A View From the Kitchen – Let The Good Times Roll
“Let’s bring back the fun,” encouraged our newest director of operations, rallying staff days after our restaurant group’s annual outing. Opening on a Monday just for us, the staff of Tyngsborough’s Shoreline Beach Club watched in amusement as we engaged in gourmet Jell-O shots (the epitome of an oxymoron), Stoner’s rum punch, Cards Against Humanity, and watching team members tip over in their kayaks! It was a great time and, likewise, a proper prelude to the director guiding our group’s future fortunes as we turn the focus upon our new social-themed restaurant; inspiring fun being a key component of our vision. I am so ready. His predecessor, like many, succumbed to attrition-by-pandemic as we essentially took “a gap year.” Where some see setback, we see opportunity. This guy is great.
As he spoke of our industry’s passion and all the ways we bring the “feel good” — words from my own heart — he suggested tongue in cheek that we design a new, politically incorrect company tee shirt: “F&#K It!” boldly pronouncing our intention to cease playing scared. My mind began to wander, recalling endless inspirations (and notes!) of my restaurant heroes — those who create ultimate success measured by full tables and defying the odds by continuing to feed body and soul for the long term.
Amused by my industry’s sense of humor, I read through pages of my collected notes leading to our recent opening: “Duck in a jar,” “House Spam and PBR breakfast,” “Hanging monkeys,” “Kama Sutra wallpaper in the bathroom,” and “Half-keg urinals.” And, also by our commitment to community: “Hometown heroes,” “A portion of the proceeds…” and “Parking for older persons only.”
I love how the owners of Westford’s Korean-inspired Seoul Kitchen recruited other restaurants in feeding the hungry, and how they gave away fruit and toilet paper during the pandemic. And how at New York City’s Mighty Quinn’s, guests queue for their barbecue beginning at windows to the butcher’s room, allowing a peek at the messy work prior to the sexiness of smoke, sauce and smiles — our kitchen people are too often taken for granted.
Years ago, I fell in love with Chicago’s Au Cheval burger; yes, their double-patty-double-melting-sharp-American cheese with oozing Dijonnaise and chopped pickle goodness, and yes, I took copious notes. (I even brought a burger home to be analyzed by our chef … “imitation is the highest form of flattery”); but also, their diner-come-tavern feel and the perfection of comfort food with a DJ as backdrop. Fried baloney and Beyoncé … how fun! Most of all, I love how the bartenders and cooks share the same space, harmoniously handling the room as one. Good luck getting in.
More recently (and more love notes), my heart belonged to Bar Tulia in Naples, Florida. I ‘jones’ to be sitting at their bar for the smell of the woodfire, watching pizza dude tucked into the corner alternatively stretching dough and skillfully spinning those pies to achieve perfect char, while also supporting the bartenders hustling mere feet away, shaking two mixing cups overhead. Regularly smile-winking at guests, they deftly avoid the conversations that will slow their roll. Low lights and happy hip-hop, the boldness of playful black and white nudes along the walls, crispy pig ears served in a jar. At Bar Tulia, I feel things.
At Boston’s dimly lit Toro, I love how the tables and chairs are set so close together — like those in the dark, smoky comedy clubs of old — elbow to elbow, emotions stirred, the tickling of humanity’s funny bone before delicious mezcal cocktails and messy street corn. Sign me up!
I love how we love to burn stuff (but not trays of bacon, I hate that). Smoldering wooden boards complement whiskey drinks, creme bruleed sugar for that cotton candy smell, and how at Manhattan’s now-closed Desnuda, when you ordered the “tea smoked oysters,” the bartender lifted a giant gravity bong onto the bar top and sparked the bowl with, hmm, something that smelled vaguely familiar.
I love the ways we inspire warm and fuzzy feelings. How Starbucks plays music that pays cultural homage to the beans’ origins, how the queer-owned Seaweeds on Martha’s Vineyard seeks a welcoming, safe haven by stating on their menu “no space for hate,” and how when visiting Jacques-Imo’s in New Orleans we are led by the host right through the center of the kitchen (“Hey Chef!”) on the way to the rear dining porch for amazing Creole soul food. Similarly, when last visiting taverns in Great Britain, “us locals” went up to the bar to order our Sunday roast and get our own waters, taking part in the practices of a communal environment before sitting back to hoist a few with “our” neighborhood.
We are excited to put the last year in the rearview, poised to put the pedal to the metal and get back to it. Dear all you surviving restaurant brethren, with sincere thanks and love, good luck to you all. As our new director says: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Scott Plath, along with his wife Kathleen, owns Cobblestones of Lowell, moonstones, in Chelmsford, Mass., and Stones Social in Nashua, New Hampshire. Scott possesses a deep well of humorous and insightful stories, which are available here. >>>