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WeHo@Work: Tom Doherty’s Gamble Made Cafe d’Étoile a WeHo Institution

Fri, Jul 21, 2017   By Michael Jortner    16 Comments

Cafe D’Étoile owner Tom Doherty. “There isn’t anything on the menu I would not get.” (Photo by Michael Jortner)

It takes Tom Doherty, 51, a really, really long time to tell me what he would order if he were dining in his very own restaurant, the WeHo institution and French-themed Café D’Étoile. “I’m really having difficulty,” Doherty admitted as he scanned the menu.

“First of all,” Doherty said, “we make all of our own stocks, all of our own desserts.”

Okay, cool. But what would you recommend?

“The kitchen is the size of a walk-in closet with two ovens. They’re in use 24 hours a day.”

Uh-huh. And you would have the…, what’s that now?

“You have to start at four in the morning. If you don’t have space, you’ll figure out how to make it work.”

What to do? “Like if a new patron walks in and asks what they should order for dinner on a warm summer evening?” I prodded, hoping I was helpful.

Like many of us who sit down for a good meal, Doherty started off with alcohol, going from light to weighty. After announcing he’s offering “9, 10, 12 new wines” Doherty said, “We also make our own sangrias, white and red. It always gets people in trouble ‘cause it’s so yummy.”

What got my attention were his new craft cocktails: Old Fashioneds. Doherty actually left our table to retrieve one from a refrigerator. He was excited. “We actually put them in mason jars, sugar, syrup, all the ingredients…su vis,” Doherty said. “It means under glass.” “You cook them for about 4 hours…bain marie…[they] sit in water. Nothing is allowed to escape. The flavor is unreal.”

Eventually I teased out an appetizer suggestion. “On a warm summer night,” Doherty trailed off, “definitely like to throw back fresh oysters, east coast Blue Points with a watermelon shot.” Not vodka, tequila. “[It’s] not like tequila of the past that’s harsh,” Doherty said, “it’s really a whole new tequila.”

The exterior of Cafe D’Étoile offers patrons lunch and dinner al fresco. (Photo by Michael Jortner)

And for an entrée? (Concentrate, Tom. Look at your menu.) Doherty sighed, “It’s really hard to sift through because there isn’t anything on the menu I would not get.” Fine. It’s all good. Diners can order whatevs and walk away satisfied.

Doherty grew up in North Andover, Mass. Describing himself as “110% Irish,” he’s proud of having four sisters and two brothers. “My six favorite people in the world,” said Doherty. “In my case, family feeds your soul.”

After earning his business degree with an emphasis in hotel management from UMass Amherst, Doherty worked and lived in Baltimore, Detroit and Philadelphia. In 1990 he took the opportunity to work at the Loews in Santa Monica. “I never thought of living on the Left Coast,” Doherty admitted, “as opposed to the Right Coast – as in the Correct Coast.”

Doherty stayed in the City of Angels and lived on the Westside. “I was still coming out,” Doherty explained, “hanging out at Rooster Fish where you could be doing your laundry across the street.”

His next two gigs prepared him for the restaurateur he is today. “I hit the streets with a resume just like everyone else,” Doherty said, “and found a job waiting tables.” He then learned the retail side working “for a guy named Hans Röckenwagner. A great chef, one of the greatest guys I ever met.”

But around 1993 he got real. Although offered a corporate hotel job again, he was hesitant. “As you move up the ladder it becomes more and more about the numbers,” Doherty said, “less and less about the people.”

That did it. Definitely a people person, Doherty decided it was time to start his own business. “I had five dollars in my pocket,” Doherty said. “And somehow I’m gonna make this happen.”

Café D’Étoile was already an established restaurant when Doherty got a tip from a friend that the place may come up for sale. “It was an absolute sh—t hole,” Doherty said, not mincing words. “It was just dirty and gross. [But] it did have clientele.”

WeHo residents and visitors may not know that “in the 1950s it was a bar with a pool table,” Doherty said, “The Barrel.” “Late 60s it became L’Etoile, a sort of very high-end French restaurant.” And in 1983 it was renamed Café D’Étoile, although “it’s not grammatically correct,” Doherty explained. “It should be Café de L’Étoile.”

Like so many dreamers in this town (film school students, anyone?) his older brother helped Doherty finance the purchase – via credit cards. “We applied for every bit of credit we could get,” said Doherty, and came up with the 150 grand they needed. “You have cash and love, what could go wrong?”

