Meet the Most Important Restaurant Guy You’ve Never Heard of
Ever wonder why L.A. bars close at 2 a.m.? (If you think this city has no nightlife, you’ve obviously never been to Coffee Bean at 9 p.m., the joke goes.) Turns out it’s a state law leftover from the end of Prohibition that never got repealed. Or ever wonder why some places won’t let you use their restroom, even though they serve food and drink? It’s because in places with “high transient activity,” businesses can decline to have publicly available facilities. Apparently the health department doesn’t require you to have customer restrooms unless you’re serving alcohol, unless your building was built after 2004.
Or how about this one: Ever notice that some places only serve wine and Champagne cocktails, and they get really creative with them? It’s because they have to, because hard liquor licenses are so damn expensive. In a city like L.A., they can run you $100,000—and in San Francisco, they’re around $250,000.
These cryptic but impactful regulations are what Eddie Navarette, also known as "Fast Eddie," helps restaurants navigate—and some of L.A.’s best wouldn’t be open without him.
It’s not just that he’s able to parse obscure and convoluted laws. He’s the guy who sits in at neighborhood council meetings, who’ll let you know if the restaurant you’re thinking about leasing actually isn’t zoned to be a restaurant although it’s been operating as one for the last twenty years (it happens), and who'll tell you if that innocent looking patio awning you’re thinking about putting up is against code. It’s not just that laws are obscure and convoluted and hard to decipher—although they are. It’s that with restaurants and bars, there are so many regulatory departments that sometimes their rules actually contradict each other.
“You have the health department telling you to do one thing, and yet the building and safety [department] who’s in charge of you putting in that thing [no one] has gotten a permit with, because no one wants to go through that process. And when it comes to the point where they have to go through it, that’s when all hell breaks loose,” Navarette says.
And he’s not just talking about the process of taking over a restaurant or, good luck to you, building your own from the ground up. (He advises against the latter.) Even something as simple as putting in a hand sink is a bureaucratic landmine. In Los Angeles, for example, there’s the County of L.A. to abide by, and then individual cities within that—like Beverly Hills or Culver City—and then you have all your state building codes, too.
Navarette isn’t a lawyer, or an architect, or an engineer—although he works closely with all three. He actually started out as a musician and got his first job working for a guy named Patrick Panzarello, who did kitchen design and alcohol licensing for restaurants.
“People just kind of knew him as Patrick, he was just this guy. He was 350 pounds, 7 feet tall. When I interviewed, he had no shirt on. He was rolling joints as I came in,” Navarette recalls. “I got hired on the spot.” (He worked for him for a little under three years before ducking out on his own.)
Despite showing up stoned at client meetings, Panzarello was good at his job, and he had a lot of high-profile clients at the time. “There weren’t a lot of people doing what I do or what he was doing back then,” Navarette says, referring to the one-stop-shop restaurant consultant concept.
This was in the early aughts, and L.A.’s restaurant scene wasn’t as high profile as it is now. It was always a food mecca, of course, even before the country cocked an ear to Jonathan Gold singing the praises of Szechuan restaurants in the Valley. But it wasn’t as saturated as it is now, bloated with New York wealth. It is now home to David Chang’s Majordomo, Dushan Zaric’s Employees Only, April Bloomfield’s Hearth and Hound, and Will Guidara and Daniel Humm’s NoMad LA, all NY-based restaurants that opened in the past year.
Today, Navarette is the guy these people call when they want to break into the L.A. market—which, everyone, maybe even The Michelin Guide, does.
“I can’t tell how you many people I’ve been seeing from Europe lately,” he says. “Really trying to take advantage of the fertile soil we have. I think that California in general has a lot of valuable resources for restaurateurs. We have wine country, whether it be Santa Barbara or Napa or anything in between. We have a lot of farms in the area, we have great weather for farms. The synergy between all these things works really well for restaurants.”
And everyone’s trying to get in on the action. And if you’re one of those people—Eddie Navarette might just be the guy you need to talk to.