Brass Door’s new owners serve same classic food
By Lou Fancher
Customers of San Ramon’s Brass Door can rest easy: The venerable Tri-Valley fine dining establishment is in the capable, well-practiced hands of Shahla Azad.
The restaurant has served melt-in-your-mouth prime rib and other American cuisine since 1955 under previous owner Danny Basso, the son of the restaurant’s co-founder, Dick Basso. Azad assumed ownership March 4, 2016, and a year later, prime rib, filet mignon, chicken picatta, pan-seared seafood, french dip sandwiches and other favorites remain intact.
Decades-long employees are as permanent as bar fixtures and leather booth seating in the club-like restaurant. An extensive wine list that features Livermore, Napa and California wines draws devoted regulars and newcomers.
“I bought it because I liked it. Why would I change anything?” asks Azad. “It feels good to run a 62-year-old establishment that has history. I keep it going the way it was before. I feel proud.”
Along with pride, Azad brings experience. After fleeing her homeland, Iran, in 1988 during an escalation in the war after the 1979 Revolution, Azad and her family established roots in the Bay Area. Giving up a career as a lawyer and abandoning her home was difficult, she says, but soon, she found work as a substitute teacher in the Fremont school district. When her husband, Ali Hejazian, purchased a Mrs. Fields Cookies franchise in Berkeley, she joined him.
“After one year, we bought another in Santa Rosa, then established a third one in Tracy. I bought Pretzel Time in Fremont. I sold them all and bought Embers in Pinole in 2001. I also owned at one time Flames Coffee Shop in San Jose,” she says.
Importantly, Azad says that in her 28 years in a revolving-door industry when it comes to employee retention, she’s had to fire fewer than five people.
“I love to have connections to people and manage large groups because I accomplish something. I believe employees are all good, you just have to train them. I don’t get rid of them: I think of them as my sons and daughters.”
Which doesn’t mean they escape correction. Azad spends considerable time observing. She gathers staff in small groups to give constructive feedback so no one is singled out and teamwork is reinforced.
“To keep customers, the key is keeping the quality high — good food, good service. My first concern is service. Customers get acknowledged right away, often by name. If I go to a restaurant and no one comes to me in five minutes, I get disappointed.”
Kitchen staff and chefs like Shoren Fenton are scrutinized for their level of happiness as much as for skill.
“Happy chefs are the main thing for a restaurant owner,” says Azad, because customers who’ve been coming in since they were 9 years old and are now 70 recognize food and ambience that’s consistent. “Each person wants to go back to good childhood memories. Blue plate specials and prime rib that’s unchanging, personal attention, tablecloth decor — it’s memories.”
Fenton runs the saute station and makes the soups and has been at Brass Door since 1979. Pride and loyalty are baked into his work and his respect for how Azad maintains the restaurant’s standards.
“We slow-roast our Midwest, cornfed beef. I use all fresh, seasonal items for our comfort food blue plate specials,” he says. “You’re not going to get an umbrella on your plate, you won’t take a Snapchat photo, but you’ll get consistently good meals you want to eat and come back and have again.”
Azad says she is “against Yelp” and that true complaints come straight from customers, not from online griping. Her must-have foods are rice, red meat, and kebabs that are the one item she’s added to the menu. At home, her husband’s chicken vindaloo is a favorite dish; Mexican restaurants are her choice when eating out.
At Brass Door, she has given herself assignments: “To keep the former owners’ high quality of food and service, donate to education because it’s been important in my life and to learn every regular customer’s name.”