Perhaps a lot, but Café D’Étoile now has 24 employees, quite a few of whom have been with Doherty for over 20 years. When asked why he thinks that is, Doherty replied, “When [people] find something decent, they want to stay. In addition, I’m not a trigger happy guy.” Translation: he’s created a good place to work – and he’s an awesome guy.

Doherty offered a historical perspective on the two sides of gay L.A. that he has experienced. “When I bought this place, I had been to WeHo once,” Doherty said. “To the Westside [WeHo] was considered a freak show.” And guys in WeHo saw those on the Westside as “just a bunch of closeted homos who didn’t have the balls to live [here].”

This restaurateur may also be an armchair sociologist. “In a gay restaurant it’s very weird,” Doherty explained, “the customers.” “You can have a director of oncology sitting here who’s hitting on a 24-year-old waiter.” What’s his point? That “there are certain hierarchical, socioeconomic differences that do not matter when gay men get together.”

Café D’Étoile, the Great Equalizer? Vive la difference.

But is the place a “gay restaurant,” for men only? “In the early days it was probably 98%,” said Doherty. “Now, probably 75% gay-ish” That “ish” means something. Doherty said the city is changing. “Lots of people are buying in WeHo, and they’re paying big dollars. They’re straight. They’re gonna come down to local places as well.”

Celebrities are no strangers to Café d’Étoile. Sitting in the opposite corner from Doherty and myself when we conducted this interview was Rachel Lindsay of “The Bachelorette”.  Doherty said she comes in for lunch now and again. She sat with Cary Fetman, her “award-winning dress designer,” according to Doherty.

However, there are two stars that definitely made an impression. “I’d say probably one chick that really turned me on was Nicole Kidman,” Doherty recalled. It was about 10 years ago. “Someone called me and said I should come in. And I did, just so I could watch her eat. I really did.”

I asked Doherty if he requested her autograph. Shocked, Doherty replied, “That would be awful.” “You just get a feel for who wants attention. And who wants to be left alone.”

Fair enough. Yet Doherty did suggest something to Diahann Carroll, who dines there frequently. “She’s sitting here,” Doherty said, gesturing with his hands and arms. “I said to her, ‘We should really go out to lunch sometime.’ And she says, ‘Tom, that is simply never going to happen.’” Doherty smiled. “She is a complete laugh riot. So smart, so fun, outrageous.”

Tom Doherty, green sweater, center, has a unique sense of humor. This image was used as a holiday greeting card a few years ago. Note the Zuber mural in the background. (Photo supplied by Cafe D’Étoile)

Speaking of names with cachet, there is one thing Doherty itched to tell me. He pointed to his eastern wall. “It’s a 47-foot, nonrepeating, two-foot panel mural,” Doherty said. If you’ve eaten at Café D’Étoile, you’ve seen it. It’s a Zuber. “It’s all in two-foot panels,” he repeated with pride. In a moment of wild serendipity, Doherty received the valuable piece of art as payment for a catering job way back in the day. “It actually cost more to hang the thing.”

When I noticed Doherty wore two large metal-and-wood rings on his left hand, he said, “I do have a husband.” Twirling both around his finger he added, “He’s lost weight so I’m wearing both.”

Husband Rick, a software salesman, and Doherty met 19 years ago when Rick was a customer who traveled down from San Francisco for work. Married for three-and-a-half years, Doherty told me, “Koa wood…it means bravery, strength, all of this very manly [stuff].” Does he relate to that? “It sounded pretty cool,” he admitted.

If you’ve ever fantasized about opening your own restaurant, listen to some Doherty input. “If you were to say, ‘Why is this place successful?,’” Doherty said, “I don’t have a f—cking clue.”

He said the blessing and the curse are in the intangibles, “things that just can’t be explained.” “You can do all the studying you want,” Doherty said, “you have no way of knowing how what you do is gonna turn out, what kind of effect it’s gonna have on your clientele.”

One thing he does know, though, is that Friday and Saturday nights are where the gold is. “You’re only making money about eight to nine hours a week,” said Doherty. “Every other hour you spend, the other 70 hours, you’re actually paying a little bit of money.”

Doherty ultimately, I think, just maybe, decided what he would recommend for dinner. “The sea bass is outrageous,” said Doherty. “Somebody came in yesterday – it’s a beautiful piece of fish – ‘You know what I want? I want a piece of sea bass on a burger bun with that fresh tartar sauce you make.’” Doherty shrugged. The guy ended up paying $37 for a fish sandwich.

But if that’s what the customer wants, again, Doherty: “Do what you gotta…sh—t like that is the best.” You know, on a warm summer evening in WeHo.

