It is 4:45PM on a Wednesday, and the line has already formed at Rare Society in Solana Beach. It’s a long one. Snakes down the side of the building, spills onto the sidewalk on Cedros Avenue. Doors don’t open for another 15 minutes. These people seem not to care that this is abnormal dinner behavior. It’s far too early, far too Wednesday. Only barons and brutes eat ribeyes before dusk.
And yet they patiently loiter and stare at the front door of the steakhouse. This location—the second from chef Brad Wise and team at Trust Restaurant Group—had over 2,000 reservations before opening day.
I sit with Wise in a booth by the window as the crowd filters in. As both of us get a little rabid over a house-cured slab of bacon in gochujang glaze—he breaks his big news. They’re going for it, all hats in all rings—a national expansion of Rare Society, starting in Santa Barbara this summer, Mill Creek (Washington) this fall, San Clemente and another TBD location in 2023, then an estimated 15 spots throughout the U.S. over the next five years.
Morton, Fleming, Mastro… Wise.
“This all came out of a failed concept,” he says with a what-dumb-luck shake of his head.
When his debut restaurant—Trust in Hillcrest—took off, got all the awards and the press and the valid hype, they doubled down and tried to take over a failing bar down the street. Named it Hundred Proof. It bombed. “We know how to run a restaurant,” Wise explains, “but we were terrible bar operators.”
A couple months before the pandemic—November, 2019—they switched it to a steakhouse. It was an inspiration from his wife’s people: she’s a central Californian, a proud clan of Santa Maria grill obsessives. The first few months before the world shut down were magic for Rare Society. They knew they’d hit on something.
“When you think of a steakhouse, you think real fancy places,” Wise says. “My wife took me to steakhouses where she grew up. We walked in and they just kinda look like diners, nothing special. You’re wondering why they’re so famous. And then the steak comes out and it blows your mind. It showed me you don’t have to have this incredibly formal experience to serve steak.”
As if to prove that point, Wise sips a top-notch Cab-Franc in a hoodie, looking sport-casual like Rocky Balboa. Fitting, since the Jersey native moved to San Diego, became an MMA fighter, got a job cooking at JRDN in Pacific Beach, and earned the nickname “Panda” on account of his ever-present black eyes.
“I grew up in Jersey, we were street brawlers,” he explains. “But MMA made me stop that. My trainers told me, ‘If you do that crap, you can’t work out here.’ They taught me discipline, and you can see that in our kitchens.”
A huge pane glass frames the open kitchen. Cooks manipulate the open flames—crackling embers of red oak. That red-oak smoke is the signature flavor of Santa Maria style barbecue, what gives Rare Society’s ribeye or even prime rib (a notoriously flavorless cut) explosive flavor. There are stacks of wood in the dining room, next to a temperature and humidity-controlled glass case with meats in various stages of the aging process.
Wood smoke has given all of Wise’s concepts a leg up.
“A top chef friend of mine says I cheat because I use wood,” Wise laughs. So far, scientists have found over 400 different flavor compounds in wood smoke—acids, alcohols, carbonyls, esters, furans, lac-tones, phenols, you name it. It is definitely a cheat code.
Another key to Rare Society’s success is also the simple, 1950s art of the lazy susan. They’ve solved the age-old steakhouse problem of meat monogamy—choosing one cut and dedicating your night to it. A meal done right here includes a lazy susan placed mid-table. They call them “boards” on the menu. On each, slices of a few different cuts: bullseye ribeye, Wagyu strip, tri-tip, NY strip. Next to ramekins of various sauces (bearnaise, veggie butter, Santa Maria-style salsa, steak sauce, horseradish cream), it turns a usually monochromatic steakhouse experience into chefy meat tapas.
“But honestly I think it’s the sides,” Wise argues when I ask him what went right. “I sell an unbelievable amount of creamed spinach and whipped potatoes.”
I ask him if national expansion is the endgame. The final move after the years of kitchen work.
“Nah,” he says, then goes on to describe his next concept for San Diego. It sounds good. But, one step at a time. For now, Santa Barbara. For his wife.