The Accidental Empire 

Cindy and Haig Krikorian didn't mean to launch five successful restaurants. It just sort of happened.

Six days a week, at eight in the morning, a small woman dressed in black makes her way slowly up Gilman Street. Her back bent with osteoporosis, Nevart Kalaidjian Krikorian walks carefully but steadily, her eyes on the sidewalk. She turns onto a plank walkway leading to the recessed doorway of a house that was converted to a restaurant long ago. Disappearing inside, she settles down at a table overlooking the main dining room, casually classy with its white tablecloths, warm wood trim, and botanical watercolors. Her movements precise, she begins to fold stacks of white linen napkins.

"I could probably get into trouble," Haig Krikorian chuckles. That his 85-year-old mother arrives every morning to fold napkins, peel garlic, and take deliveries is a small but telling detail, hinting at the personal attention that makes dining at Lalime's so special.

Haig (pronounced hyyg) and his wife Cindy Lalime Krikorian own five restaurants, each unique, each capable of serving memorable meals in settings so compelling that diners ignore their watches and spend three hours over lunch or an entire evening at the bar, emerging calmer and saner and fully satisfied. It's hard enough to create one restaurant that succeeds on that level. Five would hardly seem possible had conventional wisdom — or perhaps even common sense — governed the process.

"We started in 1985 on Solano Avenue right at Santa Fe, where the Nepalese restaurant is now," Haig says of Lalime's. He has a soft exactness in his speech, a care he assigns to his words, partly from his Armenian roots but also because he's meticulous. And it's that quality that makes his story so unlikely and yet so perfect. "In 1988, we moved to Gilman. Everyone thought we were crazy because we left a space with lots of foot traffic. But we went from a seven-hundred-square-foot space to about three thousand square feet with storage, a real kitchen, and a walk-in refrigerator. It was not that hard a transition. We're a destination restaurant — birthdays, anniversaries."

In 1994 the Krikorians moved Jimmy Bean's to Gilman and Sixth. They'd started the casually upscale eatery in San Francisco, but Cindy and Haig were going bananas with the commute. "We were doing three to four runs to the city every day, the last being about seven o'clock at night," Haig says. "Now all our restaurants are within three or four minutes of each other. I can walk to them — sure, even to Sea Salt. I'm a good hiker."

The couple often eats at Jimmy Bean's. "We wanted a casual hangout," Haig says. "You can go in there and have pancakes at nine at night. It's really a lot of fun." He manages to make two restaurants sound doable, almost sensible. After all, they eliminated that terrible commute. But why on earth opt for a third? "We opened Fonda right after the dot-com crash and 9/11," he notes with a sigh. "Everyone thought we were absolutely insane, and we were."

But in Berkeley, everything boils down to real estate. "Fonda came up because Phil Wood of Ten Speed Press owned that space, and we'd already started talking about the T-Rex space, and he owned that too," Haig says.

The T-Rex space at Tenth and Gilman is a large two-story building with lots of glass, very different from the intimate spaces the Krikorians had worked with. As Haig and Cindy pondered the advisability of taking over such a large area, Christopher's on Solano shut down. Wood suggested that Haig and Cindy check it out. "The next three restaurants were about the space," Haig says. "Something about the space made us want to do the cuisine."

Haig had been thinking about tapas, and thought the bi-level Christopher's space lent itself to Latin American tapas dishes, which weren't as in then as now. Haig's vision also demanded a bar and an open kitchen, but the site had neither. "We had a lot to do," he recalls.

The Krikorians wanted to create a bar/food combination different from the usual bar food, or the hanging at the bar till your table is ready. "It took us a little bit of time to get people to learn what we were doing at Fonda," Haig admits. Together with chef David Rosales, who has since moved on, they came up with a menu that seemed to fit what the space would become. Striving toward elegance, they hired designer Connie Riccardi. "Cindy almost had a heart attack with the colors," Haig says. "The dark reds. Connie said it would work. And she was right — the whole color scheme brought it together."

