Monument to an ego

Why is multimillionaire Scott Ginsburg building one of the world's most expensive restaurants in Dallas? Because he can.

Scott Ginsburg's foray into the restaurant business doesn't surprise those who know him and have followed his moves over the years. They say Voltaire will be a monument to his considerable ego, a stamp he feels compelled to make on the Dallas cultural landscape that rivals the one he left on its business landscape. "This is his Bentley. This is his jet," says a longtime business associate. "This is his town. He's going to be in that restaurant continuously."

Such charges of personal-monument-building may have merit. Just months after he began dismantling the building that is to become Voltaire, Ginsburg snapped up the Town North Porsche dealership off Central Expressway in Richardson for an estimated $2.5 million, according to court records. He is now in the process of relocating the dealership to Plano Parkway, where he's erecting a new structure from the ground up. He'll call it simply The Porsche Store. At 43,000 square feet, Ginsburg boasts, it will be the largest Porsche dealership in the country when it opens in December.

Managing partner Khanh Dao says, "Voltaire will be the most expensive restaurant built in Dallas. Probably in the top five in the country."
Judy Walgren
Managing partner Khanh Dao says, "Voltaire will be the most expensive restaurant built in Dallas. Probably in the top five in the country."
Ginsburg hopes that under the watchful eye of Dallas restaurant designer Paul Draper, Voltaire will become one of the best restaurants in the, make that the world.
Judy Walgren
Ginsburg hopes that under the watchful eye of Dallas restaurant designer Paul Draper, Voltaire will become one of the best restaurants in the, make that the world.

"Let me suggest that I don't have a small ego," snaps Ginsburg when asked why he is entering the restaurant business. "What drives American ingenuity is ego."

Some who rode with him on his radio wave claim his ego can be blistering. In particular, he directed abusive bursts of criticism at underlings, which at times led to abrupt exits among his staff. They say he's even been known to publicly scold waiters in restaurants. "He can be a screaming asshole," says a onetime colleague. "A type-A control freak. He's highly intelligent, but socially, he's a friggin' deviate."

Hinting at a more even temperament, Ginsburg says his ambitions were far more pedestrian when he first purchased the restaurant. Originally, he bought it for his two teenage children -- whom he refers to as his only partners in the deal -- to create a hamburger joint "so the kids always had a place to eat if dad isn't available."

"Of course," says the onetime colleague. "That sounds a little bit more humble than "'Hey, I want to build this edifice to my penis.'"

Ginsburg says his visions for the plot changed only when he realized the potential of the location. With luxury housing just a chip shot away and office construction on the rise, Ginsburg believed the site was an epicenter of considerable vibrancy. So he embarked on a meticulous planning and design process, relentlessly mulling over every detail during development. Visions for the menu and the restaurant were exclusively his, though he says he granted his hand-picked project planners flexibility in interpreting those visions.

His aim is to create a seamless experience, one that through choices of color, light, ambience, service, and cuisine strikes a perfect balance between comfort and charisma. The kitchen, with a staff of 45, is equipped with checkpoints to ensure mediocrity never infects the plate. For service, Ginsburg is developing a rigorous program he calls "Voltaire University," a system of continuous training for all service staff. To dazzle, he's installing pieces of art in striking settings to grip his guests with a sense of marvel.

"This is built from the ground up," says managing partner Dao. "Every angle of the restaurant is thought through. If you want to really make people believe in what you believe, you have to appeal to their senses. We're going to appeal to taste, smell, sound."

And light, color, and air. When Voltaire opens sometime in September, the 12,000-square-foot, 335-seat restaurant will have a ventilation system designed to maximize clean airflow while remaining virtually invisible. The lighting system (which during the day depends heavily on natural light) costs close to $1 million (not including special fixtures) and offers enormous flexibility within the dining spaces, in some cases permitting illumination from above, below, or the sides. Sound is controlled through strategically placed sound-absorptive surfaces, which Ginsburg contends will permit the space to generate natural ambient energy while deadening the noise that can make table conversation difficult.

Voltaire will have five wine stewards; a chef from Manhattan (George Papadopolous) who will craft French-girded, American-inspired, Asian-kissed cuisine; and a service manager (Kent Ingram) with a résumé stretching from Baby Routh to The Mansion.

But birthing this vision has been a long labor, one fraught with problems almost from conception. Once Ginsburg forked over the cash and got inside the structure, he discovered a building that was shoddily assembled. Almost no part of the former Harper's Restaurant, part of a chain of casual American grills, remains.

"The building was literally falling apart," says Charles Daboub of Charles Daboub Design Inc., the project's original architect. "There were bolts missing in the structural steel. The brick wasn't tied back...As we would remove a portion of a wall, the rest of it would fall."

Daboub, who designed the first Planet Hollywood in New York City and has designed some 30 Hard Rock Cafés around the world, was brought on board in March 1998. But by August, he, too, became a structural problem as disputes bubbled between him and Ginsburg, and all work ceased. "We started out with a designer who couldn't understand the vision," says Ginsburg.

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