Trio weighs
risks vs. dream

Three old friends are setting their jaws to set up a restaurant in a space with a checkered past. Meritage will open at Restaurant Row in October in the spot that has been known as Ferno and Baci at the Row, among other names, dating back to Touch the East in the early 1990s.

The location has not provided longevity for its operators, even those with experience; and the trio of partners is aware of its history.

President William Cheng, Executive Chef Mariano Lalica and general managing partner Laurent Chouari have known each other for years as their paths have crossed at Acqua, Don Ho's, Nick's Fishmarket, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and the San Francisco Airport Marriott hotel.

"We decided to take a risk and gamble," Cheng said.

"There's a lot of naysayers out there," he said, "but the more people who say we won't make it, the more motivation we have to make it happen."

Cheng and his partners believe Restaurant Row's renovation plans will help draw a return on their investments in the form of lunch and dinner business.

They've observed the success of Sansei's lunch business, but have decided offering inexpensive lunches would ruin the image they are cultivating for their dinner crowd.

Diners the trio hopes to attract to its French-Italian fusion food will be those who don't blink at a $15 to $18 average check at lunch.

"Because of our lease we've got to open for lunch to generate income. We're taking a risk and targeting ... high-sales clientele," Cheng said.

"There are not many who cater to the high-end client," he said. "Palomino and Hoku's and maybe Kincaid's. Hopefully there's enough of a market for that business."

It's a positive that Ruth's Chris Steak House is no longer open for lunch, Cheng said, "That's kind of good also, because then we can fill in the void, hopefully."

Putting its own twist on a trend that started a few years ago, Meritage will offer "kind of like a chill-out lounge for late-night," when he said the music would be upbeat and lively but low-level enough to permit conversation.

About 20 employees will be hired for Meritage but the pastry chef gig is already taken, filled by Ashley Nakano, formerly of the Hilton Waikoloa Village resort.

"Meritage" is California wine-making term developed to apply to superior blends of Bordeaux grape varietals, including cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The name is a blending of "merit" and "heritage," which Cheng said reflects the ethnicities and professional backgrounds of the operators who are pursuing the dream of owning their own restaurant.

The full-speed-ahead driver for the trio is the restaurant's mission statement, "Dum vivimus, vivamus!" which means, Chouari said, "While we live, let us live!"

Erika Engle is a reporter with the Star-Bulletin.
Call 529-4302, fax 529-4750 or write to Erika Engle,
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu, HI 96813. She can also be reached

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