The couple hangs out at Fonda, too. "We go there after we finish work at the office," he says. "It's open until 12:30 [a.m.]. In fact, it's practically the only place in Berkeley where the kitchen doesn't close if it's slow. I've made a rule that if someone walks in the door at 12:29, they get food."

So the space dictated the eats — but three restaurants? "Why did we do it? I don't know," Haig says. "Cindy would always have the same answer: 'I don't want another restaurant.' But once she gets in there, she falls in love with the space. And then they become her babies. When we started Fonda, our kids were already off in college. Other people get a dog or go to bookstores; we open restaurants."

Their last two places were, if anything, even more about real estate — or about Berkeley's uneven issuance of remodeling permits. Haig and Cindy had started a tradition of special barbecue nights, sometimes at Jimmy Bean's, sometimes at Lalime's. The prix-fixe menu included a Caesar salad, ribs, cornbread, and other barbecue specialties. Still thinking about Phil Wood's large space on Gilman, Haig went to New York to research barbecue. "Phil was thrilled with the idea of a barbecue joint," Haig reports, and then adds, predictably: "Cindy wasn't too thrilled, but now it's one of her favorites."

T-Rex ran into difficulties right off the bat, with permit delays and a dependence upon completion of nearby local government projects. Which is where Sea Salt comes in. "In 2005, we were having a heck of a time finishing the T-Rex project, with the building, the permits," Haig recalls. "Someone mentioned the Sea Salt space just in passing. I thought, 'Well, let's go take a look at it.' Again it's one of those things where you get butterflies in your stomach. One look, and we saw a New England lobster house."

Phil Wood owned half of that space too, and his partner was intrigued by the lobster house plan. "He talked us into thinking about it — it didn't take much thought," Haig says. "We had an entire crew of management and chefs on payroll because of T-Rex. We also had an entire construction crew lined up for T-Rex that couldn't work. We took over the space in May and in seven weeks we opened the restaurant. That included permits, interior design, the demolition, and the build-out. We got it in May 2005, and by June 14 we opened."

T-Rex finally opened that November and immediately got a bad review in the San Francisco Chronicle. Its top-of-the-line computerized smoking equipment had a faulty valve, which the in-house maintenance man found after two months of tinkering by company repairmen. "For the first three months, it was smoking customers," Haig says.

Once found, the problem was fixed in one minute. "We turned it around, and now it's incredibly successful. We did 780 people last Saturday — bigger than Berkeley," he quips. T-Rex has three TVs, tuned to different sports. "It's been a lot of fun, but it was truly a hard first year."

Each restaurant has its own management, although Haig and Cindy are on-call for deliveries, emergencies, managing the managers, and everyday problem-solving. The empire — a term Haig hates — employs 220 full-timers. Three pastry chefs work out of a commissary kitchen on Fifth Street, close to all the restaurants, in a building that includes storage and offices. "You have to have a solid office crew," Haig says. That crew is he, his wife, and Cindy Clark — Cindy #2, Haig calls her — who together do the accounting and paperwork.

The Krikorians have a lot of responsibility, and handle it as a team. "We make most of our decisions together," Haig says. "We have our good days and bad days. We have to think of our payroll. We don't drive any fancy BMWs. We have a 1992 Honda station wagon and a Volvo soccer-mom car that I drive."

But they do go out. "We go to Chez Panisse a lot," Haig reports. "I appreciate that even if everything isn't perfect, it's meant to be perfect. We go to Sushi Sho on Solano. We don't take treks into the city."

Then there's home when they can manage to get there between breakfasts at Jimmy Bean's, hanging out at T-Rex, and after-the-office at Fonda. In their own kitchen, Haig and his daughter Elaine cook, and Cindy and son Aram are in charge of cleanup.

And each morning, Haig's mother walks to Lalime's, where it all started, to fold napkins with her spare, precise movements. The personal touch shows in every color, every spice, every pastry. And what could be more fun than that?

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