I am constantly on the lookout for good neighborhood restaurants. The kind of restaurants that treat me like a regular even if I’m not; where the host greets me warmly even when it’s really crowded; where the food is consistently serious and reasonably priced; and, most of all, where I feel well taken care of at all times.
So when I read Kindness & Salt: Recipes for the Care and Feeding of Your Friends and Neighbors by Doug Crowell and Ryan Angulo, who own Buttermilk Channel and French Louie, two terrific neighborhood restaurants in Brooklyn, I knew they’d be great guests to have on Special Sauce. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Both Doug and Ryan fell in love with restaurant work right away. For Ryan it was antidote to high school; he started washing dishes at a country club when he was sixteen. “I hated high school,” Ryan says, “I wasn’t into sports. I got into the kitchen, and I felt right at home.”
On Doug’s first day in a kitchen, he was asked to go through a crate of live lobsters and separate the bodies from the claws. “So I never had seen that done anywhere else before, but it’s not easy to take a lobster’s claws off while they’re still alive and it’s a pretty messed up thing to do,” Doug recalls. “And they were flopping all over the place and snapping at me. That was a trial by fire…But I loved it.”
When they decided to open a restaurant in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn together, they had a specific kind of restaurant in mind. As Doug says, they wanted it to be “sort of a hub of the community as well as being one restaurant for all occasions. So a place where you can go with your kids and also come back for a fancy dinner. That’s when I know we’ve really succeeded, is when see those same parents who came in with a high chair and they’re back for their anniversary.”
And while that may seem like the perfect definition of a neighborhood restaurant, I asked Doug to expand on the idea, and he said, “I think it’s a place that if you live near the restaurant, that you can come back to multiple times in a week and have different experiences from the menu and from the service, and from the drinks and everything. You can come in and have dinner by yourself; you can come with your family, you can come with your kids. Because a neighborhood restaurant means that you get a lot of people from the neighborhood regularly, and they can’t really do that if it’s just a tasting menu restaurant or it’s a steakhouse.”
There’s lots more to dive into in this week’s episode of Special Sauce, like the secret (or non-secret) of Ryan and Doug’s superb fried chicken, so I hope you tune in.
You Could Be on Special Sauce
Want to chat with me and our unbelievably talented recipe developers? We’re accepting questions for Special Sauce call-in episodes now. Do you have a recurring argument with your spouse over the best way to maintain a cast iron skillet? Have you been working on your mac and cheese recipe for the past five years, but can’t quite get it right? Does your brother-in-law make the worst lasagna, and you want to figure out how to give him tips? We want to get to know you and solve all your food-related problems. Send us the whole story at [email protected].
Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.
Ryan Angulo: When it was opening, he had this pile in his apartment. Remember the pile? It was this pile of scavenged objects from yard sales. But there was an old mixer that he bought for 20 dollars, because you know, money was a thing. We used that for the first three months, that old KitchenAid. It worked great. The old KitchenAids have great motors. We’re doing a hundred covers a night, and that’s the only mixer I had in the house.
Doug Crowell: There’s still trash in that restaurant.
EL: This week sitting across the table from me are Doug Crowell and Ryan Angulo, chef-owners of two very fine Brooklyn neighborhood restaurants, Buttermilk Channel and French Louie. Doug and Ryan just published their first cookbook, Kindness & Salt: Recipes for the Care and Feeding of Your Friends and Neighbors. Unlike most restaurant cookbooks, there are actually clearly delineated themes in your book. The role that both kindness and salt play in your restaurant, the idea that your customers are friends and neighbors first and foremost, and finally what defines a neighborhood restaurant.
EL: Welcome to Special Sauce, gentlemen. Let’s start by each of you briefly tracing your path to chef and restaurateur-dom. We’ll start with you, Doug.
DC: Sure. I became strangely and out of the blue obsessed with food and cooking while in college, and just started buying cookbooks and making recipes, and not knowing where I was going with that. But then I was at Boston University where there’s a hospitality school and was able to take a cooking class, which led me to think maybe I could get a job in a restaurant. And within a day, because there’s always jobs at the bottom level of restaurant jobbery, I did have a job and I sort of fell in love with it right away. Went to culinary school and began a career in the kitchen before moving over to the front of house, where I had a lot more fun.