Café D’Étoile
8941 1/2 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069
(310) 278-1011
cafedetoile.net
CafeDEtoile@gmail.com

CORRECTION:  An earlier version of this story identified the celebrity dining at Cafe d’Etoile with designer Cary Fetman as “Scandal” star Kerry Washington. According to Fetman, he was dining with Rachel  Lindsay of “The Bachelorette”. The story has been corrected.

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Michael Jortner

About Michael Jortner

Michael Jortner writes about entrepreneurs, leaders and influencers running small businesses in and around West Hollywood. More information can be found at michaeljortner.com and Jortner can be reached at writer@michaeljortner.com

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16 Comments

  1. Tom dohertyWed, Jul 26, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    Luca d,
    I meant no disrespect. Patrick and I are still friends and email often .
    I have a crass tone, but it’s still called the Toilet and I’m ok
    with that!!!
    😂😂😂

  2. Dan MorinWed, Jul 26, 2017 at 12:52 am

    While I like the restaurant with its very moderate prices, I still lament the loss of the Garden District and the Carriage Trade plus other restaurants which catered to a gay male clientele. But those days, unfortunately, are over.

  3. Hernan MolinaMon, Jul 24, 2017 at 2:55 pm

    Great restaurant, great food and the nicest staff.. Tom is a gentleman.

  4. luca dMon, Jul 24, 2017 at 1:21 pm

    it is a landmark business in weho but was a success even before the current owners. while i appreciate that any business needs a refresh and new blood, to call the restaurant a ‘sh@% hole’ is a bit crass and ungrateful. when tom took over, there was a a steady clientele and a lot of good will. the previous owner was a lovely man who loved his customers and staff. and is not deserving of such a unnecessary criticism. hey tom, your bathrooms are still ‘gas station’ quality.
    oh and by the way when liza with a z shows up at the bar one afternoon like she once did on her way to an aa meeting, then talk to me about celebrities.

  5. Steve MartinMon, Jul 24, 2017 at 9:47 am

    Hank, we need more wonderful stories like this one. We love Tom and Rick.

  6. GeorgeMon, Jul 24, 2017 at 9:35 am

    It has been there a long time now but I personally preferred the “Greenery” which was once a very popular restaurant ga people flocked to for breakfast, unch & dinner. Great after hours hang out!

  7. Bennett YellinMon, Jul 24, 2017 at 7:28 am

    Love me some Tom and his delicious Cafe d’Etoile! Over the many years I’ve been a patron, I’ve enjoyed several memorable birthday dinners there. And always, always, always, Tom and his terrific staff have made my dining experience delightful. I’m thrilled to have it as one of my neighborhood restaurants.

  8. MannyFri, Jul 21, 2017 at 10:42 pm

    ……and the food’s great!

  9. StephanieFri, Jul 21, 2017 at 9:07 pm

    The reason the cafe is a jewel is because of this guy… the owner, Tom! He keeps it running like a top. All his staff are amazing, as well. We have celebrated major milestones with prime rib or sea bass with a martini. We’ve come here for a simple lunch with the southwestern club and fries with a beer. And, we’ve stopped by for a crab appetizer and a glass of wine. Thanks Cafe d’Etoile!

  10. MannyFri, Jul 21, 2017 at 5:12 pm

    Darn it Leslie K, you beat me to it……Agreed.

  11. Out to pastureFri, Jul 21, 2017 at 5:04 pm

    its a gay Cheers! Wheee everybody knows ur name. Tom is a great guy, community oriented and a great friend. Be there at 7!

  12. Linda O'SullivanFri, Jul 21, 2017 at 4:41 pm

    Love this story! The Cafe is successful simply because my brother Tom is an amazing man who just loves people and good food!

  13. Leslie KFri, Jul 21, 2017 at 12:19 pm

    Tom asks why the restaurant is so successful. Clearly it’s because Tom and the people who work for him make it so inviting. The food is almost secondary.

  14. JJFri, Jul 21, 2017 at 11:35 am

    Love Cafe d’Etoile! Tom is a great guy, the staff is wonderful and the food is good! Very thankful we have this neighborhood gem!

  15. Jennifer MeagherFri, Jul 21, 2017 at 10:37 am

    GREAT article about a Great restaurant and even better restaurant owner!! A little surprised that I’m not featured in the piece though, lol.

  16. MikeFri, Jul 21, 2017 at 8:33 am

    Quite fond of this restaurant. I’ve been dining here for well over 20 years.

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