It's déjà vu all over again. In the midst of transforming the former Holiday Ham store on South Main into his latest venture, Circa by John Bragg, chef/owner/entrepreneur John Bragg is busy preparing to cater an event. It's the same scene from almost a year ago -- down to the catering job and a hard-to-pin-down Bragg, who was then transforming the former Cockeyed Camel at Poplar Avenue and I-240 into River Oaks by John Bragg.
The "John Bragg" part of River Oaks lasted about six months. "When you open a new place and it takes off like that and is instantly successful, it's like winning the lottery, with all the good and the bad stuff that comes with the jackpot," Bragg says. "I was part-owner of River Oaks, and my partners and I didn't see eye-to-eye on some issues, so we decided to part."
Bragg, who attended the Cordon Bleu in Paris and has worked for several well-known local chefs such as Karen Carrier, Erling Jensen, and Gene Bjorklund, spent eight years as a CPA in the corporate sector. After he left River Oaks, some people thought he might have returned to accounting. But instead, Bragg, who had transformed the well-worn vegetarian-friendly La Montagne into a more upscale eatery in 2004, decided to put to good use what he had learned from his two restaurant solos and his work as an accountant.
"The people I worked with as an accountant were mostly entrepreneurs," Bragg says. "I realized that all of these people had stuck their neck out at one point or another. There's always a risk, but you've got to be willing to stick your neck out every once in a while if you want to have a successful business."
By that measure, Bragg warmed slowly to the idea of risk. With La Montagne, he kept the name, brushed up the interior, stayed in a modest neighborhood, and tested the waters with his cooking skills.
"I knew I had a good product if people from Germantown were willing to drive to Park and Highland to eat my food," Bragg says. "They had so many opportunities to stop and eat a fabulous meal at Fleming's, Ruth's Chris, the Grove Grill, you name it. But instead, they drove all the way to eat at my restaurant. I just needed a better location."
So Bragg stuck his neck out a little further, gathered investors, and opened River Oaks. Much more effort went into this restaurant, but passionate chefs tend to be passionate about every little detail in a restaurant -- something some partnerships can't withstand.
This time, Bragg is ready to stick his neck out as far as it will reach. Circa is all Bragg -- food, design, money, name, concept. "My experience with La Montagne and River Oaks inspired me," Bragg says. "What I learned was that if I put my mind and the right amount of money on a problem, I can come up with a great answer."
With Circa, Bragg wants to "provide a culinary taste adventure centered on the freshest food ingredients and a very interesting, welcoming, and sociable atmosphere," Braggs explains. "It's not just the need for nice ambience or good food that I want to satisfy. When people leave Circa, I want all their bells ringing."
Circa, for Bragg, is not only the restaurant's name but something that can be developed into a brand, starting with an easily recognizable logo and an association with time. For the restaurant's interior, he hired the internationally known architecture and design firm 3SIX0, based in Providence, Rhode Island. The design for Circa is a system of screen walls that will create patterned areas for diners and keep the overall feel of the restaurant open and airy. There will be a private dining room near the kitchen and a back-lit bar in front.
The menu is modern American: no surprises, nothing fussy. Steaks, chops, and fish dominate the entrée selections, and some of Bragg's signature appetizers, such as crawfish beignets and wild-mushroom and goat-cheese crepes, will be available as will as an assortment of artisan meats and cheeses. Desserts range from the classic (sachertorte and Gateau Opera) to the simple (lemon and berry tarts). The restaurant is scheduled to open in late April or early May and will start out with dinner daily from 5 to 11:30 p.m. and lunch Monday through Friday, starting at 11 a.m.
Circa by John Bragg, 119 S. Main (522-1488)