EL: Right. But there is that moment, I guess when you’re just starting out on the bottom rung of a restaurant, where it’s fight or flight. Right? It’s either this is so not for me, or I can’t believe someone didn’t tell me that there’s a place that’s this awesome.
DC: Yeah. I mean, I remember the very first day, and I still don’t have an answer on whether the chef was messing me. He sent me down to the prep kitchen with a crate full of lobsters and said, “All right. Separate the bodies from the claws.” These are live lobsters. So I never had seen that done anywhere else before, but it’s not easy to take a lobster’s claws off while they’re still alive and it’s a pretty messed up thing to do. And they were flopping all over the place and snapping at me. That was a trial by fire.
RA: First day, huh? That was pretty good.
DC: That was day one.
EL: You know, it’s funny. I’ve heard about a lot of different kinds of trials by fire at restaurants like that; “take six boxes of quail and de-bone them.” You know?
DC: I think it’s just something that you’re not going to make it.
EL: It’s the same kinda thing, like you are so not going to do this, but I want to see how you’ll respond to this.
DC: Yeah. But I loved it right away. I mean, my only previous other job was working at the Strand Bookstore downtown here, and that was deadly boring. And there I was in a restaurant, and it was fast paced, and a sort of sense of comradery, and the day flew by. And I thought, “Yeah. This is for me.”
EL: That’s great. And were your parents into food, and taking you to restaurants and cooking? Or did this just come from you?
DC: That was not … Our family didn’t really particularly eat out. I always enjoyed it when we did.
EL: But it wasn’t a thing in your family?
DC: It wasn’t a thing in our family at all, no. But they were supportive right away, which was … that was very nice of them.
EL: Yeah, particularly because when you were getting out of BU, being a chef was still at a pretty low rung on the socioeconomic ladder.
DC: Yeah. We were just starting to see, most of the chefs that were on TV were still on PBS then. It was just starting to get a little bit glamorized. But yeah, it was not a glamorous career choice.
EL: And what about you, Ryan? How did it happen for you?
RA: It happened pretty traditionally. I started, my first job was a dishwasher at the Pawtucket Country Club.
EL: How old were you then?
RA: My mom had said, she said, “You’re 16 now. Go down to the country club and get a job. There’s a job waiting for you.” She knew the chef.
EL: She knew the chef?
RA: Yeah. She worked with his wife for years.
EL: So was she into food and cooking, or not really?
EL: She wanted to teach you the value of hard work.
RA: She did, and I fell in love with it instantly.
RA: Yeah. I hated high school. Wasn’t into sports. I got into the kitchen, and I felt right at home.
EL: I know, isn’t it funny? Because obviously I’ve talked to a lot of chefs on Special Sauce, and they all have that same moment where some people would go, “Get me out of here. What am I doing here?” And you both were like, “Wow! Why didn’t anyone tell me about this before?” as a dishwasher.
RA: I know. I thought it was great. I was 16. Everyone in there was older than me, except for some of the dishwashers. But everyone was like, it was like an equal playing field. You were treated just like of the guys, whether the guy was 50-years old on the line or-
EL: Or, 18.
RA: Or, 18. Yeah. It didn’t matter.
EL: Did you quickly make it over to the cooking side of the restaurant?
RA: Well, yeah I moved up there. I started doing prep and then working banquets. And then I stopped being a dishwasher and started cooking more. And then after high school, I went to Johnson & Wales for culinary.
EL: Big culinary school in Providence, Rhode Island.
EL: Which a lot of people don’t know why the Food Network was launched in Providence. It was launched in Providence because it was a joint venture between Johnson & Wales and the Providence Journal Bulletin Company, which owned some cable companies.
RA: Why didn’t I know that?
EL: Because that’s what we do on Special Sauce. We enlighten people.
RA: Well, I grew up there and I went to the school.
EL: I know. And you didn’t know it.
RA: I had no idea until right now.
