Area Four in Kendall Square has become such a fixture of the Cambridge dining scene that it's hard to believe it didn't exist just one year ago. The restaurant is a dual venture of chef Michael Leviton, who also runs Lumière in Newton, and restaurateur Michael Krupp, who previously collaborated with Leviton on Persephone. Part of Area Four's success is to due to its chameleon nature: it works equally well as a coffee shop, full-scale restaurant, bar, pizzeria, and patio brunch spot. Area Four also helped blaze the trail for the great Kendall Square restaurant explosion of 2011 and won the Eater reader poll for the best pizza in town. Here's what Michael and Michael had to say about what has clearly been a big year.
How did Area Four come to be? MK: It's been a long time coming. Michael and I used to have a restaurant together called Persephone in South Boston, which unfortunately we had to close. Many lessons were learned, the most important being that we really actually like working with each other. The idea of a pizza shop started then. It had been in our heads for some time, it took longer than we would have liked only because of the economic environment that we were coming out of at the time. We started with the idea of pizzas but the whole concept sort of created itself based on location. When we started we had no intention of opening a coffee shop bakery, but as soon as we saw the space and as soon as we saw the need in the market, it was a no brainer to us and it's just been really, really fantastic ever since.
It seems like part of the concept was to make some of the sustainable, farm to table cooking that Michael Leviton had done at Lumière more accessible. ML: That absolutely was. To use those kinds of products, maybe some humbler cuts of meat and things like different kinds of fish, to bring that stuff to a different price point.
MK: We often describe the way we cook here as very primal. About ninety percent of the hot food that we cook here comes out of these two wood burning ovens. We don't have a grill here, we don't have a fry station. We've got a single convection oven that we do a bunch of the baked goods out of, but the majority of the stuff, Michael and the rest of the gang work in those two big ovens that you see all day.
And how was the restaurant opening? MK: We learned a lot in the first few weeks. Nothing was out of the unexpected for us - we were quite literally the first new players in this Area Four/Kendall Square area. So we anticipated that it would be a little slower with a pretty big spike down the road. What was unexpected was the incredible surge of both restaurants and new businesses coming the area. That's just been fantastic for us. We are very, very happy coming off of Persephone where we took the risk of going into an area that was supposed to be developed, but this neighborhood is just taking off, blossoming with businesses and people.
Do you feel like you helped establish the trend, or was it just a coincidence? ML: No, everyone is following us. MK: Everything we do, people follow us, because we're the best at we do. (They laugh) ML: When you have as much development in a particular area as we have down here, lots of different landlords are going to be looking to provide amenities for their clients. We just happened to be slightly ahead of the curve, but all of this would have occurred without our presence here. MK: To be fair, though, I do think we raised the bar a bit. Michael's absolutely right: restaurants still would have come. But I think we've seen a higher quality of restaurant come into the area in small part due to what we've done. There's a lot of high quality restaurants coming in here, so if you want to open a restaurant in Kendall Square, you've got to come strong.
Does it feel like it's been a year? MK: It's kind of crazy. It doesn't. I can't believe we've been working on this for two years. I can't believe Persephone closed four years ago. The time has just flown. ML: I find that the older I get, the less concept of monthly and yearly time I actually have. My other restaurant's been open thirteen years, and that's just a meaningless number at this point. MK: It's a bar mitzvah! Obviously the restaurant business is one that has some pretty heavy turnover, but we've been able to keep our core staff. And Michael and I haven't strangled each other yet. ML: It's amazing how well we do with the business given the fact that we hate each other so much.
Have you had any customers ask to be marked with the brand that you use for your logs? MK: Constantly, and that's not even a joke. We've also had people try to steal logs, I've had to give a few logs away. People like it. It's not an option for people in the kitchen, though: everyone is branded in the kitchen. We claim them as our own. ML: Maybe the private part branding that we require in the kitchen is hurting our staffing?
Any major menu changes? At our one year anniversary party we had two beautiful pigs that we roasted, and we had a full blown pig roast cookout, and it was such a great response that we're going to start doing whole animal roasts regularly and per request. We have the capabilities of doing it, maybe we'll start with a monthly or in the summertime a biweekly event. And not just pigs: we can do goat, we can do anything. We do a beautiful whole fish. ML: The salt-baked twenty-something pound halibut are just exquisite.
You seem to have largely cracked the sustainability/affordability code - what are your plans for the future? ML: Honestly, I want to keep destroying. The pace of people's knowledge about sustainability is increasing with every passing week, it seems. The more that pace of change continues to increase, and the more people become aware of it, hopefully some of the pricing on this stuff comes down. The more that we figure out economies of scale and horizontal and vertical integration throughout our restaurant, the more we can pass along more savings to the customer. And I really believe that doing that kind of stuff as opposed to trying to maximize our profit in the immediate future is a much better long term strategy.
MK: We practice what we preach here, and it's really the core reason that we get along so well and work so well. It's much more important to have us be able to get the food out there and have people be able to enjoy it and afford it, and yeah, we make a little less money than the next guy, but we certainly feel good about it. It's the right way to do business, and we're doing business, and we're a profitable business that's doing the right thing. As more and more people become sustainably conscious, we can continue to do what we do, and we can do it better and more effectively. With regards to what our future holds, yeah, we're looking to expand, we're looking to do more business, we'd love to really get this out there to beyond just Cambridge and the immediate Boston area. Michael and I will not rest until the day that we can serve our beautiful, sustainable pizza for the exact same price as Domino's.