[Photo: Rachel Leah Blumenthal]
When Alberto Cabré and Angelina Jockovich opened Casa B a year ago, they were forging new territory in terms of both career and cuisine. The two are architects, not restaurateurs, and the cuisine is a blend of their homelands - Puerto Rico and Colombia, respectively - served in the Spanish tapas style. On the restaurant's first anniversary, Cabré and Jockovich are still awed by the attention they've received. They sat with Eater to discuss how it still hasn't really sunk in that this is their restaurant, how appreciative they are that people understand what they're trying to do, what's it's like to come to the restaurant industry from their architectural background, and more.
Does it feel like it's been a year?
Alberto Cabré: No. It took us a long time to realize that last year we opened the doors this day!
What do you remember about opening day?
Angelina Jockovich: For me, it was very emotional. It was very surreal. We just couldn't believe that we were actually opening. It didn't feel like it was our restaurant. We were walking through the space, and it felt like we were walking through this house and entertaining all these people, but it didn't really feel like it was this business or this restaurant. Surprisingly it still sometimes feels like that. It feels like we're not coming into work; we're coming into our other house, and all these people are coming to visit. It still feels like that, which is really nice. I think it's the magic that we both still feel, and we hope to continue feeling.
How were the crowds on the first day?
AC: I remember that for the first couple of weeks, we only had about 15 covers a night, 20 covers a night.
AJ: Mostly people that we knew. We are not part of the industry; we didn't have anything before - a restaurant or anything like that - so it was more our friends and people who've sort of known us. But slowly, within a month I would say, it just completely peaked.
AC: Yeah, I remember from when we opened, it was like 10, 15, 20...
AJ: ...on Sundays, we had, like, two people....
AC: ...and then, people started blogging, started talking, and we went from 20 to 40. And by February we were at 100, and we were like, oh my God.
AJ: So it was incremental, but it was quick.
How have you felt about the reviews?
AC: Oh, amazing.
AJ: We didn't think anybody was going to like us that way or be appreciative that we're here. Every time people write about us, it's more about how appreciative that we're here in Union Square, that we're opening something like this, that it feels like a home, especially because Alberto and I are always here. We just try to exude some of this warmness to the restaurant, to our guests. It always has a positive effect on the reviewers, on the bloggers.
AC: Yeah, I think it's interesting when you read a lot of the reviews. They all start like, two architects not from the restaurant industry opening a restaurant, and I think that was scary. We're not part of the industry, we were scared of how we would be perceived, and I think that we were very lucky and we have been very successful.
Did you make any major changes over the course of the year?
AC: When we started, we were going to have two different menus. We were going to have a tapas menu and then a prix fixe menu during the weekends, and quickly we realized that people started knowing us as the tapas place. Small plates, not a sit-down dinner with five courses, so we changed that idea. The specials have become what the prix fixe menu was going to be, in a different way.
AJ: But the basic concept of the Latin American food, the ingredients, was always there. The change was just, sort of, how we served it. Honestly, I don't think we ever thought we'd be a tapas place.
AC: We did, but we were always saying, ok, we will have these two ideas together. But you quickly realize that you have to keep doing what you're doing right one way and just continue improving in that direction.
How did the idea come about in the first place?
AC: It's a long story, but we always had dreamed of opening a business together, a restaurant. I grew up going to Spain, so the small plates were part of my life. When we went to my grandfather's house, he'd be serving small plates for people to gather around, so that influenced the idea of opening a tapas-style restaurant but with a completely different twist, this Latin American food. I think we were trying to bring the flavors of our culture, our cuisine, into a type of place that people will enjoy differently than going into a traditional Latin American place, where it's like this huge plate of rice and beans. We're trying to say that Latin American food is something more than just that type of food.
AJ: We kind of created this space that reflects on all that, plus our upbringings in the Caribbean and our passion for design, our passion for architecture, our passion for history.
Any major changes planned for the coming year?
AJ: I don't really think so. The nice thing about having specials - and they change every month - is that we have that sort of flexibility of adding new things and seeing how people react to them. We know for a fact that if we even think about taking, for example, the tres leches off of the dessert menu, there will be a lot of people very upset. Like, super upset. We know that if we take away the meatballs or the shrimp - people will die. People come here specifically for certain things. There are certain things that are sort of becoming our staples. We never thought they would, but they are. So I think the idea behind the menu is going to be consistent. If anything, we will be adding to it. My hope is that I want to add more dinners, because I do love dinners. I do love people sitting all together and eating a beautiful progressive meal, so that's one thing that I do want to try to bring in.