EL: But that was the idea. It was like oh, there’s all these kitchens. So, there’s our studios. There’s all this talent, and we’re just going to use it. I mean, it was very early on. Right? It’s been sold three times since then, but it was originally owned by the Providence Journal Bulletin Company. And they owned a bunch of cable networks, and they were called Colony Cable. You don’t even want to know why I know that.
RA: That sounds familiar. Colony.
EL: So, how did you two end up meeting?
DC: We met the way I’ve hooked up with just about everyone in the restaurant business in New York, which was through Craigslist. I was opening a restaurant. I had a space in Carroll Gardens, where Buttermilk Channel is now, and I took out an ad because I needed a chef. I didn’t know anyone who I wanted for that job.
EL: But, wait. You’d worked in serious New York restaurants. Didn’t you know anybody who could maybe be your chef?
DC: Yeah. There wasn’t anyone I had worked with who was available, who fit the bill. No, there was no one. I didn’t have a person. And I could have opened a different kind of restaurant entirely. I was talking to somebody about opening an izakaya restaurant. I remember for a while I was talking to somebody about opening an Austrian restaurant for a while. But then I met Ryan.
EL: So, you answered the Craigslist ad?
RA: Yeah, because the ad had said a chef for an American bistro because you had a pretty clear idea of what you wanted to stick at the end of Court Street. You thought that the neighborhood needed that.
DC: Yes. Now I remember.
RA: That was in the ad, and that was the direction that I wanted to go into. We were both at really big restaurants before that. I was at the Stanton Social and I just kind of wanted to do something more, like shared plates and things like that.
EL: That was very trendy, Lower East Side.
DC: I was super impressed with that place. I saw that on his resume and I was excited because that was a really exciting restaurant.
RA: Yeah. It was a great time. I got to play around with a lot of food, and doing that concept I hadn’t really done before. So that was cool. But after about three years, I was starting to look for something else. I kept on telling people, “I haven’t really served a bowl of soup in three years.”
EL: It’s important to serve soup.
RA: It’s little things like that, you know? And I had this idea in my head of roasted whole chickens and duck meatloaves and just things like that, that I couldn’t really do there. And it was just kind of time to go out on my own.
EL: And did you have one meeting, and Doug you said, “Oh, yeah. I think this is cool?” Did he do one of the sort of traditional, “I’m going to cook you a meal” kind of thing?
RA: We did that.
DC: We had one meeting, am I remembering that you brought The Zuni Cafe Cookbook or did we just talk about it? You knew it.
RA: I think we just talked about it.
DC: And that was like, we had both-
RA: I can’t imagine lugging that thing with me.
DC: No. I don’t know why you would have brought it. This American bistro idea that was both in our minds, was that wonderful restaurant in San Francisco.
EL: Yeah. Judy Rogers, who died recently, opened a great and seminal American bistro where the roast chicken with the bread salad is still served probably in many neighborhoods all over America.
RA: We served a version of it on Sunday nights for years at Buttermilk.
EL: Yeah, we had all the chicken with …
RA: That was the roast chicken with the bread salad.
EL: It’s not an easy recipe.
DC: Everything in that restaurant is simple, but done so perfectly. I make that Caesar salad that every table gets, they make that from scratch every time.
RA: Everything is centered around their wood oven, too. That imparts flavor that you just can’t really mimic.
EL: So you opened Buttermilk Channel, and I knew that neighborhood. Were you living there, Doug, at the time?
DC: No. I had not been to Carroll Gardens. Actually, I was in Fort Green for a long time, but I actually hadn’t visited that neighborhood really much until I … just looking around for spaces.
EL: So, what year are we talking?
DC: 2006 maybe, when I found the space.
EL: Got it. When I wrote the first edition of New York Eats in 1982, I didn’t include Carroll Gardens. And then I met this guy Tony DiDio; you must know Tony because everybody in Carroll gardens knows Tony DiDio.
EL: I called him “the Count of Carroll Gardens” in the second book because he took me around Carroll Gardens. And all of a sudden I was like, “How could I have not written about this amazing old Italian neighborhood in a book that was supposed to be all about neighborhoods like that?” But you know, you live and you learn.
DC: Carroll Gardens would not let you make that omission.
