working for me in that regard.
It’s not rocket science what we’re doing for people. We create a family and a tight-knit community as a group and then we go out and try to translate that energy to people when they come in and eat, drink and are having a festive occasion or a somber occasion or just a night out.
But the staff, having somebody that I made impact with — that’s usually the thing I’d probably be most proud of. Because teaching the kids is my favorite part of the job.
Q. What would you say have been the biggest challenges?
A. I love challenges, so it’s not a negative to me. There are wasted opportunities, challenges and obstacles.
Deaths amongst staff have been really challenging, and getting people to believe that they can still get going again the next night. We’ve had some unfortunate experiences that have happened to some of the kids that have worked for us. That’s, like the, most horrible thing you can think of. I’m a parent now. I tested my leadership skills. And also just my humanness and trying to be human with everybody.
Q. Did the west Jackson location become a liability?
A. I looked at multiple places [before opening]. There was a place, the Acadian House, which was really my desired location. I wanted to be downtown. There were a couple of other places … and they also just kind fell through.
And then there was a Denny’s that was there. [I thought] “Well it’s next to a gas station, there’s nothing down there,” and everyone’s like, ‘Well you know, Melody Ranch and south of town are where all the single-family homes are going and you’ll get all these people going there.” And it was cheaper rent.
I read a story: Keith McNally, who owns Balthazar and Pastis and other restaurants in New York City, would always would go into these neighborhoods in New York that were not found yet — East Village, Meatpacking and all these places — and he’d get cheap rent and he’d be the first guy there. He said he’d rather be that person there to sort of build that up and have a long lease and sort of had this vision that there was something that was going to grow around them. And he was able to do that. I used that sort of mentality to convince myself that I didn’t have to be downtown.
Q. For those who are really going to miss Rendezvous Bistro, how much like the old Bistro is the new Bistro going to be?
A. There’s definitely some odes to the old Bistro, for sure. But now it will be three meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Really more of a brasserie. It’s sort of a true Parisian three-meals-a-day place.
And so people that are missing certain things. … They’ll find some of their favorite things for sure. And they’ll find some new things. There’s also going to be a rooftop deck that’s going to be really cool for events.
I call it the Bistro 2.0.