Welcome to Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives, sharing their stories and more.
The restaurant landscape in Dallas is an infinitely revolving door that ushers new concepts and chefs in and then out again, as diners remain constantly on the hunt for the next hot thing. But amongst the constant flood of openings and closings, there remain the rare restaurant stalwarts, pillars of days gone by that stubbornly (and thankfully) refuse to change.
One of those select few is St. Martin's Wine Bistro, which has occupied a dark, cozy space on Lower Greenville Avenue since 1977. (The building dates back much further than that; it was erected in 1925 and is said to have housed the city's very first air-conditioned bar.)
Often referred to as "Dallas' most romantic restaurant," the restaurant's massive chandeliers, ornate artwork, and grand piano give it an old-world vibe that you simply don't see much these days. General manager John Sarvarian has been working here for 20 years, and it shows: Smartly clad in an argyle sweater vest and stylish glasses, he saunters from table to table shaking hands and talking to patrons like they're old friends — because many of them are. Eater recently caught up with Sarvarian to talk about the changes he's seen in two decades of working the dining room at St. Martin's.
Tell me about how you first came to work at St. Martin's.
I moved here from Iran in 1974. I was attending college at East Texas University at Commerce [now Texas A&M]. I wanted to become a doctor, that was my dream. I was poised to get my Masters but a financial situation made me stop going to school, and I was already managing another restaurant at the time. The restaurant business is like a roach motel — you get in, you don't get out. [laughs] No regrets, you know. I did whatever I needed to achieve. I raised my family, I bought a house, kids gone to college then married and now I'm a grandpa. But my dream was to become a doctor and it didn't happen. Sometimes you have dreams, they don't work out.
How have you seen this neighborhood change in the 20 years since you've been here?
In 1980 Greenville Avenue was the hot spot. There were restaurants up and down both side of the streets, it was like Uptown is today. Then it moved to West End. From West End it moved to Deep Ellum, and then from Deep Ellum it moved to Uptown. One of the reasons St. Martin's is unique is because average life expectancy for restaurants is only maybe five or six years in Dallas. They make their money, they sell it or close and they go. Or they don't make any money and they close.
What is it that keeps people coming back to St. Martin's year after year?
Every night and for Sunday brunch we have piano music, and most restaurants don't do that anymore. People like that when they dine, to have nice background music. Dark and piano music — this is the identity of St. Martin's, every night since we opened 40 years ago. If you look at our menu it's all the old French classic food. Nobody else in town really offers this kind of food anymore. Everyone comes in with the Tex-Mex and the fusion and steakhouses. Everything in this place is homemade from the bread to the ice cream and desserts. We have 300 wines, and all of them are reasonably priced. People they come in and look at the wine list, for example they might see the same wine somewhere else priced $30 or $40 more. And that keeps them coming back.
St. Martin's is often referred to as the "most romantic restaurant in Dallas." Do you think that's true?
We say it’s a romantic bistro, we don’t want to be a restaurant. We are a bistro.
What's the difference?
A bistro is a casual place with fine food and inexpensive food. My point is that we are not too formal, but some people you know they come in here because it’s dark and cozy, they say it’s very romantic. We have some regulars that have been coming in here for 20, 30 years to dine all the time, but honestly for most people it's a special occasion place. They come in for birthday, anniversary, first date. But I want it to be for everyone.
Have you seen a lot of proposals since you’ve been here?
Oh yeah. We see it at least once a week.
Any particularly memorable ones?
Just one time. During the 20 years I’ve been here, [one woman who was proposed to] got very angry, got up and left. So that wasn’t good.
What are St. Martin's signature, or most popular, menu items?
Champagne brie soup is the signature of the house here. We sell a ton of it, people are crazy about it. Lobster thermidor is another one, and Parmesan-crusted seabass is another one as well as rack of lamb. Souffles are a special dessert that are very popular, those take 30 mins to prepare so customers have to order them with their entrees.
How many covers will you do on a busy night?
Even on a Saturday night we don't want to get too crazy. When we get to 130 or 150 people we stop taking reservations. It's not all about making money. You have to take care of the customers and make sure they all get good food, especially when you have a good reputation in town. You don't want to squeeze in 10 extra people to make a few more dollars and risk hurting your reputation.
Do you have a service philosophy? How do you ensure your guests are always being taken care of?
Always put yourself in the customer's shoes. Treat the people the way you like to be treated. When I go out for example, I want to be greeted at the door. I want somebody to check on me after they serve the food and ask me how I'm enjoying it. I don't want anything to come from a can on my plate. If you say everything is fresh, you have to give them fresh. Your markup has to be reasonable. I hate it when restaurants buy a bottle of wine you can get for $10 and they put it for $50 on the menu and say they have expenses. I know, everybody has expenses, but you don't pass it on to the customer like that.
Obviously diners in Dallas have gotten much more sophisticated over the past 20 years. Do you find that there's been changes in what people ask for or expect as far as food goes?
Customers are more knowledgeable now with all those food shows on TV. They're very, very educated. Back in those days things were different, but now you have to be very careful because you can't afford for even one person to get bad food. If one person has a bad experience they can tell everybody else and they'll stop coming and dining with you.
What about things like Yelp? Obviously that didn't exist 20 years ago when you started here.
I try not to worry too much about Yelp. Mostly we get very good reviews, but occasionally somebody will go and write a terrible review. I'm the manager, if there is something wrong with your food, just tell me. I want to know. I'll cook you another dish or take it off your check. But sometimes people will just make up their mind to go and write a bad review and say they'll never return, and they ask other people to never come here either. They want to hurt the business, and I try not to pay much attention to those. If someone has a legitimate complaint we always try to take care of it, if something was oversalted or undersalted or overcooked we will of course take care of it. But if they don't tell me, what can I do?
What do you like about working here? What keeps you coming back day after day?
Meeting new people and seeing my old customers. I hear stories from them about their families, their personal life. They ask me questions about myself, my wife, my family. We share stories and that's one of the reasons that keeps me going.