Grant Smillie’s catalogue of accolades ranges from ARIAs to awards for American restaurants – what we want to know is, where’s he going next?
Pretty much the only thing that’s remained consistent across Grant Smillie’s career is a big, beaming smile. The promoter-turned-DJ-turned-producer-turned-restaurateur cut a swathe through the Australian house music scene in the 2000s, winning two ARIAs for his single ‘Flaunt It’ as part of TV Rock. After doing sets around the world with global acts like Swedish House Mafia or under his own steam, he decided he’d had enough.
Rather than pivoting to a career in the booth running a record label (something he’d created himself in the early 2000s), Smillie decided to get into the hospitality business. In 2013 he jointly founded Botanical Group, the masthead of several prominent venues in Los Angeles. Throughout his career he’s maintained a committed work ethic and a strong grasp on not only current trends, but where the trends might be down the line. His successes speak for themselves. Let’s take a look at where he’s at, and what the future holds for Grant Smillie.
Behind the Decks
Smillie first entered the music world as a 16-year-old living in Melbourne, where he grew up. Earning a place as a promoter, he went on to become a DJ. Though he’s largely left it behind, he offers advice for other aspiring DJs: “never give them what they want… and make your Bs your As.” According to Smillie, the goal for any good DJ is to see how long you can go before playing a hit. “And always be playing your own stuff if you can,” of course.
As part of TV Rock, Smillie’s first single ‘Flaunt It’ won him two ARIA awards in 2006, an achievement most musicians spend years striving for. Their remix of ‘The Others’, a track by Australian group Dukes of Windsor, was also a huge hit, catapulting Smillie’s career as a DJ and a producer onto the international circuit. But after famously having three hundred flights in one year, Smillie had had enough. “You just wish you could wake up in your own bed on a Sunday morning,” he says.
After a particularly flat gig in Albury, he realised that touring was no longer something he was interested in.
An unassuming concrete slab nestled under the Yarra Pedestrian Footbridge in the heart of Melbourne would set the stage for a rapidly expanding career for Smillie in the restaurant business. Converting it into Ponyfish Island, a bar and restaurant named for a strange creature said to swim in the Yarra river, was not without its challenges, but was met with immediate enthusiasm from local punters. “We sold out of beer four times on the opening night,” Smillie laughs.
For Smillie, however, to stay static is to perish. And Australia, while beloved to the homegrown Melburnian, was too small a pond. After securing a rickety old building in LA with a high school friend turned real estate expert, Smillie shifted his operations to California. Here he would find scale, enthusiasm and investment opportunities more to his liking.
E.P & L.P is a multi-level culinary palace, combining a Southeast Asian style restaurant with a rooftop bar, something he’d noticed there was a strange absence of given the city’s notoriously clear skies practically year-round. Its name, derived from ‘Extended Play’ and ‘Long Play’, is a reference to vinyl records. Like many of the new venues’ names, this is a nod to Smillie’s background as a musician. With the launch of this venue Smillie and his various associates cemented their place in LA.
From the get go, it seems Smillie has had a commitment to doing his own thing, and to doing it better than anyone else. An example of this is a few key design choices made in the construction of E.P & L.P. The neon ‘Where Love Lives’ sign is a popular spot for Instagram selfies. While this is good for the aesthetic of influencers’ profiles, it is great for the bar. Photos with the sign have generated mountains of free publicity.
Other picturesque parts of the building are carefully designed to not cause congestion. This maximises not only the functionality of the space, but also the freedom for patrons to capture the gorgeous views of the LA skyline. The more recently opened Melrose Rooftop Theatre, a reappropriation of a local disused carpark, has also brought in plenty of new patrons. Pre-screening meals and drinks fill up the attached restaurant and bar at times and on days where other similar venues would only be expecting their first trickle of customers.
From his interviews it becomes clear that Smillie’s main drive is to always be doing something new. This attitude is the same in his music as his venues. While he’s keen to push the envelope, he’s also conscious of not going too niche, as he mentions in an interview with the Daily Talk Show. He comments that “most journalists are innately lazy”. A factor in any project he’s working on is making sure to create something newsworthy that the media can easily latch onto.
Moreso than this, he aims to look past current trends and use styles that will outlast them. At Ponyfish, recent renovations have seen repurposed nautical furniture replaced with high quality modern chairs and umbrellas that will endure the elements far better than the already-fraying threads that were there before.
Far from letting it go to his head, however, he’s stayed very humble, maintaining that classic Australian sense of humour. There is no sense that he thinks he’s a genius, or that he thinks he’s the coolest person in Hollywood. He would say that he owes his success to surrounding himself with the best people for the job. A frequent hiker, Smillie spends a lot of time in nature or at the gym. Through this he maintains a healthy body and mind.
Living Through Lockdown
Like most business owners globally, Smillie endured some substantial setbacks under COVID-19. Two of his venues have had their grand openings delayed (SOL, a café and coffee house, and Grandmaster Recorders, a recording studio of David Bowie and Kanye West fame, converted into a restaurant). He’s used the time to renovate and to innovate, testing out new recipes with his cabal of top-tier chefs.
As America begins the long road to recovery, however, he has big plans for the future. Smillie is optimistic about the viability of his businesses going forward: “there’s no substitute for good food… everyone’s become a baker, but nobody wants to bake”.
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