EL: Yeah. No, Tony wouldn’t. But there weren’t a lot of restaurants like Buttermilk Channel in Carroll Gardens when you opened.
DC: No. And I feel now like I was a little naïve then, because it seemed like, oh hey, this is a nice neighborhood and I felt that they could use a bistro, sort of a hub of the community restaurant. But it really is a pretty isolated place. It’s actually way at the end of Carroll Gardens. If you walk one block in either of three directions, you are in industrial no-man’s land. So I think we are very fortunate that people came to travel to see it, in addition to people in the neighborhood because it’s out there.
EL: Did you open there because you could afford it?
DC: I opened there because I could afford it, because I fell in love with the neighborhood. I mean, even growing up in New York, I’d never seen a neighborhood like that where you’ve got multiple generations living in one place, and where you have … there’s newcomers as well as people who grew up on the same block that they’re living on and they’re 80-years old. It touches an older part of Brooklyn.
EL: It’s a fascinating mixture of third generation Italian-Americans and hipsters.
DC: Yeah, it is that. And it seemed like it needed a restaurant, it seemed like it needed a bistro.
EL: Was that simply the idea behind Buttermilk Channel? When you were conceiving it, what did you imagine? First of all, did you think of another restaurant in another city that you wanted it to be like? Or were you really starting, genuinely starting with a blank piece of paper?
DC: Ryan reminded me that I was not going to open an izakaya there. I keep coming back to the word bistro, which we didn’t put on the cover of the book because I think it means something to me that it doesn’t necessarily mean anything to anyone else. But the idea of a restaurant that is sort of a hub of the community as well as being one restaurant for all occasions. So a place where you can go with your kids and also come back for a fancy dinner. That’s when I know we’ve really succeeded, is when see those same parents who came in with a high chair and they’re back for their anniversary. And that was what I felt that neighborhood needed.
RA: And if we had anyplace in mind, like Zuni in San Francisco?
DC: Yeah I mean there was Zuni and there were a couple of other places that we had in mind. But we really just went with that; we ran with the idea of a French bistro, American bistro. We followed that format with the menu. We had plats du jours when we first opened, which we thought were very bistro-y, and the menu was designed like a bistro menu.
EL: But you really wanted it to be an all-purpose restaurant?
DC: Well, that’s what a bistro means to us, it’s an all-purpose …
RA: Also, like I said it’s an isolated place. You’ve got to get … We’ve got to feed everyone we can. We’ve got to make sure there’s something on the menu for everyone. But we sort of felt like, I think the food and wine and service that we could … What business do we have serving other food? I think we felt like we should be serving American food in this place.
DC: Yeah, there really wasn’t much question about that. We weren’t going to start serving Japanese food or anything like that at the end of Court Street.
RA: But if you squint at that menu, especially the original menu, it looks like the menu of Balthazar. It looks like a bistro.
EL: Of course, I regard Balthazar as a brasserie, as opposed to a bistro just because of the size. And brasseries are big restaurants in Paris, like La Coupole and bistros, I think are smaller, and Buttermilk Channel is sort of in between, right? You have about 75 seats?
RA: Yeah, something like that.
DC: Yeah, depending on how we … There’s many ways of configuring it, but yeah.
EL: Were there other organizing principles behind the restaurant, like when you guys put your heads together and like … Were there five things that you checked off that you wanted the restaurant to be?
DC: You sort of start off with certain objects or images that everything coalesces around that. Like, I remember finding the beer mug. It was one of the first things that I found. I thought this is big, British-looking, faceted 22-ounce mug and I thought, “Yeah, I want a place where people drink beer out of that mug.” And then it came together … Many parts of it came together organically or by chance because we weren’t able to design it. We found church pews for sale nearby, so they became the benches. And I found a brick wall, so then we had a brick wall.
EL: It sounds like you couldn’t afford a designer.
DC: Yeah, we couldn’t afford anything. A bunch of drunken idiots …
RA: No, Doug designed it.
EL: But I know that your wife has very strong opinions about everything.
DC: Ah, yeah.
RA: She definitely helped with the color of the walls.
DC: Yeah, she was …
RA: I remember that day. It was a very stressful day.
