When Ryan Hildebrand opened Triniti, the tiny enclave on South Shepherd, his intention was to create an ever-changing menu, where dishes served as both sustenance and style. What happened next wasn't quite what he thought. He shares his experiences and tells Eater how being flexible helped him turn his restaurant into the place of his dreams.
You just celebrated your second anniversary with a multi-course dinner a the restaurant. How did that go?
Dinner was great. It wasn't a crazy blow-out, just a chance to celebrate the culmination of two years in business with some of our supporters.
Triniti opened on Christmas Eve in 2011. What was that like?
Oh, we were behind schedule, and I remember very well this feeling of, "We have to get open, we have to get open." So, it never occurred to me that our actual anniversary was going to be Christmas Eve, that I was basically signing everyone up to be working on Christmas Eve, instead of being with their families – or me with mine. So, that's when I thought, "Yeah, let's make our official anniversary celebration the Sunday before Christmas."
How has Triniti changed over the last couple of years?
It's evolved more than I'd ever imagined. I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted when we opened, and then the natural process of people leaving and feedback from guests came into the picture, and I think we are just now at the place where we're getting to be what we will always be. We're becoming a more user-friendly version of ourself.
What does that mean, for both diners and the restaurant?
Well, we're still super detailed, and we pay very close attention to presentation, but it's a more friendly place for diners. We really listened to their wants and needs. Like, this chicken dish we did. It's funny. We took a chicken apart, deconstructed it and served it rolled up. And it's exactly half a chicken. But many people felt the portion size was too small or felt off in some way. So now, we serve it on the bone, and it's still half a chicken, but the perception is totally different for people. Which is good, because we want people to feel that are getting value for their meal.
What other changes have you embraced?
As we learned our market, we brought in things people expected from a restaurant like ours. We added brunch. We have a bigger bar scene – it's actually amazing what's happening there. And, our team has really settled into itself, Isaac [Johnson] and the guys in the kitchen, Samantha [Mendoza], our pastry chef, they are all comfortable in their roles now.
Triniti [Photo: Gary Wise/Flickr]
How does that alter your role in it all?
That's a good one. It's funny. I don't see it changing so much as expanding. I'm opening 903 next year where Ruggles was on Westheimer, and we don't have a chef there yet. And I've learned you just let people present themselves to you and you wind up with who you need. So, I'll be overseeing both operations. It's going to be cool; we've got the same designers and architects who worked with us on Triniti, and we have this really good sense of how we all work together and they have a sense of what I am looking for, and I know how they work, too.
So, the dovetailing of personalities seems to have been important to Triniti's development.
It's all about balance, both people and the product. We've done eight menus in two years, and we were constantly changing the items, so I had to re-examine that idea. I always intended for us to follow the seasons. Even when people say, "Houston doesn't have seasons," I would think, "But the food on the plate does." And I wanted to be able to offer that to diners. Then, we'd see people come in and they'd love something, but it wouldn't be on the menu the next time they came in. So, we wanted to find a way to cater to their needs, as well as pay attention to the changing seasons.
How did you do that?
Well, the New York strip, the one that was on the menu when we opened, is a favorite, so we've kept that on all the menus. The tuna poke. We opened with that, too, and took it off the menu. Then, people were constantly asking for it, so we put it back on. The same thing happened with the kale salad. We took it off the menu and everyone went, "What are you doing?" So, now, we have those items and we showcase seasonal changes in our tasting menu, which means that people who have favorite can always have that, but if someone wants to explore other tastes, there's an avenue for it.
It sounds like you've learned a lot about both your diners and the restaurant by all this.
You know, you learn a lot in two years. I originally thought that giving people a new menu every three months would be a huge draw. Sometimes when you do what I do, you wind up doing things you like, and even though I thought it would be a great surprise for people to have new things every season, that wasn't what they were thinking. So, I love that we have a stable, core menu now, and our tasting menus are a chance for the kitchen to spread its wings and try new things. It's been an excellent balance.
What's one thing you wish you'd been told before you opened your own space?
Man, there are so many…if someone gave me a list of what not to do, of what would save me heartache, I'd say it would have to be, "You can't cook for you; you have to cook for your guests." You can't impose your own wants on people. You can let that be part of your identity and you can generate your stamp on things, but you have to be able to listen to what people are enjoying and what sorts of things they need, too.
What's next for Triniti?
Right now, we're two years old and we've crystallized our identity. We are what we'll be for years to come. And we've become that way by being open-minded and flexible. I want guests to come in here and understand that we're preparing an experience that is focused on them, to give them an experience they will remember and want to repeat. Over the last two years, we've become less imposing and more relaxed. And it's been an awesome experience.