Five Questions: Jonathan Makar of Snackbar
Jonathan Makar opened Snackbar restaurant on Rittenhouse Square to good reviews back in 2006. Since then, the fare has transformed from molecular gastronomy to more familiar European flavors. Late last year, Makar partnered with Urban Outfitters to open a Snackbar outpost in the company’s new Hollywood retail space, inching the 28-year-old restaurateur in the direction of bicoastal business mogul. We caught him on his cell phone in L.A. to get an update on the new Snackbar there and recent changes at the Rittenhouse original.
Why export Snackbar to L.A.? And how do you keep tabs on restaurants that are on opposite sides of the country?
Before the company moved to the Naval Yard, Urban Outfitter’s headquarters was on Rittenhouse Square, so a lot of the executives still live there. The president is a Snackbar regular. And as they were planning this new shopping space in L.A., a lifestyle center they call it, we talked a lot about our businesses, and they asked me to open a restaurant there. I have always wanted to work with these guys, and I really related to what they want to do with this idea of experiential retail, so that’s how Snackbar L.A. happened. And these days, with e-mail and cell phones, it’s easy to be in two places at once. Plus, I moved four longtime Snackbar staff members out there to make sure things would run smoothly.
The Snackbar L.A. menu — mostly salads, burgers, and sandwiches — is so much simpler than the menu in Philly. Why is that?
We’re a product of our environment. In L.A., people react more to atmosphere than food. Restaurants are more theater. We still pay attention to details and make things with care, but most of the food is just more straightforward; I don’t know whether it’s because people feel overwhelmed with options or they are reluctant to try new things. I mean, it’s segmented. There are celebrity-chef-type restaurants that are filled every night, but most of the food is simple.
Snackbar in Philly has been continually evolving since it opened. Can you tell me about your recent changes?
We have a new menu, with more options than ever. We have a new chef, too, John Taus, who comes from Zahav, where he was a sous chef. We worked together on the new menu. For example, he loves flatbread and pasta, so we were sure to have that on the menu. We’re still going in the same direction, more toward a European all-day dining thing, but Snackbar is totally a product of the regulars and the people who have worked here.
What was it like to have Snackbar L.A. featured on The Hills?
I couldn’t believe it. We were the opening shot of the season — it was the outside of the restaurant, you could see the sign, Snackbar L.A. Heidi had lunch here. The crew came in, set up, the girls ate, we waited on them, and then they left. It’s not a big deal out here. I’m so over the Hills drama … do you not watch the show? They say that all the time: “I’m so over the drama.” But nobody was starstruck. I’ll tell you the one celebrity that left me starstruck was Stephen Starr. I saw him walking outside the restaurant and I ran out and grabbed him. I’d met him once at a Best of Philly party. He didn’t remember me. But I was excited — I brought him in to show him the restaurant, the menu.
Does Urban Outfitters plan to launch more of these retail spaces with a restaurant? Will Snackbar be involved? Any chance you’ll bring Urban and Snackbar together in Philly?
That’s the idea. There’s definitely talk of that. But not here in Philly. Here, I want to focus on the original Snackbar. That’s my baby.