DC: She had very strong opinions about the color of the wall and she got it just right.
EL: I should say that Doug’s wife, Laura Tucker, is a wonderful writer in her own right, and I called her my book therapist for the memoir, the Serious Eats memoir that’s coming out at the end of May. And it was … she’s a very special, special human being.
DC: I think that was her favorite job ever. She had a great time on that. I did, too, vicariously.
EL: So you knew you wanted, you couldn’t afford a designer; you’re just collecting things and hoping that they come together in a way that makes sense.
RA: Doug, when it was opening, he had this pile in his apartment. Remember the pile? It was this pile of scavenged objects from yard sales and I don’t even know where else you got it, but it just lived there. And it was all going to have a purpose. Now that I think, most of it didn’t have a purpose at the end of the day. But there was an old mixer that he bought for 20 dollars, because money was a thing. We used that for the first three months, that old KitchenAid. It worked great. The old KitchenAids have great motors …
EL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
RA: … but it was this old, beat up thing and we’re doing like 100 covers a night, and that’s the only mixer I had in the house, and it worked.
EL: That’s funny.
DC: There’s still trash in that restaurant.
EL: I didn’t say that, you did.
RA: What? It’s useful trash.
DC: Useful trash.
RA: One man’s trash …
EL: So did you have those moments in the first few months where like, “Why isn’t anybody coming to our restaurant?”
RA: You know, I think we got real fortunate there.
RA: People paid attention to us right away. The neighborhood, which we’d been around then for almost a year and talking to everyone we could, and showing up at the farmer’s market and doing little demonstrations, they knew about us. But we got a lot of attention quickly, which I think was really fortunate. And we had Frank Bruni from the New York Times in there …
DC: Early on, and we were …
RA: I see him come through the door and I think, “What is he doing here?”
EL: “Wait, he’s a restaurant reviewer …”
RA: He’s the restaurant reviewer.
EL: “… and I opened a restaurant. What’s he doing here?”
RA: But you didn’t see, there were very few Brooklyn restaurants that were being reviewed. I remember Frankie’s being reviewed and thinking, “What is this restaurant that reviewed in the New York Times? A Brooklyn restaurant?
EL: Well you know, you’re bringing up a really interesting point about Brooklyn food because when I wrote New York Eats in 1992, that’s a long time ago, people thought it was revelatory because I went to Brooklyn. People then, if you lived in Manhattan, they thought you needed a visa to go to Brooklyn. And so this … I know exactly what you’re talking about because that did happen with the restaurant scene. It took hold over a period of time, and all of a sudden now it’s like Pete Wells is more likely to review a restaurant in Brooklyn than he is in Manhattan.
DC: There’s certainly plenty of them.
RA: In 2008 when Buttermilk opened, it was just starting up, which was kind of cool that we were in the beginning. Like remember, we did a James Beard dinner that was … It was five new Brooklyn restaurants. It was like us, and Number Seven, Clover Club …
EL: Number Seven was … It became, ultimately
DC: Char No. 4
EL: Right, Char No. 4. Yeah, I know all those were seminal restaurants in different neighborhoods.
RA: But we all opened around the same time.
EL: Yeah. And did you ever imagine that you would be best known for your fried chicken?
DC: I felt like we were naïve about the fact … No, I was naïve about the fried chicken. I thought well, that’s a great idea, that’s a chicken dish. We needed a chicken dish and I didn’t understand the power that fried chicken has.
EL: The power of fried chicken. I might have to write a book and call it The Power of Fried Chicken.
RA: That would be a good title.
EL: Because it does have a magical power. And is your recipe, is there a secret ingredient? Is it close to Edna Lewis’ recipe or somebody else’s? Or …
DC: I just read … I didn’t have a ton of experience with fried chicken. It wasn’t something in my …
EL: So you made it up, man. Just admit it, you made it up.
DC: Oh, I totally made it up. I read a bunch of recipes, and some were really simple and some were really had a ton of ingredients, and I said somebody pare this down. I’m going to get a good chicken, I’m going to put it in buttermilk and brine it, and salt, pepper, and flour, and that’s it.
EL: That was the magic formula?
