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Carli's Fine Bistro & Piano

The Birth of a Jazzy Restaurant


When someone (the staff accountant of the hotel where I was playing at the time) said to me some time in mid 1997, ‘Carli, why don’t you open your own restaurant?’ My response was just a candid ‘m… why not?’ Must likely, he new something I didn’t, at least from an accountants point of view! He knew the numbers, he must have been well aware of the outflow of daily expenditures of a restaurant, but I figured he also must have known that my jazz trio was drawing a strong and steady clientele and was also creating an identity for the restaurant where i was playing at the time. I only know that at any different time in my life I might have responded much differently. Did the question just happen to land at the right time? I had just concluded one of my many acts of opening a season of jazz trio for a new or remodeled hotel; this time it was the El Convento Hotel in the old city of San Juan.


Following up on the high demand of my jazz trio at the time, it didn’t take long to land a new contract at the new kid around the block; The Ritz Carlton in Isla Verde. We literally opened these new, exciting and elegant venues (as had also been the case at the Westin Rio Mar and El Conquistador Hotel & Resort, when they first opened), from day one. The fact that they were new made it that much more exciting. It was exciting indeed, but the excitement turned soon enough into practical observation. The “seed” had been planted and there was no turning back. During that time I was living in Old San Juan, at Parque Las Palomas. It was a tiny one bedroom two story apartment, but it certainly had the right elements; peace and quiet, not to mention the one arched window overlooking the park and the bay with the constant flow of an odd variety of cargo ships and mammoth cruisers, and the southern mountain range in the horizon. At night Cataño would glow along with the tiny lights, and further out in the mountains reminding me of another place at another time, far away. It wasn’t long till my observations started feeding my ideals. By then I had a fairly clear idea of what I wanted, and certainly; what I didn’t want. During that period I had become clear of the many shortcomings that kept these top notch venues from reaching a level of excellence, consistent with my professional standards. I demanded much of myself, and I expected the same level of professionalism and excellence from the staff and management from where I was working. After all; we were serving the same clients, I thought! I couldn’t begin count the number of times I felt embarrassed when a wait staff or manager at one of this expensive resorts simply ignored the basic and immediate needs a client. There were times when I would cut short a song I’d be playing on the piano, and go to the waiter station and interrupt some trivial and personal chatter among the staff to tell them that OUR client needed service!


When I was in high school I wasn’t doted with high grades and much of it was soon anyway forgotten (ask me about a school subject of those times and you will get a blank stare but ask me about the music I was listening to or who I heard playing and you’ll be sure to get an enthusiastic reply), but I do have a faint recollection of enjoying some special projects, specially the ones that involved cut and paste. Of course in those times cut and paste meant literally cut the paper or whatever and glue it to the cardboard. The year I worked at the Ritz I had plenty of spare time on my hands. I only worked 3 to 4 nights a week and made enough money to be comfortable. The early afternoons in Old San Juan were lazy and dreamy and gave me the opportunity to enjoy the idiosyncrasies of living in the old city. But the seed had been planted and it was the time to put an idea whose time had come into action. As I gathered some old colored pencils I had, erasers, scissors, glue, rulers, triangles, sheets of cardboard and every magazine I could find with pictures that fitted my idea of a jazz club/restaurant, I started my cut and paste process. I also gathered menus, food service related forms, and list of suppliers and contacts, some of them generously handed down by friends in the industry like Emilio Figueroa, whom I had befriended when I was working at the El Conquistador and had then just successfully opened the Parrot Club. I didn’t have a model venue at the time, and I still don’t! In the cut and paste process I picked up ideas from here and there, but it served basically as a canvas in which to express and gather some of my own ideas. Once I had a local in mind (my first option was an underground space at the El Convento Hotel), it was easy enough for me to dream up and make diagrams and fill them with cut ups and more drawings. Maybe something did stick from my father being a genial architect…he wanted me to be one too, and I resisted!


Great! So I had a plan, an idea, and it looked nice and made sense…to me! By then I had gathered an attractive scrapbook filled with drawings, cutups, forms, an assortment of menus, models of all kinds of permits, etc. There was just one item missing: the financing. I didn’t have a pro-forma and didn’t how to make one either. Remember the accountant at the beginning of the story? At that point I turned to him like a baby turns to mother for milk, but his wisdom towards me had already maxed out by asking me “Carli, why don’t you open your own restaurant?” So, I was on my own, with a scrapbook full of dreams that in the eyes of banks and financiers looked more like a bone without the meat. One of the (sometimes good) idiosyncrasies of living in Old San Juan, is that word gets around fast. It didn’t take long for people (new acquaintances and friends alike) to stop me regularly on the streets and ask me about the restaurant I was going to open. Apparently the bone was attractive enough to show the degree of intention, passion and serious thought for detail put into the project. It was walking on the streets of the old city where I met my partner and financier to be, Jim Bonbright. Jim had heard me performed and had also heard from mutual friends that I wanted to open my own restaurant. Being a man of vision Jim saw beyond the bone and became my ally and partner.


After deciding on an equitable business structure and financing scheme, my partner and I gathered a team of mutual friends, most of them artist and top notch in their fields, who contributed passionately to what today is Carli's Fine Bistro & Piano (then Carli Café Concierto). Some of the early valiant warriors were Daphne Elvira, Nildin Saldaña, Angel Valentín, Jorge Zeno, Jeff West, Chef Patricia Wilson, and Chef Jorge Cruz. Early in the process the locale at the El Convento didn’t work out and we finally opted for the space below Banco Popular Building in Old San Juan which included a lovely plazoleta with a view to the bay and was surrounded by historical buildings. The idea for the name Carli came from the artist Jorge Zeno. He had offered to make the logotype by hand on black ink. We had casually gotten together one evening and over a few glasses of wine opted for a different name. The following morning he called me and told me that he had dreamed that the name should be Carli. So, along with a concept of café concerto from Vienna in the 18th century that I had researched, we decided to call it Carli Café Concierto. Working day and night and in approximately six month after, we opened the doors to Carli Café Concierto; the name was later changed for better identity to Carli’s Fine Bistro & Piano.


The night that we opened, December 27, 1998, after handling some of the last details, I had taken a break to go home and change clothes. When I was walking back approaching the plaza, and I see all the tables full of all kinds of people; there were tourist, locals, out in the terrace and in the indoors dining, and I say to myself: “what are all these people doing in my house?” It was a spontaneous reaction. After working day and night for six month with my friends who by then we had laughed and cried and had become a family it just all hit me by surprise! I was just going to have a “soft opening” and to see the place full from the moment we opened the doors startled me.

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