By day it’s a ritzy restaurant. By night, it’s a bustling night club.
The service elevator hides near a dark alley, at the bottom of a three-story building painted to resemble black and white cowhide. White satin sheets and fake vines drape across the elevator’s walls. A white couch invites you to enjoy the ride to the top floor and enter a restaurant with a split personality.
At 10:30 p.m., the jazz band plays its last song, the bassist plucking harder to compete with the blaring bass of a 50 Cent song in the adjacent room.
Owner Gurinder Virdi leans against the back wall, waiting. The jazz band takes their time packing up. Sipping on martinis and wine under the soft glow of white-icicle Christmas lights dangling from white kites stretched across the ceiling, the Saturday night over-30 jazz crowd of 47 is about to be overrun by nearly 300 University of Florida students with a desire to drink and dance.
This is the füs switchover.
During evenings, füs — pronounced “fuse” — serves up tantalizing fusion cuisine in a romantic, petite room. Candlelight from tables warm the room as waterfalls trickle behind the bar. Fusion cuisine mixes culinary methods from various cultures, setting it a category of its own.
The energy amplifies around midnight as girls with barely covered breasts vomit in the bathroom and drunken partiers grind each other before they know each others’ names. It’s classy to nasty, and it’s how the 27-year-old Virdi has been able to stay in business in this college town while keeping his dream of running a restaurant alive.
“If you can make it as a restaurant owner, you can make it doing anything,” Virdi says.
The jazz band packs up and the patrons give Virdi their goodbyes. He makes a point to converse with every guest who stays for dinner. The nearby DJ’s rap blares louder through the window walls. Club staff take down the white satin curtains, strip the table cloths and whisk the chairs away into a storage closet.
A cluster of seven ladies arrive, sporting short skirts and cleavage-enhancing tops. They’re ready to drink. They head for a table, but before they can all sit down, Virdi swoops in.
“I’m sorry, you can’t sit here,” he says. “We have to move this table.”
In the time it takes to knock back a Sexual Chocolate martini, the curtains come down, the tables and chairs vanish and the couches are pinned against a wall. The once-windowed walls have rolled up to the ceiling like garage doors. The world of füs has, well, fused with his roof-top nightclub, sheltering guests with an arched canvas ceiling and walls.
The menu, which features a diverse selection of dishes, reads: “We enjoy variety in life.” But to run this fluctuating venture, Virdi must embrace variety in all forms.
At 7 p.m. on Friday the restaurant is empty. Virdi sits at the bar he helped craft. He devours a steak and mushroom-filled crepe as he looks back to a year ago when he first bought the property.
“I’ve always liked cooking and food,” he says. “I never believed that women were supposed to be in the kitchen. I hated the idea of that.”
When Virdi started working on a master’s degree in business at UF, he knew he wanted to start a restaurant. He discovered a passion in cooking and hosting for others after learning everything he could from his mother. He needed to find the perfect location, and he found it. A downtown club once called JetSet was selling, and he was about to close the deal. That is, until someone else snatched up the property from underneath him.
But the loss didn’t deter Virdi. A friend, Erik Einmo, learned that the owner of another club, Waterbar, was about to sell, and he asked Virdi if he wanted to team up. With Einmo’s 5-plus years of restaurant management and Virdi’s passion to run a restaurant on their side, they bought the property in March 2005.
Seven days of pressure washing —burning 30 gallons of gas — three weeks of fumigating, six gallons of bleach and “tons of paint” later, the room morphed from a squalid bar into a respectable diner.
“I’m pretty good with a table saw,” Virdi says. “When you do it yourself you ease yourself into it.”
Virdi eased himself into creating two trickling waterfalls with an earthy-green marble background, along with an art-deco lighted fixture attached to interlocking wood squares mounted to a wall. But Virdi wasn’t the only handyman — Einmo created the wooden bar from scratch.
The finished project has a day-spa feel with earthy greens and beiges highlighting the shadows. Dinner stops being served at 10 p.m. The DJ sets up and the twinkling lights on the ceiling are turned off. It becomes less a day-spa and acquires more of a binge-drinking-in-Rome feeling. And when the next day begins, Virdi and Einmo wash down every corner and scrape off every piece of gum stuck under the bar to bring back the classy restaurant feel.
“You just want to beat the crap out of anyone that is chewing gum,” says Virdi as he feels a piece stuck under the bar.
Don’t dare call füs a nightclub in front of him. Under the name, the signs read: “Restaurant. Lounge. Catering.” But at 8 p.m. on Friday no one has yet entered the restaurant. He still struggles to get his restaurant packed regularly, so he makes the majority of his money on liquor.
“The restaurant is always number one,” he says. “But the thing is, all major restaurants make their money at the bar.”
The dishes he serves help to make Virdi’s dreams of increasing restaurant patrons feasible, he believes. And, he says, it gives him an edge over the chain restaurants that dominate Gainesville. It’ll just take time, he says. He takes another bite of his steak crepe and explains that he is the only restaurant in town that serves a variety of crepe dishes.
The crepe, a thin pancake, is the key to a woman’s heart, Virdi says. “It’s more effective than a whole bottle of vodka.”
Crepes adorn the füs menu in dinners and deserts. He eyes the reporter’s dessert. It’s the Crepe Nutella: chocolate and caramelized bananas smothered in a chocolate and hazelnut spread, wrapped in a wedge-folded crepe and topped with whipped cream. Virdi picks up a fork and pretends to struggle to resist taking a bite.
“It’s food so good, the owner can’t keep his hands off it,” he jests.
When the bar begins steady business at night, he only has a moment to escape to take a breather. His closet-sized office is a storage room of sorts, with a desk hidden under boxes of flyers and decrepit computers from the early ‘90s. As the DJ plays, the sound monitoring system in the top corner is flickering red lights. It means the bass is getting too loud, and it worries Virdi.
“We get noise violations up the wazoo,” he says.
While all other clubs downtown have concrete walls and other buildings to soak up the sound, his has canvas. Down the road lives a man who files noise complaints about once a month — whenever the red lights flicker for too long. “He just hears everything,” Virdi says with a shrug.
Virdi juggles the restaurant Wednesday through Saturday while taking classes in business. “Every day I wake up with anxiety attacks,” he says. He can’t seem to find an escape from the stress. But running Füs teaches more than any classroom could, he says.
“You can’t really learn this stuff. You have to do it,” he says.
In fact, his professors use him as an example in class. They ask him how he lives a life that revolves around the restaurant. And he openly shares his stresses. Before he started, Virdi sought advice from a professor at the college.
“He asked me, ‘Why are you doing the hardest thing in business?’”
Virdi says he couldn’t resist.
“I always have to challenge myself,” he says. “But at the same time, I’m looking to settle.”
But this isn’t where Virdi thought he would be by now. He’s teaching himself the hardest lesson yet: how to keep the restaurant alive.
“I see the restaurant as not being up to my standards,” he says. It’s waiting in an empty restaurant on evenings that “kills” him. Just as he says that, an elderly couple enters the bar. Virdi greets them, and the gentleman says this is their second time coming because they love the food. They order a bottle of wine and after a few minutes of small talk, Virdi returns to his seat and checks his e-mail on his PDA phone.
“It’s all about the people with me,” he says. “I try to talk to everyone that I can.”
Virdi’s not dry of ideas yet. He sits back and explains how in a few years he’ll open for breakfast and lunch and how the martini choices will grow to be the most extensive martini menu in town. But those are dreams that must wait until after graduation. Maybe then he’ll have more time.