How to develop personal taste with Brooks Reitz
We chat about designing restaurants, morning rituals, finding your own style, and why you can't beat a Negroni.
Brooks Reitz is somebody I’ve known and respected for years, so to have the chance to chop it up with one of the most creative minds in the food world is an honor. He’s got phenomenal taste in clothes, travel, food, drink, interior design, and everything in between.
An entrepreneur at heart, Brooks owns multiple restaurants in Charleston, SC (notably Little Jack’s Tavern, Leon’s, and Melfi’s), is the owner Jack Rudy (the legendary cocktail mixer company), and runs his own personal Substack, which you can find here.
Big shout and thanks to my brother, Kirk Chambers, for snapping these glorious photos! If you’re a brand looking for kickass photography, check out his work here.
I’ve been looking forward to sharing this interview for a while; here we go.
You’re a restaurateur and entrepreneur. Where’d your journey begin in the food and bev world?
My dad owned a bar in Memphis, and before my older brother was born, he was preparing to open his first restaurant - Doc Mulvaney's Territorial Saloon. Such a great name. He abandoned the plans as they began to build their family, but the love of food, drink, and entertaining remained.
I was exposed by hanging around at my parent's dinner parties and going to their friend's houses. We were never banished upstairs - we got to be in on the fun. I got my first job bussing tables at the local country club in high school, and I worked my way through college as a server and bartender.
Those experiences set me on the path.
Each of your restaurants in Charleston have a distinct narrative behind the food, the space, and design. You put a ton of thought and research into bringing those spaces to life. What’s your process like?
This is what I love the most about the restaurant business: telling stories.
I studied English and Drama, and I intended to become a playwright, and I abandoned that dream when I realized I could employ the same skills and tell a story through restaurants. I love food, but for me, it's about the whole package - the lighting, the music, the uniforms, the typeface we use, and the colors inside the restaurant.
It creates a narrative that people get to live inside of for a moment.
When we find a space and start discussing possible concepts, we get a general sense of what we are excited about, what the market wants, and what the location might demand. From there, my partners and I find a few "guiding lights," which might be in the form of some restaurant we like in another place, a movie, or a city.
We bring it all together by traveling, getting fresh ideas, and finding little elements from a place we can bring to Charleston and put through our own filter. This process - the development, the design, the early phase of brainstorming - is my favorite part.
An unfortunate by-product of this ideation is that we have to operate them once it's all finished.
Got any morning rituals you abide by?
With a 3-year-old we are up early, no matter the day. 7:30 is "sleeping in" in our house! My ritual is rolling out of bed, drinking lots of water, pulling an espresso shot, and sitting with my wife. I wake up my son, and then I exercise - either a long run or seeing my trainer, whom I've worked with for over seven years.
On the weekend, it's similar, but there's less pressure - more reading, listening to music, and lying about. Fitness is a big part of my life, and it keeps me sharp, focused, and inspired. It's essential for stress management. I try to get it done early in the day because I make better decisions and am much more chill.
How do you articulate your style? Do you have a daily uniform? What are some of your favorite brands or pieces you own and rotate?
Growing up in the South, my style skews classic, a bit preppy. I like to take that framework and be adjacent, and I like something to be a touch-off. I hate when things look too perfect - whether you're talking about an outfit, or your home decor. It's much interesting when there's a bit of personality and imperfection.
Ideally, if you saw me at a Charleston garden party I wouldn't stand out, but upon closer examination, you might find some details that feel just a bit left-of-center. I love people that dress like this, and Andy Spade is a great example. Or the oft referenced Gianni Agnelli. Sid Mashburn, too.
I don't have a daily uniform. My wife has a distinct way of dressing - she is so consistent, and I envy that. I dress differently depending on my mood, but always with the same relatively boring color palette: navy, gray, white, and olive green.
My favorite brands for everyday casual dressing are Officine Generale, Save Khaki, James Perse, Sunspel.
My favorite brands for dressier clothing are Sid Mashburn for dress shirts, Boglioli for easy-going blazers, J Meuser for suiting.
For funkier stuff to add a touch of personality I like 45rpm, Casely-Hayford, Noah.
For shoes I keep it classic: New Balance, Alden, Chuck Taylor's, Birkenstock, Edward Green, Belgian Shoes.
How have you crafted your own sense of taste and style over the years?
Taste is a fascinating concept. Who really knows what is "good" or "bad?"
I've developed my own palette and taste by reading, visiting shops, trying on clothes, and making mistakes throughout my 20's to find a sense of dressing that represented on the outside how I feel on the inside.
The biggest change is understanding and embracing quality, which has enabled me to buy less. My wife, a 20-year veteran of clothing design (who launched her own clothing line this year), has educated me about how clothes are made, how to determine quality of construction, and how to assess fabric quality. It's made a tremendous difference in how I shop.
Style-wise I've grown to appreciate playing with proportion. A looser denim, a boxier shirt. This relates to my desire to be well-dressed but not perfectly dressed. I don't want to look like a menswear blogger from the early days of the internet, and I want to look and feel natural, comfortable, and imperfect.
You have an incredible home that feels traveled and lived in. Are there similarities between how you craft your restaurant spaces versus how you craft a home? What’s your philosophy on building your home? Any guiding principles?
There is a lot of crossover in how I think about lighting. In restaurants and at home, I like multiple light sources, and I resist overhead or can lighting unless it's necessary. I like flattering light - lots of lamps, dimmer bulbs, candles. Creating that mood at home is essential. People look better in softer, warmer light. You can't see my bald spot if the lights are dim!
Coziness is the most important quality at home. I like a space that feels lived in. We get it through a mix of new and old, hard and soft surfaces, lots of art, pops of color atop a warm, simple palette. I had an appreciation of coziness from my childhood home. It's a super comfy, cozy home.
I developed my own style by visiting friends and finding designers whose work reflected the kind of space I loved for myself. I love designers like Paul Fortune, Steven Scarloff, Sean Macpherson. Their spaces feel imperfect and comfortable.
I also like authenticity in a space. I wouldn't want to work with a designer because I want a home that reflects my taste, my interests, and the rhythm of our family. And like dressing, I want things that feel imperfect.
Favorite meal in New York or London?
New York — Via Carota for vegetables and wine or JG Melon for a burger and some cold beers.
London — An elegant lunch at Quo Vadis or a casual hang at 40 Maltby Street.
What’s the holy trinity of alcoholic drinks and why? Know you’re a big negroni, reisling, and Pilsner guy.
Ultimately, this depends on personal taste. I have been traveling and dining out professionally since my early 20s. I had the good fortune to have a mentor that hired me at an early age to consult on projects across the country and overseas, so I had an excellent education in dining very early. It allowed me to really understand and define my taste.
Now, at 38, I know exactly what I like. I experimented for 15 years; I've tried it all.
For cocktails, it is hard to beat a Negroni or a Margarita. For beer, give me Pilsner, every time. Ideally, from Pilsen, in the Czech Republic.
For wine, I want a dry white wine. I want a light, chilled red like Beaujolais if I'm drinking red. I like freshness, a food-friendly quality.
I'm rarely interested in trying anything outside of that. I've tried thousands of cocktails around the world from the best bartenders in the world. Rarely (if ever) will you have something that tastes better than a classic Negroni or Margarita.
I like knowing what I like. It's empowering.
that last sentence is so spot on 🎯
Leon's is one of my all time favorite spots. Loved the interview.