Brian Lizotte isn’t a name dropper. Unless you ask him.
After 10 years of running Australia’s best entertainment restaurants, the 49-year-old paused recently to reflect on what he and his wife Jo had accomplished.
Since that first night in October 2002 when Jenny Morris played to a sellout crowd at the Ettalong War Memorial Club on the Central Coast, the Lizottes have put on 3000 shows at their three venues – Kincumber, Lambton and Dee Why. That includes 800 in Newcastle since he opened the doors in June 2009 with a show featuring Diesel, Beccy Cole, Deni Hines, Benjalu and Jason Lowe.
‘‘I was sitting in this corner at 2am drinking a red with Mick Fleetwood, to the point where it was getting uncomfortable,’’ he recalls during an interview inside the Lambton Lizotte’s restaurant on a sunny spring afternoon while drinking a beer and munching on a couple of plates of pistachios, marinated feta, olives, dip and crackers. ‘‘The boys in his band were still playing, nobody was in a hurry. Mick bought two paintings [Martine Ford works] off the wall while we were visiting. He said, ‘If I could ever find a place like this, I would love to have you come over and frock it out’.’’
That call from Mick Fleetwood at home in Maui hasn’t come yet, but it was a real thrill to know he had created something that was the envy of a music superstar.
The ingredients may not seem like a secret – music and food – but the execution of the recipe has been a spectacular success with the paying public. Thousands have paid top dollar to see their favourite stars in the most intimate environment, enjoying a top-shelf meal then sitting back with like-minded fans to enjoy the soundtracks of their lives in a comfortable setting with great acoustics.
The Lizottes have struck a rich vein with baby boomers willing to part with good money to feast on memories, music aficionados keen to hear rising stars, locals looking for a break from the rowdy pub scene.
‘‘We have a very big emphasis on enjoying the music,’’ Lizotte says. ‘‘People want to hear the music. The songs will live on forever. Dragon – there’s only one original member left ... but the energy they create – there’s almost always a big standing ovation. We just had Daryl Braithwaite in Dee Why. Everybody was standing on their feet.’’
The menus have never let anybody down either: Szechuan pepper squid, lemon aspen chicken, desserts to die for like New York cheesecake.
Lizotte’s Newcastle operation, in the former King’s Theatre on Morehead Street, is the reigning Best Entertainment Restaurant in Australia as judged by the Restaurant and Catering Association. All three restaurants are in the running for the title at this year’s awards, to be announced next month.
With a background in food catering to rock stars, Brian and Jo were uniquely qualified to open an entertainment restaurant.
‘‘When I began catering to the musos, I knew if we could create that special place backstage, we would be successful. Musicians travel on their stomachs. My philosophy has always been if I mix great food and great atmosphere back stage, I don’t have to do as much.’’
Take care of a musician and he’ll take care of you. Almost without fail, the musicians make mention of enjoying their meal at Lizotte’s at some time during the show. It’s an oasis between another McDonald’s or a KFC and another 800kilometres on the road to the next gig.
Eugene ‘‘Hideaway’’ Bridges, a mighty big bluesman from the US, always asks ‘‘where the squid’’ when he’s on his way.
Lizotte’s lemon myrtle tea is a magic potion to an entertainer’s throat. ‘‘I don’t think there’s a singer who doesn’t ask for it when they come,’’ says Lizotte. ‘‘Some artists won’t go on without a pot of lemon myrtle tea.’’
In the week we’re talking, Darren Percival has opened his tour at Lizotte’s Kincumber venue and he’s got two shows scheduled for Lizotte’s in Newcastle. He’s a prime example of another of the joys Lizotte gets from his ambitious business.
‘‘The best part of my job – we get rewarded on a regular basis by artists who are coming up the ranks. They or their managers realise they don’t have to play 200-seat restaurants. But they do [for us].’’
Darren Percival, winner of The Voice, is one of those. Julia Stone is another. Karise Eden, too.
‘‘We’re constantly supporting musos,’’ Lizotte says. ‘‘Karise Eden did her first little gigs at Kincumber. She did two shows. I liked her and gave her a support for Dragon one night. She was chuffed – she noted it on Facebook.
‘‘It’s something we’re very proud of.’’
Call it smart marketing, good business if you like, but giving young talent a classy stage at a top venue sounds like a recipe that’s going to pay dividends. In the last year Lizotte’s three venues have seen 34 high school entertainment ‘‘showcase’’ events.
In Newcastle every Wednesday is locals night, that is, local talent. ‘‘The philosophy for Live and Local is that if we support local musicians, the rest would take care of itself,’’ Lizotte says. ‘‘I’m a firm believer if you look after them, they are a community.’’
‘‘Bob Corbett. Mark Wells. Daniel March. Nick Saxon. Morgan Evans. Zoe K. Benjalu. Grant Walmsley and the Agents of Peace,’’ he reels off. ‘‘They’ve all sold out their shows here.’’
Almost every major show has a support act, which is part of Lizotte nurturing talent. It’s a tough gig – people are relaxing and chatting over dinner, they’ve come to hear to a star and they’re not paying attention to the music at that point.
‘‘It’s a different thing. But they’re cutting their teeth with that in mind. They have to cut through the red tape of people not listening. At times we will get a performer who will stop an audience.’’Music is in Lizotte’s blood. His father, Hank, was a muso – he played at the opening of the Newcastle restaurant; his brother Mark trades as Diesel, one of Australia’ foremost rock guitarists. Brian himself still occasionally takes up the trombone in backing brass bands.
Lizotte’s life is full of emails, possibilities, contacts, and travel. It’s not unusual for him to start the night at his Kincumber restaurant introducing an act and end the night thanking the crowd for coming at Dee Why.
When the heat’s on, you’ll find him waiting tables and seating customers if need be.
‘‘My favourite seat? Over here in the corner. I can see the whole space. I’m the worst customer. I cannot relax. I can always see something that’s not being done. I do enjoy a good glass of red, I’m currently enjoying a Saddler’s Creek Shiraz Viognier very much.’’
By the way, what’s playing in the car at the moment?
‘‘Darren Percival. I think he’s fabulous. Harry Manx and Eric Bibb are always there. Daniel March. And James Chatburn – he’s always on high rotation.’’
There’s no doubt about his love for music – it would be pretty hard to book so many acts if he didn’t have a passion for it. Newcastle punters are certainly the winners: Steve Earle, Martha Wainwright, Harry Manx, Judy Collins, Jimmy Barnes, Seeker Lover Keeper, John Hammond, The Church, Justin Townes Earle, Keb Mo, Josh Pyke. Tim Freedman, Tim Finn, Eric Bibb, Ian Moss, Brian Cadd, Don Walker. And a whole lot more.
Ever the optimist – a vital characteristic in a risky business – Lizotte is quick to provide a hit list of future shows he’d like to see at his venues: Mondo Rock (‘‘it’s a possibility’’), INXS, Bonnie Raitt. ‘‘I have so many favourite artists I’d love to see – a warm-up show, a surprise element,’’ Lizotte says. ‘‘You never know who we are going to announce yet. It’s those magic surprises, those little gems that make it special.’’
As Mick Fleetwood proves: anything is possible.