AC: Yeah, that will probably be on a monthly basis.
AJ: Like a nice traditional Sunday supper. In Latin America you get together on Friday or Sunday with the whole family, and you all have a meal together. It's traditional in many cultures. That's one addition that we'll do.
AC: And not an addition, but we'll continue improving quality of service, quality of food. We want to be sure that we're doing the best that we can do for every customer.
Any funny stories from the year?
AC: The first day that we went from fifty to 114 people, we didn't have enough servers, and we had people packing the living room. We couldn't get out of the kitchen to bring food. It was a nightmare.
AJ: We had people that we knew who were sitting at tables, and we were like, can you please leave now? Some of our friends actually stayed to help us out. I remember one other night that we were crazy like that and weren't expecting it. We had enough servers, we had enough everything, but then things started falling apart. Coincidentally, our interior designer, who helped us with selecting furniture, was there. One of the chairs broke. With her on it. And the backs of these other chairs fell too. So things just felt like they were breaking apart constantly through the whole night. And everybody was laughing about it, and it became something like a joke, but it was actually pretty serious. Another funny thing - we just get a lot of serious people, and you're like, oh God, here we go. By halfway through the first cocktail, people change. Oh my God. They're the most amazing, approachable, funny, polite - everything. So those are funny things you just don't expect. Oh, and when the food critic came in...
AC: Oh my God. As we're not part of the food industry, we are not into who are the reviewers, what are their faces, so when Boston Magazine's Corby Kummer came, we didn't know. He came like three days in a week and a half, and we were like, oh, thank you so much for bringing all these people here.
AJ: He'd come in with, like, 10 people. We were so grateful to him. And he kept looking at me weird. So things like that. We're so appreciative that people have been reacting, and we're honored that they want to interview us and review us. They have elevated it into a place that we never thought we were going to be able to have.
AC: Yeah, we never knew the response was going to be so accepting.
Is there a moment during the year that you can pinpoint when you realized that this could really be successful?
AJ: I don't think I have felt that yet, that it's going to be a success.
AC: I won't say it's happened yet. But I was extremely scared when the review from the Boston Globe was going to come out. I was like, this could be good or this could be bad. We can succeed or not. And that morning when we read it, it was like, oh my God, I cannot believe that. That was the first point when we were like, they really enjoy what we're doing. They really understand from where we're coming.
AJ: They know we're not trying to be pretentious in any way. We're not trying to compete with anyone.
AC: We're us.
AJ: It's just us. So I think that's the day we were like, somebody gets us.
AC: With the big name reviews, you're like, I'm really doing something that people appreciate and we should feel proud of it.
AJ: It's sort of surreal in a way. I feel like all of this is happening, but it hasn't sunk in. It's sort of like when you're cutting the ribbon when you finish a building. You're like, oh my God, it's done. You see it. From the first moment that you sort of break ground to the moment that you finish it, you see this happen. With this, I feel like even though we're getting these great reviews, I haven't had the time to let it all sink in.
AC: The other thing is that we come from the other hat. We developed the business, we ran the construction of the business, and that happened for probably a year, and then two weeks later, we opened the restaurant and we're managing the restaurant and cooking. It's like the hat changed too quickly, and it's a little hard for it to sink in that this is ours and that we are now on the other side of the fence.
If you could go back to before you opened and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
AJ: I have been in automatic pilot, so I don't know what to tell myself. I tell myself daily, just one day at a time, be patient. But I'm always in automatic mode.
AC: We tell this to ourselves every day: we have to be patient. Everything will get resolved. But one piece of advice would probably be to be more assertive with your staff. Be more secure that this is your business, you are the boss, and they have to follow your vision.
AJ: We come from a background where everything is a collaboration. You work in a studio. Everybody puts in their two cents. Somebody focuses on one thing and the other focuses on the other thing, and you present it together, and it's a collaboration. And I think that's how we started this. It was going to be a collaboration. What are your strengths? We're all going to collaborate together and make this happen. But architecture and the restaurant industry are...
AC: ...very different. So you have to be more assertive and more willing to give orders...
AJ: ...especially if you have a very clear vision. And our vision was very clear from the beginning.
Any other thoughts on the year?
AC: I think it has been a great year. A difficult year. But we made it for a year...
AJ: ...and we're hoping to make it for many more.
AC: I think that now we're possibly looking at the success of Casa B. Our dream is now concrete this year.
AJ: I think it's going to start sinking in now.