It goes without saying that most restaurants don’t take food lightly. Most restaurants approach food with the obsession and reverence that the muse demands. You’ll know it after your first bite. Or, in the case of California Republic – the Dandy Collection’s latest outpost – when you pass its threshold and enter its sumptuous embrace, which is where your intuition will be positively gratified. Sensuous, earthy and immaculately realised, both the tangibles and intangibles of its composition intimate the measure of what your plate contains – before your first taste.
The attention and care devoted to what you eat, how you eat, how you feel when you’re eating and where you’re eating is panoramic. With its overarching dedication to California as its fundamental premise and Italian cuisine as the shrine at which its esteem unravels, the establishment is ardently committed to being as transportive as it is transfixing. That’s why every bite is a revelation, why every song hits and why it all feels like home but surreally – enchantingly – so.
As the group’s Chief Visionary Officer Michael Goodman tells it, the long and the short of the extra distance stems from one force: Love.
We break (garlic) bread with him below.
Words by Indran Paramasivam.
Let's go back to the beginning. Why pay homage to California?
It's a part of me. I don't want to make it seem like our venues are about me but I have to come up with the seeds of the ideas. That's my job; that's what I bring. So, I dive into everything about what I see in the world around me and where I'm from. California's such a deep part of me, and for our Director of Operations Mike Pekarsky, who's also an East Coaster who moved to California. We both share a similar East Coast view of California and we wanted to celebrate that here.
And what is that view of California, at least from the lens of California Republic?
For me, California Italian food is the perfect blend of pure Italian food and California cuisine, which is that farm-to-table, fresh-from-the-garden fare. Everything we do here, you may not get it Italy, but we still honour Italian food. It's basically an ode to how the immigrants from Italy arrived in the States, came to California and said, "We don't have what we have over there but we have this. How do we use it?" And, then a new cuisine was born. It was a natural progression from the generations.
We say we're California first, Italian second. But the way we make the food is Italian first, California second. We think about a dish and we just tweak it. We're not reinventing the wheel. It's about taking these one-and-a-half twists. It's about making something you've never had before but is still very familiar.
Everyone has their own interpretation of California, whether they're Quentin Tarantino or California Fitness. Its iconography isn't set. Why do you think that is?
There're a couple of reasons. One of them is that California is very big. When people talk about New York, they're talking about New York City. It's the same with London: They're talking about one city. But if you want to drive from the top to the bottom of California, you’ll end up in Mexico! That's a 12-hour drive and it's all freeways. It's a big, big place. It's its own thing and there's so much of it. You've got sunshine, deserts, mountains, forests, cities, ocean and surf.
And on the other side of that, of course, is that Los Angeles has a very commercialised, Hollywood kind of thing going on. There're some brands that really dive into the commercialised version and some brands that want to get more into the gritty side of it. For me, I want to celebrate what I view as a stylised version – a realistically stylised version.
Aesthetically speaking, how would you describe the larger design language at play here?
The design language of this place is 1960s living room, mom and dad left the house and the teenagers are having a party with their friends, with some mid-century modern factored in. This is what living rooms in California felt like. That's why we've got two fireplaces. I wanted to create this feeling of me as a kid, when I was old enough to get into a little trouble, where, if mom and dad left the house, I'd take over the place and have a blast.
It's known that food & beverage is a risky, merciless industry. What made you want to open a restaurant at this moment in time?
We've never stopped, right? When COVID-19 came, my partner and I, along with our Director of Ops, sat down and realised that the world wasn't going to be the same again. We knew that but we didn't know what it meant. It could mean one of two things: It can't be the same, so you're either going to come out better or worse. Those are the only options.
If you can't be the same, you have to be better or worse. So, we decided that we were going to do everything to make sure that we, and our family – our team, our employees – come out better. And so, we just committed to that. We changed how we do restaurants, we changed how our restaurants feel like, we changed the experience for our guests and we changed it based on what we thought people wanted, as a result of COVID-19. We understood that people still wanted to go to a restaurant – but with an extra dose of escapism sprinkled in. That's what we'e becoming more and more about.
That's incredible. Was it a challenge getting it to manifest in your food and drinks?
You can get escapism to manifest in any one thing. To have something become escapist, it has to manifest itself holistically on so many different levels. You have to eat the food, whilst sitting in the environment and listening to the music. The vibe of the service staff has to be relaxed enough to make you forget you're in Singapore. We have to hit all these notes. Some days, we find them all and on some days, we need to go back to the drawing board and keep learning and growing. That's our goal.
Everyone's coming out and wanting to do their thing and wanting to express themselves. As a company, we want to give people a place to be together and experience life. Someday, we'll do some super high-end temple of fine dining – I don't knock it; I enjoy going – but that's just not what our brand is about right now. We're about love, being inclusive and open. It's not a business decision – it's a people decision. That's it.
We spoke earlier about how there isn't much of a middle ground in town. Does California Republic aim to be that?
I'd say we try to be that middle ground with all our restaurants. If you look across our group, you'll see that we've carved out a niche trying to be the middle ground. We're not the most expensive game in town, or the cheapest, either. But we make sure that we offer good quality product that's expertly prepared and delivered to you with great service. Hospitality – that's what we're about. We want to give people a good experience at a price that is reasonable and fair and from which we hope they get value.
Lastly, I must say, your playlist is spot on.
Thank you! You walk in, and it's such a '60s vibe. Initially, we tried so hard to find the right '60s music that would fit. None of it ever felt right – it just didn't groove. So we asked ourselves: What do we want it to feel like? We didn't actually want it to feel like 1960s California. We wanted it to feel like you're driving top-down on the Pacific Coast Highway, from San Francisco to Los Angeles or vice versa. You're going to have G-funk on, as well as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Weezer. We opted on no genre – except for California optimism.
It took us a while to find it. As anyone can tell, it's not just any California band. We've got 311 on here and they're from Omaha, Nebraska. But it feels very California. Besides everything else that it is, California, to me, is an emotion.
California Republic is at 88 Amoy Street, Singapore 069907.