Up in smoke

Beverly Hills wine retailer Dennis Overstreet is animated. He enters the dining room of Lone Wolf, the restaurant-cigar lounge he operates with Texas television and film star Chuck Norris and actor Jim Belushi, wearing a dark suit with a long scarf hanging from his neck. He stops by one table and says he has taken the old lady and given her a new shade of lipstick and some rouge--his metaphor for the $100,000-plus facelift he has applied to the place.

It's early November, the first full weekend since the restaurant's reopening, and Overstreet is conducting a wine tasting to help promote the venue's new emphasis on fine wine. His instructional style is unusual. He hops and jumps around the tables of nascent wine enthusiasts like a wine steward on a pogo stick. He boasts that his 90-minute class will transform participants into wine experts with skills rivaling many restaurant professionals. He tells the gathering that placing a hand over a wineglass filled with red wine and shaking it vigorously will help determine a wine's age--a dubious wine-evaluation trick. If the resulting foam is white, it's older than 12 years; if it's tinged red, the wine is younger.

A woman loudly laughs at one of his quips. "Are you rich, honey?" he asks. "'Cause I need a partner in this restaurant that's richer than Chuck."

The Walker, Texas Ranger star is the least of Overstreet's partner problems. The previous weekend, former Mansion matre d' Wayne Broadwell and Sipango founding chef (most recently of III Forks) Matt Antonovich, the partners Overstreet had hoped would bring Lone Wolf to fine dining prominence in Dallas, walked out just as the dining room was reopening with a new upscale menu. Customers are now greeted with a conspicuous gap on Lone Wolf's plate-glass front door where the men's names were listed between those of Norris, Belushi, and Overstreet.

Broadwell and Antonovich cite disputes over artistic direction and sharp disagreements with Overstreet's management style for their abrupt departure. "We wanted an upscale diner where you could have fabulous cuisine to match Dennis' fabulous wine," says Broadwell. "So we go in there with that concept, and they cut us off at the kneecaps."

Founder and longtime operator of the Wine Merchant of Beverly Hills, Overstreet reached an operational agreement with Norris and Lone Wolf last summer after the venue generated disappointing results since opening late last year. The management pact provides Overstreet with a framework to eventually purchase the restaurant.

But the operations shuffle resulted in the departure of opening general manager Bill Vallentine--onetime operating partner of 8.0 and general manager of Sambuca in Deep Ellum--and his staff just before Overstreet brought on Broadwell and Antonovich. Overstreet cut them in on the management corporation he formed to operate Lone Wolf, giving Broadwell a 20 percent chunk and Antonovich a 7.5 percent share (the pair invested no personal funds).

Broadwell and Antonovich maintain that Overstreet lured them into the deal with promises he would give them free rein to transform Lone Wolf into a top-flight dining room with their personal stamp. But after a couple of weeks, they suspected that what Overstreet really wanted was a low-cost, downscale bistro menu to ride on the local cachet of their names. "They offered me an equity position, and their last comment to us was, 'I'll see you in a year when we're ready to go public,'" says Antonovich. "If you really want to say it, they lied. They knew I wasn't going to go in there and serve bistro food."

"That's absolutely not the case," counters Overstreet's lawyer and spokesman Gerrit Pronske, who doesn't discount the possibility of litigation over their sudden departure. "[Overstreet] would not have hired Wayne and Matt if that was the direction he was looking for. That really wouldn't have made any sense."

Pronske, who confirms that Norris and Overstreet seek to replicate Lone Wolf and take it public, believes what really precipitated the split was a four-page policies and procedures manual Overstreet faxed to Broadwell and Antonovich October 30 with a demand to sign the document or tender their resignations. The manual required approval from Overstreet and his Beverly Hills office for all purchases and stipulated that kitchen labor costs not exceed 25 percent of monthly gross food sales.

"They tried to run it like a retail shop, with purchase orders and tight reins from Beverly Hills," snaps Antonovich, who resented Overstreet's attempt to "micromanage" his kitchen. "We were partners, and you don't ask partners to have to fax you every time you want to spend $800 in a restaurant."

While Antonovich and Broadwell found Overstreet's policies unreasonable, Pronske maintains they were crucial for cash-flow control as well as to check theft. "Obviously, there's a lot of ego involved," Pronske says of their reaction. "It's the 'don't tell me what to do' kind of thing."

After refusing to sign Overstreet's policies, the two attempted to gain control of the operation. In Late August, Norris and Dallas businessman Dennis Berman purchased the building Lone Wolf occupies along with a nearby parking lot for $1.4 million by exercising an option Norris acquired when he purchased the The Joint on Turtle Creek restaurant and club, the previous tenant, in late 1997. Broadwell and Antonovich offered Norris the same amount, a proposal that was immediately rejected because area property values have surged markedly since the option was picked up (Norris' real estate group had to sue owners of The Joint owners to secure the option).

But because Overstreet was put in a bind with their resignations coming just before opening, he offered to let the pair buy him out. It was while exploring various options to take over the restaurant that Broadwell and Antonovich say their suspicions were aroused concerning Overstreet's intent. Because they couldn't secure a long-term lease to operate in the space (set at $12,000 per month) from Norris and Berman's real estate company, they feared the Lone Wolf partners planned to quickly develop the new concept, take it public, and then sell the property at a hefty profit, leaving Broadwell and Antonovich empty-handed.

Their suspicions were further aroused when Overstreet's lawyers wouldn't disclose exactly what in terms of ownership the purchase of Overstreet's position would grant them. "There was a lot of uncertainty," admits Antonovich. "So I started to feel like there was something funny going on."

"That's ridiculous," counters Pronske. "That's speculation, but it's poor speculation." Pronske says the pair simply didn't understand Overstreet's complicated operating agreement with Lone Wolf, which was drawn up because, as an out-of-state resident, Overstreet is prohibited from acquiring a controlling interest in a Texas restaurant without first obtaining his own alcoholic beverage license, a process that can take months. The only way Overstreet could legally take control immediately, according to Pronske, was through an operating agreement.

Pronske adds that Overstreet's strength is business operations, while Broadwell and Antonovich shine on the creative side of restaurant operations. Broadwell, if unintentionally, seems to agree.

"Dennis kept touting that he had spent thousands of dollars to put lipstick on the old lady," he says firmly. "He bought the wrong shade.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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