The Bistro at Red Bank: Still Fresh at 15, Bistro Owner George Lyristis talks the restaurant business, Red Bank, and keeping it fresh.
By Edward Van Embden
It’s between lunch and dinner service and things are quiet at the Bistro in Red Bank. A couple of women occupy a table close to the front window – they’re sharing the restaurant with a four-top in the back – and when their food arrives, one picks up a fork, the other a set of chopsticks.
George Lyristis stands in front of the Bistro's brick oven
The Bistro’s menu has always been a bit schizophrenic. It all at once aims to specialize in sushi, Mediterranean, French and New American cuisine, pizza, and, of course, Asian-fusion, which it was doing long before every restaurant decided to throw a couple of spring roll appetizers on their menus.
In some respects, the whole idea sounds like it shouldn’t work, and maybe, in the wrong hands, it would all be a disaster. In an industry where broad and complex can sometimes eschew simple and delicious, the Bistro is an anomaly. The thing of it is, you see, is that it works here. It has for 15 years.
That’s why they call the Bistro a Red Bank an institution.
“It’s not a gimmick,” Owner George Lyristis said. “We’re always changing and we’re always dedicated to staying current. We love what we do and it reflects in each one of our dishes.”
Lyristis has been moving from the dining room, to the kitchen, to his office where he’s been on the phone with vendors. People have come to expect quality in the food they get here, he said, and that’s not going to change.
He also rejects the notion that the seemingly odd assortment of dishes on his menu somehow doesn’t make sense. Clearly, he’s gotten this question before. That’s why he’s got an executive chef in Jorge Manino and an executive sushi chef in Danny Soto making sure that their respective areas of expertise stay theirs.
In the restaurant’s entryway are newspaper reviews and magazine features hanging up on the wall. Plaqued and shellacked. Most of them are a testament to the big splash the restaurant made when it first opened – the hip new spot in New Jersey’s revitalized hip city.
It’s been more than a decade since most of them were written. Even presented prominently on wood behind a shinny gloss, the magazine pages and newspaper articles have yellowed over time. In restaurant years, the Bistro is old hat, the granddaddy of downtown Red Bank’s finer dining movement.
Lyristis, taking a few minutes from his schedule to sit down, falls into the trap of reminiscing about those days and the initial attention; the Bistro splashed all over print and photo spreads. Even Jon Bon Jovi is a fan, he said. He gave the Bistro a shout-out on the radio, told the world he loved the restaurant, that it was his favorite.
When asked when she gave the Bistro that glowing review, Lyristis casually mentions that it happened, oh, about a decade ago.
“Those were good times back then,” he said.
Sure, things are different now. It’s not that the Bistro has fallen off – yellowed like so many hanging reviews – it’s just that things have changed. The economy tanked and the town’s culture changed. For a fragile ecosystem like Red Bank’s downtown, the faltering economy has spelled disaster for many of its shops and restaurants.
But, the resilience of his restaurant is a point of pride. While empty storefronts stick out like pockmarks on the face of the downtown, the Bistro, one of the originals in that revitalization effort, remains open. There’s a bit of defiance in Lyristis’ voice, too, when he says that while everyone else was closing down, he and his two brothers, Charlie and Taso, with whom he owns the Bistro, were expanding. That expansion is Zoe Bistro, which recently opened in Little Silver.
“Behind the success,” Lyristis said, recalling a history of restaurant ownership that began with his father. “It was failure that drove us to success. You learn a lot from losing money.”
The biggest lesson Lyristis learned came from dad. He opened a catering business but expanded too fast. Ultimately, the venture went under, something Lyristis isn’t willing to see happen to the Bistro.
He’s not willing to let the town go under, either.
Lyristis has been a voice for downtown businesses. Recently, representing the Red Bank business community, Lyristis approached the borough council with a list of suggestions on how it could help improve conditions and make the town more visitor-friendly.
That list, with its eight items covering everything from poor parking to messy sidewalks, was written by Lyristis but co-signed by downtown businesses.
Friend and fellow restaurateur, Anthony Ferrando, the owner of Dish, A Restaurant, and Red Bank’s current culinary darling, jokingly calls Lyristis Red Bank’s self-appointed mayor.
Lyristis has clout, he said, because the Bistro’s been doing it for so long.
For now, Lyristis is looking forward to the future. That’s the immediate future and the big-picture future, if you were wondering. Though he was mum on details, saying he hadn’t yet signed the contract, Lyristis said he’s expanding again. In the very near future, and if things go the way he thinks they will, Lyristis and his brothers will take over one of Red Bank’s other restaurants. They plan on featuring Asian cuisine.
“I don’t fear the competition, I love it. Even if the competition is me,” he said. “There are plenty of people looking for places to eat in town.”
Here, in Red Bank, he said, you’ve got something special. All the Bistro needs to do is ride it out, maintain the consistent quality it always has, and those good old days when the wives of rock stars peg you as their favorite spot will come back around once again.
“I love Red Bank,” he said. “You’ll never see this type of thing anywhere else. It’s tough right now, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Hey, we’re still here.”
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