Hog’s Breath readies to blow into town

Hog’s Breath readies to blow into town

Kleinschmidt, Janice

Restaurateur Lee Morcus received an e-mail from a man in North Carolina who wanted to hold his wedding rehearsal dinner at Hog’s Breath Inn La Quinta in October. “How did he know about it?” Morcus wonders.

It seems everywhere Morcus goes, people have heard about the restaurant that isn’t even open yet. “Almost 10 people a day ask me when it’s opening, will Clint be there will it be like the one in Carmel.”

Clint, as you may infer, is Clint Eastwood, a close personal friend of Morcus’ father, Kaiser. Before closing the doors on his culinary enterprise at the end of the ’90s, the movie star owned Hog’s Breath Inn in the chichi seaside town of Carmel.

“He suggested to my dad over a golf game that maybe [my dad] should consider reopening it and operating it,” Lee Morcus relates. His father countered, “Why don’t you make me an offer?” And that’s what Eastwood did.

When the Morcuses reopened the Hog’s Breath in May 2002, it was their fifth restaurant – and the first one outside the Coachella Valley. They opened Kaiser Grille in Palm Desert in March 1992, Kaiser Grille in Palm Springs in December 1998, Chop House in Palm Springs in July 2001, The Deck in Palm Springs in August 2001, Hog’s Breath Inn in Carmel in May 2002, Chop House in Palm Desert in January 2003 – and are poised to open Hog’s Breath Inn La Quinta in Old Town La Quinta on Aug. 18.

For all their experience in opening restaurants, Morcus finds the curiosity and enthusiasm over their newest endeaver astonishing. I haven’t seen anything like it,” he says. “The Hog’s Breath has an interesting cachet – almost a cult following.” The buzz is so prevalent that when he’s in Carmel, people ask where the restaurant’s desert counterpart is located.

The Morcuses weren’t planning another restaurant when Old Town La Quinta developer Wells Marvin called. “I started telling him, ‘I don’t want to do any more restaurants. I have my hands full,”‘ says Lee Morcus.

Even as a deal was struck, the Morcuses hadn’t decided just what restaurant brand they would put in La Quinta. “All of the sudden, the Hog popped into our minds and it felt right,” Lee Morcus says. “The answer came to us. We didn’t go find the answer.”

For the past six months, work on the 7,500-square-foot space has been under way. Progress has been anything but smooth. Forty-five days into construction, a fire department inspection raised issues that required alterations. “We lost a good two months, maybe more,” Morcus says, Another delay involved installation of the elevator required for customers with disabilities. Competing for attention with skyscraper projects, “a onefloor elevator is at the bottom of the totem pole,” he says.

On Aug. 5, however, a major piece of the puzzle was put into place: a series of seven murals by Warner Bros. Scenic Art Director Ed Strang. The images cover some of Eastwood’s most famous movies, including High Plains Drifter (one in the lobby and one in the dining room), Magnum Force, a Dirty Harry montage, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, and The Unforgiven.

The images were culled from Warner Bros. archives, thanks to Clint Eastwood arranging for the Morcuses to meet with one of the studio’s top scenic artists – Henry Bumstead. Bumstead has been doing Eastwood’s set work since the 1960s’ now classic, man-with-no-name films (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few More Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly).

“We went to Warner Bros. That was one of the most exciting things,” Morcus says. “We’ve been designing restaurants – all the elements – that’s second nature, something you do over and over again. But to be able to work with some of Hollywood’s top people to design mini-sets or scenes ….” It was all done with Eastwood’s blessing, as he made the arrangements.

In addition to the mural, the Old West theme features a tremendous amount of custom wood, steel and iron work. The metal work includes a two-panel room divider between the cocktail lounge and dining room made of eighth-inch steel with a cowboy cutout.

As if running several restaurants and preparing to open a new restaurant in a new location weren’t enough, the Morcuses decided to convert their oldest restaurant – Kaiser Grille in Palm Desert – into a new concept. “That market has changed a lot in 13 years. The restaurant needed a fresh breath of life,” Lee Morcus says. “We saw the potential to do something more and have some fun at it.”

In June, Kaiser Grille closed. It will reopen late September as Fish House Grill & Oyster Bar. Morcus describes it as “a traditional, older-style seafood restaurant” where “the fish is so fresh we have to change our menu every day.” Because they serve seafood at their other restaurants, they already have contracts with fish suppliers in Hawaii and Seattle, Wash.

The Morcuses had hoped to open Hog’s Breath early this summer. “We tried to time the opening with the closing of Kaiser Grille so the staff could get their summer vacations in when there’s minimal economic impact on them,” Lee Morcus says, adding that some employees have been with them since 1992. Some will go to the Hog’s Breath, some will reopen at the Fish House and some moved to Kaiser Grille in Palm Springs. The two new restaurants will add 100 jobs to the Kaiser Group of Restaurants payroll.

Although Hog’s Breath Inn La Quinta is sure to attract out-oftowners simply based on the reputation of the Carmel restaurant, Lee Morcus says Kaiser Group’s strength has always been with local guests. “We really try to take care of our locals, whether they live here three or four months or 11 or 12 months a year. They are all locals to us.”

Morcus says it’s often difficult to discem how a restaurant will ultimately look until the finishing touches come into play. A week before opening, that moment arrived. “That Hog is really turning out to be something special,” he said.

Copyright Desert Publication, Inc. and Sharon Apfelbaum Aug 17, 2004

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