At center is Jim Davis, new owner of Martini Italian Bistro. At left is executive chef Allan Hubbard; at right, bartender Gary Gruver. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Zegart.)

(Author’s note: Yes, this is two stories in a row about Martini Italian Bistro, and I don’t normally do such things. But I just learned this chapter of the restaurant’s change of ownership last night–while actually at Martini–and thought it too good to pass up. Call it a warm and fuzzy for the holiday.)

Jim Davis got a hell of a lucky break en route to becoming owner-operator of Martini Italian Bistro.

No, make that two lucky breaks.

Cameron Mitchell, the legendary Columbus, Ohio, restaurateur who created the Martini concept among 10 other successful restaurant brands, approached Davis about buying the Louisville Martini (the original restaurant still operates in downtown Columbus) four years ago.

The uber-successful Mitchell was selling off portions his broad restaurant portfolio in order to return some money to investors and to pay down debt, and his Mitchell’s Fish Market chain going to the Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse chain. Without plans for developing Martini beyond two units, he offered Davis a chance to buy the restaurant.

That’s lucky break No. 1. It’s often easier for an operator with as many irons in the fire as Mitchell to simply sell a successful property to an outsider who 1. has the cash on hand and can move quickly, and 2. sell to someone the seller isn’t emotionally tied to.

But Mitchell, an operator who’s both admired for his business smarts and well liked for being a good human being, ignored both and chose go sell to someone he knew and wanted to benefit from the opportunity.

“We talked about buying it and I knew I wanted to,” Davis said last night, while I was perched at his bar sipping a Fleur de Lis, the GQ award-winning cocktail created by his bartender Gary Gruver. (BTW, the GQ issue featuring Gruver just hit newsstands.) “But that was about three-and-a-half years ago, when the recession started.”

And when banks stopped lending to almost anyone in the restaurant business.

It wasn’t as though Davis didn’t have the creds to run the joint: Among other notable stops, the England native ran the world’s busiest Planet Hollywood unit in Tampa. Plus, if you’re allowed to run a Mitchell restaurant for many years like Davis has, you’re no fool.

But like many restaurant managers, Davis didn’t have enough cash available to convince lenders he had adequate skin in the game.

“So Cameron said I could just keep running the place and put in some sweat equity in until the time was right” to get the necessary funding.

Lucky break No. 2. I’ve heard a few stories in my career about restaurateurs helping staffers start their own places, but not many. And especially not during a recession.

“Yes, that was pretty nice of him,” Davis said, grinning.  And as of Nov. 1, Davis became the owner of Martini, a restaurant he said, “hasn’t really noticed the recession. We’re really busy.”

It is a beautiful facility, especially for one that’s 10 years old. I’ve seen restaurants half that age look 10 times as old. But Davis clearly takes care of the premises. Food and drink here are always reliable, as is a wait for a table on many nights.

In all fairness, I shouldn’t call any of Davis’s good fortune lucky breaks. It’s rare that things happen for no reason, which is what most of us would call luck. Davis has worked long and hard for Mitchell and others to get where he is now, and that’s no accident.

End note: If you’re ever in Columbus, I highly recommend the following Mitchell concepts:

* Marcella’s: Imagine Italian tapas. Brilliant concept, one Tony Palombino (Tony Boombozz) told me he’d love to do here and visited twice in less than a day.

* M: Yep, that’s the name, which dually represents Mitchell and Miranova, the high-end condo building in which it’s housed. Fantastic and clever fine dining.

Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.

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