DC: That’s the magic formula.
RA: It’s in the book.
DC: Sometimes less is more.
RA: I was worried that people … I mean, you can buy a bucket of fried chicken for how much? Like a shockingly cheap price, a whole bucket of it.
EL: And a bucket of Popeye’s fried chicken by the way is kind of good.
RA: There you go.
EL: And a bucket of Charles’ Southern Fried Chicken up in Harlem is also kind of good.
RA: And then people have memories of … That’s a home-cooked food, too. So people have memories of their mom or their grandparents making it. I was worried we were up against that, but that’s always been a good response.
EL: It is one of those resonant foods.
RA: I call them emotional foods; good for you, have a illogical connection to you.
EL: And it doesn’t matter what … obviously African-American families grew up with a lot of fried chicken, as did a lot of white Southern families. But I remember in my house, a Jewish household, fried chicken was a big thing.
DC: I never ate it growing up.
DC: It was like one of those things, and my mom doesn’t like it to this day. We just never had it in the house. Once in awhile we’d had it at a friend’s house and I would think it was great when I had it at a friend’s house.
EL: So you know, brunch is one of those things at your restaurants, at Buttermilk Channel. It’s crazy at brunch. And I know because whenever I used to try to work with Laura on Sunday, Doug’s wife, Laura’d say, “I’ve got to go work the door at brunch on Sundays. I like doing it. It’s a lot of work, but I like doing it.” So brunch is usually thought of by people who work in restaurants as the Seventh Circle of Hell, right? Because who wants to get up this early, and we’re making pancakes, and there’s a lot of different kinds of people coming in. Did you imagine that brunch was going to be a big thing?
RA: I mean, brunch is a big thing in almost any restaurant in New York.
EL: In New York.
RA: And I think we knew that … I just knew that I could write a menu that people will like. At the time, yeah, the new quote-unquote “Brooklyn restaurants” that were opening, they were doing really small menus; very limited kind of menus, especially for brunch, and I just don’t know how to do that. And no one was serving pancakes, and no one was serving French toast. They were serving something else.
EL: Eggs benedict.
RA: Yeah. So we had our version of eggs benedict. We did a traditional brunch menu with some twists. It’s pretty much the same menu that we opened brunch with; maybe the salads changed, or the soup or something like that.
RA: And if it’s not broken …
DC: It’s a pretty traditional … I think in the morning, people are fairly conservative in the morning, and traditional brunch food is a hit.
EL: And low food cost for the most part.
RA: Yeah, it depends.
EL: Pancakes and French toast, obviously.
RA: Pancakes, yeah. French toast, no. French toast, no.
DC: French toast is not, French toast is not.
EL: That’s because of the way you guys make French toast.
EL: The way I make French toast, it’s a low food cost food.
RA: It might be close to zero, right?
RA: Brunch was, that was a goal from the beginning was to have a big brunch, and I can honestly say it is not any Circle of Hell for us. I mean, it’s too much a part of our life. If it made us miserable, that would be truly terrible. We have fun for the most part. We’ve got it down. There’s a Murphy’s Law thing that is sort of a bummer, where it’s like why every time does the equipment break right at this exact moment.? That will get you down.
DC: That time that the gas wasn’t working and I was able to get … We have this great handyman that’s been with us forever, Dennis. He just comes at a moment’s notice and he just bails us out all the time. And I called him up; I knew what the problem was. He came and he changed it, and I had the gas turned back on for 10:00 a.m. for when we opened. And I remember saying to the staff, “We’re good. The only thing I can’t serve is pancakes for about 20 minutes, until the flattop heats to the proper temperature,” and I remember the first table complaining about that. And I just wanted to go out there and scream, “You’re lucky you even have brunch today. There was no gas 20 minutes ago. There was no gas in this place.”
EL: So Doug, you’re a French fry freak. Can I say that?
EL: You actually …
DC: Why do you think? Why do you think, Ed?
EL: Why do I think that? Because I was having lunch at Buttermilk Channel, which is not far from Serious Eats’ offices, and you actually came to our table and chatted very amiably, and then took away our French fries because he deemed them not well-cooked.
