"We're like the Traveling Wilburys."
That's how Treadsack co-owner Chris Cusack describes his union with Grand Prize/Lei Low owners Brad Moore and Ryan Rouse and former Triniti bartender Leslie Ross. They've taken over the Boom Boom Room to transform it into a new bar called Johnny's Gold Brick (Swamplot confirmed the rumor that the Houston Press first reported about the project). With only some mild renovations and painting required to transform the space, Cusack is optimistic about a January opening.
But before delving into whether Cusack is Tom Petty or Roy Orbison (because Moore is clearly Bob Dylan), it's important to address Ross's seemingly abrupt departure from Triniti less than a month after it remodeled and renamed its bar as "Sancturai" around the combined talents of Ross and Laurie Sheddan.
"I want (the menu) to live on the wall, and I want the prices to be the same in 10 years, hopefully."
Did Cusack commit the restaurant world sin of poaching someone else's employee?
"I’ve had people poached from me. I think in my earlier days I used to get really bent out of shape about that. I can say definitively I don’t do that. That’s not what this is," he says emphatically. "The main reason being, good relationships don’t start that way."
Ross is mostly quiet about Sanctuari but did offer a couple of thoughts. "That was not something I asked them to do. It was not something that I had any hand in or say. It was something they chose to do," she says. "I had a great year at Triniti. I did a lot with that program . . . I believe that it is in capable hands, and I wish it all the best."
Instead, Ross prefers to look forward. "This opportunity was coming up, and I feel that in the same way chefs are able to move around and continue their growth in their craft it was time for me to do something different. This is a really fun project. It’s very different from anything I’ve ever done."
The partners intend for Johnny's Gold Brick to be a neighborhood bar. "There’s a big thing in types of bars. There are bars that have menus and bars that don’t have menus," Cusack explains. "How do you split the baby between bars that have cocktail menus and bars that don’t? I want (the menu) to live on the wall, and I want the prices to be the same in 10 years, hopefully."
That painted menu will consist of classics like a Manhatten, Old Fashioned, Gimlet, etc — all priced in the single digits. "You can get it all," Ross adds. "You can get cocktails, well made — anything you feel guilty about, we will also have here."
Big Drink Power
For those unfamiliar with Ross, she brings an award-winning pedigree to Johnny's. Alongside Sheddan, Ross has recently won best bartender awards from both My Table and Eater; she was also a finalist in the presetigious Most Imaginative Bartender Compeition, but she's not content to rest of her laurels. In August, she spent a week staging at The Aviary, the ultra-high end cocktail bar that shares a kitchen with three-star Michelin restaurant Alinea in Chicago.
"It was a hard reset for me, Ross says. "I am incredibly happy that I went and I completed it. I cried three times the first day I was there."
One thing that's clear is that neither Cusack nor Ross intend for Johnny's to be their only project together.
Johnny's won't feature $20 cocktils or high-end glassware, but Ross will apply some what she learned. "I would say I’m taking haute couture and making it ready to wear. You see the runway and you see all these crazy things. They’re not feasible to do on a regular basis. This bar is going to be what is feasible to do on a regular basis," she says.
One thing that's clear is that neither Cusack nor Ross intend for Johnny's to be their only project together. Treadsack is one of Houston's fastest growing restaurant groups. In addition to Johnny's, the company has announced plans to open three new restaurants in the first half of 2015: Thai restaurant Foreign Correspondents, tavern Hunky Dory and Gulf Coast-inspired Bernadine's.
"Please witness the twinkle in my eye when I say we’re a growing company, and I’m really excited to have Leslie on this project and moving forward," Cusack says.
Circling back to the Wilburys, if Moore is Dylan, "maybe I'm Tom Petty," Cusack muses. Which probably makes Rouse George Harrison and Treadsack director of operations Benjy Mason Jeff Lynne. Does that mean Ross is Roy Orbison?
"I just want to be me," Ross says. "I’m pretty awesome. I like my life."