RA: Well, they’re an important part … They’re an important part of what we do and they’ve got to be just right. We say it in the book they’ve got to be crispy, they’ve got to be hot, they’ve got to be salty, they’ve got to be golden brown, and three out of four ain’t French fries.
EL: Right, and they’ve got to be tender on the inside.
RA: Yeah, they’ve got to be … There’s a lot of steps going into making them perfect, and when they’re not, they’re just sad.
EL: So that’s why you have …
DC: Yes, and I can see it from across the room, and that is something I feel very strongly about, and cooks have heard a lot about that from me.
EL: Yeah. So I want to talk to you both about the whole idea of a neighborhood restaurant, which is something I think a lot about. And I do think of both of your restaurants as neighborhood restaurants. And I think you both think of them as neighborhood restaurants, although some people I’m sure travel some distance to eat there. What does a good neighborhood restaurant have to be?
DC: I mean, I think it’s a place that if you live near the restaurant, that you can come back to multiple times in a week and have different experiences from the menu and from the service, and from the drinks and everything. You can come in and have dinner by yourself; you can come with your family, you can come with your kids. All different experiences, and I think that’s what makes it … Because a neighborhood restaurants means that you get a lot of people from the neighborhood regularly, and they can’t really do that if it’s just a tasting menu restaurant or it’s a steakhouse.
RA: I mean, it’s in the hospitality certainly. The relationship we have with our customers is real and personal, and not like an act. At Buttermilk Channel, at French Louie, it’s really a small town; it’s really … it’s not … the limits to it, it’s not defined geographically. People may live further away, but …
EL: It’s almost defined psychographically.
RA: Yeah, no, more so. And the hospitality, it’s not just a matter of what happens in that dining room, too. It’s about what happens in the kitchen as well; being willing to accommodate whatever we can accommodate, and just believing in trying to give people the meal that they could keep coming back for; not just one time, but over and over again.
EL: And can people walk in? Because I always think a neighborhood restaurant should be a restaurant that you can walk into, and even if you have to wait a little while, and I don’t want to wait longer than a little while, they make you feel welcome. And that’s actually increasingly hard to find in New York.
RA: It’s partially a factor of the small spaces. And in order to succeed, you have to be so popular now in New York City. You go into these places and it’s literally impossible or almost impossible to eat there, and the staff is all stressed out about that, and stress is not good for friendliness. But our struggle is always we want to say yes to everyone. If you wanted to reserve this table two months ago because it means a lot to you this particular date, we want to do that. And we also want you to walk in off the street and sit right down, so we do our best to juggle the logistics and make that possible. And yeah, and be welcoming. When people come through the front door, I think in New York City even in my experience, you feel … You’re nervous that you’re going to be rejected in one way or another.
EL: Right. I used to say that Danny Meyer, people think he deserved a MacArthur Genius Award because he wanted you to feel welcome when you walked in the door to his restaurant. It’s like, wait, isn’t that the way every restaurant’s supposed to be?
RA: And part of it is your own personal insecurity, but it’s like what are they going to tell you? Now it’s going to be three hours, which is basically no; and no, you can’t eat here. You’re just not going to eat here. We want to make people feel welcome.
EL: I think when I launched Serious Eats, there was a … We used to have, when we had the old logo that I loved, that I’m not sure everybody else who worked there loved, we used to have on the home page “Welcome Serious Eaters.” That was our equivalent of somebody greeting you at the door.
RA: You said hello.
RA: That’s what I’ve been saying in our books, is just ‘welcome to our book, hello.’ And I think that welcome needs to be a little bit … It needs to have a smile. There’s a certain kind of friendliness … There’s people who you know and you may love who are weird and awkward and shy, and that’s not the person we need for that job. We need someone who can give someone … Who is really happy to see you.
EL: Yeah, for sure. Well, we have to leave it here for this episode of Special Sauce. And we haven’t even delved much into your book, Kindness & Salt, so we’re going to keep going after we sign-off for this episode of Special Sauce. Thank you both for agreeing to stick around, and we’ll see you next time, Serious Eaters.
RA: Thanks, Ed.
DC: Thank you.
This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.